The first thing I do when I go on culinary walkabout, is to ask everyone I meet where is good to eat, and thanks to the recommendation of the man who stamped my passport, I was sitting in one of the best little restaurants in town, Nang Kham Bang, about to lift a forkful of water-buffalo ‘laap’ to my lips.
Laap, the national dish of Laos, breaks every rule of cautious travel eating.
Firstly, it is made from raw meat. Secondly, it contains un-pasteurised fermented fish. And thirdly, it’s a salad.
Most tourists will not go within fifty foot of it but I have never been one for that kind of lily-livered behaviour, and more fool them as it tastes wonderful, like nothing you have eaten before.
My first taste of real Lao food and it was delicious: fiery hot, with strips of tasty dried buffalo hide, raw steak tangy with lime juice and refreshed with mint. Every mouthful was a sensation of different flavours and it tasted even better when I scooped it into the edible leaves provided beside it. It was served with a light beef broth which I spooned in between bites and a basket of Lao sticky rice completed the meal. I could have eaten bowls of the stuff…. from Ant Egg Soup
Laap or Laab is the national celebratory dish of Laos that is made on special occasions. Laap is essentially a fresh herb infused salad made from raw meat or fish which is cured in lime juice and mixed with chopped herbs and roasted rice powder. More recently, it has become popular to cook the meat element first. It is a flavour experience everyone remembers and not a scrap is left on the plate.
Everyone has their own recipe for Laap and during my stay in Laos I was to eat it raw, cooked, made with deer, duck, just with offal, with and without lime, with galangal, with different herbs, with raw aubergines; the list goes on and on.
Whenever I make Laap (the cooked fish and chicken versions are the most popular with Westerners) the fresh herb infused salad, cut with citrus and galangal is a hit. You do need a good bunch of mint to really set it off and you can experiment with your own balance of flavours. Some people remove the liver element, I like lots of lime juice, others like more Padek . Here is the easiest cooked chicken recipe but I include water buffalo and raw fish recipes if anyone wishes to try them.
In Laos, laap is often eaten rolled up in lettuce and served with a light soup.
My friend Vandara who runs the Vanvisa Guesthouse in Luang Prabang showed me this recipe. It is achievable in a Western kitchen being neither raw or containing the fermented fish condiment, padek. (see english padek water recipe below) Thai fish sauce is not an alternative if you wish to get close to authenticity without a vat of padek to hand.
You’ll need a 1 1/2lb free-range tasty chicken (Guinea Fowl also makes excellent Laap). I simply roast a whole chicken, stuffed with lemongrass stalks, with a drop of oil and salt and pepper, then chop it up for this dish. It is important to include the skin and the tastier dark meat as breast alone is really too bland and dry. You can cut out the liver if you so prefer but it will lack flavour. Follow recipe as below:
1 1/2lbs chicken cooked as above.
4 tablespoon Asian coriander, finely chopped
1 tablespoon spring onion, finely chopped
2 red chillis (optional)
2 inch piece galangal, peeled and finely sliced.
3 stalks lemongrass, finely chopped
2 tablespoons of padek water (see recipe below)
2 tablespoon lime juice or more to taste
2 tablespoon roasted rice powder (see recipe below)
1/2 lb chicken liver, cooked (optional)
1 banana flower bud, very finely sliced or half a small white cabbage (optional)
a large handful of mint leaves, roughly torn
Take the chicken and remove the crispy skin, then every scrap of meat to a plate. Slice the skin finely, then chop the meat with a cleaver or heavy knife until you have a fine mince. Take the cooked liver and chop that up too. Do not use a food processor as the meat will tear and go gooey. Cut these up again and again until you have a very fine mince. Put the chopped meat into a large bowl, and set aside the chopped liver in another bowl.
Add the finely chopped coriander, spring onion, chilli and galangal to the bowl of minced chicken. Add the padek water and lime juice and mix to your taste. I prefer more lime, Vandara prefers more padek.
Now add the chopped liver, banana flower/cabbage and the rice powder (if you add these ingredients earlier they soak up all the lime and fishy juices and spoil the dish.)
Mix in the mint, add more lime if you wish and serve with a plate of salad, raw vegetables and a bowl of clear chicken soup. I like to scoop it into the crunchy salad leaves before I eat it. Yum.
Roasted Rice Powder
Place a couple of handfuls of uncooked rice (sticky rice if possible) into a dry wok or skillet on a medium heat. Roast the rice, shaking the wok frequently and stirring with a wooden spoon to cook it evenly. The rice is done when it looks toasted and golden brown (though some Laotians prefer to cook it to a dark brown colour), transfer it to a bowl to cool. Grind the roasted rice in a coffee grinder or pound in a pestle and mortar to a fine powder. Store in a jar.
Kham Bang’s Vientiane Water- Buffalo Laap
“Laap without Padek is not laap!” Kham Bang. Vientiane 2000
Kham Bang’s laap is traditionally eaten raw but if that doesn’t appeal you can fry the chopped meat, for a heartier flavour, slice the steak and grill it –then chop it fine. Traditionally, sliced galangal is also added to the salad – so you can try that if you like a more perfumed dish.
