Friday, March 24, 2006

Part Jungle, Part Garden: Lao Cuisine

Since we learned the secret of making a good spring roll in Vientiane, and neither it nor the sauce tasted like neighborly Thai or Vietnamese food, I was curious to know more. Lao food is not a cuisine that gets a lot of press, nor a category you see on restaurant signs or menus, so it seemed like a noble pursuit to demystify the sustenance of this lush, jungle-river-rice country.

Luang Prabang, like it did on charm, temples, monks and riverscapes, delivered. Once the capital of Laos and its definite cultural mecca, Luang Prabang has the best remaining chefs in the country because the royal family used to reside here and the cooks stayed even after the royals were, ahem, deposed, and went incognito by cooking more simply in the age of Communism and blending into the new society. Fortunately, one of the few upsides of tourism in Luang Prabang means that there's a desire for rich cultural experiences, including food, and the old ways are appearing again in quaint restaurants and kitchens.~> read more


Ingredient do grow on trees here, as well as on the plentiful river banks of the town's three rivers, and exciting, unique Lao food is afoot -- not to mention a great cooking class run by one of the legacy chefs who knows the true essence of Lao cooking. So, off we went to Tum Tum Cheng (the onomatopoeiac sound that Buddhist drums make) to learn more about the herby, sometimes bitter, sometimes citrus, and astringent flavors that make up the cuisine of Laos.

The food we tasted in Laos lacks the layered sweet-savory-spicy flavors of Vietnam and Thailand, and while we missed that, it was exciting to eat new things, un-ripe things, crazy things that we didn't know existed. At our Tum Tum Cheng class, we learned that Lao people cook with a careful balance of jungle and garden foods, getting 50% of their food from the jungles, which are really a type of monsoon rainforest, that abound on the leafy, hilly topography that characterizes the north, and 50% from the gardens that grow generous and green right down the lapping, muddy waters of the Mekong.

Like India, Lao cooks have a "spice kitchen" that forms the foundation of nearly every dish and our apprentice-to-the-master-chef, Linda (she gave up many classes ago on giving her real name to Westerners since we haven't a chance in hell in getting the rising and falling vowels close to correct), laid them out beautifully for us in a woven rattan basket on a tea-colored teak table, where we sat on claret-hued silk cushions to ooh and aah. Literally. The smells and textures of the ingredients that ground food in Lao taste are familiar, but together the lemongrass, shallots, ginger, galangal, chili, kaffir lime leaves, garlic and fish sauce make something unique. Something more citrusy, slightly bitter and less sugary than what our palate knows of Thai and Vietnamese dishes, a very organic taste that just seems to come from the dirt or wild. I think the rhizomes of ginger and galangal, which looks like a larger version of ginger but has a soapy-piney scent, are the biggest contributors and when chopped, minced and sliced with abandon into a variety of dishes, you get a taste that is solely Lao.

Linda also introduced us to a few other special Lao foods and we got brave and tried the fruits and labors of their gardens and jungles. I say brave because my new favorite dairy animal, the water buffalo,is involved and that took some mental bravery and blocking out to get my mouth and mind behind the effots!!!

jaew bong - crazy chili-garlic paste with cheeky texture, a huge spice kick and earthy aftertaste that comes from the mingling of water buffalo skin with aforementioned ingredients. Ummm...interesting, unique, to say the least. You use this as a spread on top of things like kaipen.

kaipen - freshwater green algae from the Mekong that's blended with sesame seeds, tomatoes, scallions and tamarind. Hopeful cousin of the seaweed sushi wrap nori, I would say. Dried out like hand-made paper, gets crispy in the sun and you eat like chips -- we surprisingly liked it.

klao niaw/sticky rice - way glutinour rice that is more translucent, with longer grains than basic rice and sticks together, hence the name, in a clump when crumpled between your fingers. Forms a great ball for dipping into sauces and dishes -- the Lao use this instead of chopsticks!

jujubes - not the candy! A cross somewhere between a plum and a date; grows in the jungle and looks like deep brown-purple blueberry. Great in smoothies!

banana flower - grows off the end of a bunch of bananas, are large and tapered with a beautiful deep reddish-purple hue on the outside. You peel off leaves to eat and they're a bit like an artichoke, in texture and astringent taste, and frankly, make a better garnish for a salad than ingredient.

khao kham - electric pink rice wine that was sweet and slightly effervescent, like drinking strawberry kool-aid with a kick.

20+ kind of eggplant - not kidding!!! They have eggplant the size of marbles, the size of mangoes, the size of microphones and those purple ones that grace every vegetarian menu everywhere. It was insane -- I'd never seen so many kinds! They eat them ripe and unripe, cooked and uncooked, and often as a thickening agent for stews and soups.


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