1 lb or water-buffalo meat or sliced sirloin steak raw or fried/grilled, chopped small
2 tablespoons of cooked beef liver, chopped small
Dried buffalo hide cut into fine strips and soaked in warm water (optional)
The juice of one lime or more
2 inch piece of galangal, peeled and very finely sliced
1 fresh red birdseye chilli
1 teaspoon or more of padek water (optional)
Three spring onions, chopped green part only
I tablespoon of ground rice powder
2 shallots sliced and fried until crisp
A large handful of mint leaves
A small handful of Asian coriander
Lay and Khamtoun’s Luang Prabang Style Fish Laap made with sea bass in London.
This recipe for Laap was shown to me by my friend Tiao Khamtoun’s brother, Tiao Phanouvong Sisouphanh (nicknamed, Lay). The Tiao in their names refers to their royal title as they are the second cousins of the late, King Si Savangtthana. They both now live in England, having originally fled after the revolution on fear of death. Lay, plays the ‘Saw’ instrument professionally and until recently ran the Lao refugee centre in Haggerston. Khamtoun, a talented artist, came to England as a student and now lives with her English husband and daughter in London. They are wonderfully generous people and I have spent many hours in Khamtoun’s kitchen chatting and cooking, my favourite occupation.
This particular Laap is unique to Luang Prabang and has a soft texture and it is eaten with a spoon. It has a sweet, aromatic flavour and is served with sour fish soup which acts as a counter-balance. The coriander used is Southeast Asian, it is smaller, delicately flavoured and sold with the root attached. Common Greek coriander is larger and has a robust taste that is inappropriate for this dish. If you can’t find Asian coriander, then don’t use any, double the amount of mint instead.
The fish is used raw, as is traditional, but it can be cooked though not many Laotians like it that way. Lay will only eat it raw, Khamtoun, unusually, prefers it cooked as she says “When I was young my mother wanted to kill me – ‘You are so difficult’ she used to say me as she I was the only one of her eight children who liked it cooked.
If you want to cook it you must mix the ingredients first and then dry cook it in a pan for a few moments.
In this recipe we use wild sea bass but wild salmon could be used instead. These are the only types of fish that work with this dish and they must be wild as the flesh of farmed fish becomes sloppy.
2 wild seabass of about 1.1/2 lb each. Scraped to produce 1/2 1b raw flesh
1/2 1b of small green, golfball sized aubergines de-stalked and cut in half
3 spring onions, white part only
2 cloves of garlic in their skins
3 dried red chilies
1” inch of galangal, peeled and chopped fine
Padek – English style (See below) to taste
Roasted rice powder (See above)
A small handful of Thai coriander, finely chopped
5 sprigs of mint, finely chopped
The green part of the spring onions, finely chopped
Cooked fish skin chopped fine
Fillet the fish from tail to head (you can get your fishmonger to do this). Then with a sharp broad knife hold the tail end of a fillet and scrape the flesh away from the skin into a pile. Do not chop it up or put it in a blender as this will ruin the texture of this particular type of Laap. Repeat this for all four fillets. Set aside the skin.
Then take the prepared aubergines, spring onion, garlic and chillies (pricked or they will pop) and sear them on a gas ring/BBQ until they are totally black (Khamtoun uses a heat diffuser mesh over the flame and does them all at once). It is important that these ingredients are seared totally jet black as it imparts a particular flavour.
Meanwhile make the alternative Padek (Laotian fermented fish condiment) see below recipe – You can also use this liquid to cook the fish skin.
Having made the Padek you can now begin to make the Laap. In a pestle and mortar, take the seared dried chili and pound to a paste. Then add the galangal, pound again to a paste, then add the garlic and spring onion. Pound all this together and then add the aubergine and continue to pound the mixture until it is a soft mash of the mixed ingredients. This will take about ten minutes.
Add a ladle of warm fish stock from the soup. Pound some more and then add the raw fish. Add four tablespoons of English Padek water. Now take a wooden spoon and beat the mixture as though it was an omelette. The aim is to double the size of the mixture by beating it with warm stock. If the stock is too hot or cold it will not work. Lay beat the mixture for another ten minutes, tasting it continuously and adding four tablespoons of fish stock three times, plus several squirts of padek water. The smell of galangal and the seared chilli and garlic is extremely aromatic and masks the smell of the fish. The aim is to create a light purée, almost like a mousse. When you have attained the right consistency add four tablespoons of roasted rice powder and fold it into the mixture. (At this point, if you won’t eat it raw, you can cook it in a dry pan without oil).
Continuing with the Laap, fold in the chopped coriander, mint and spring onion. Finally, add the chopped cooked fish skin (in Laos, they sometimes add cooked, sliced snails). The Laap should be like an aerated purée in texture; grey in colour due to the scorched ingredients and taste sweet, salty and perfumed. There is nothing quite like it. In Laos it is served with salad leaves and bitter herb leaves. Here in the UK it goes well with radicchio leaves and the sour soup.
English Padek water
Place1/2 litre of fish stock (or half a stock cube with 1/2 litre of water) in a small saucepan with 10 tinned anchovy fillets (in oil). Bring to the boil and simmer for a few minutes until the anchovies have almost dissolved. Sieve out the lumps and boil vigorously for another few minutes to produce a salty, muddy brown liquid. Yum. You can now also use this liquid to cook the fish skin.