Laab, Laap, Larb

laap laarb

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:

Laap from a Street Market in London

Laap from a Street Market in London, chopped rather too roughly and using red onions which dominated the dish – phaa!

Ingredients

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

METHOD

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.)

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Another chicken laap but served with much more liver and padek at the Lao Centre New Year feast in London. Venison sausages in the background!

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

This can be bought in packets in Asian stores but it does not smell the same so it is better to make it on the day.   Here is how to make your own.image

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.

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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.

Too busy eating the sea bass to photograph it but here is a wild salmon Laap also eaten at Kahamtoun's

Too busy eating the sea bass to photograph it, sorry!  But here is a lightly cooked non-beaten wild salmon laap also eaten at Kahamtoun’s lovely home.

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.

Ingredients:

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

Method

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).DSCF3310 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.

Method

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.

Enjoy!

English Padek water

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The real thing – Fermented fish with rice husks

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.

Padek seller in the morning market

Paadek seller in the morning market

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Paa-dek is kept outside as its pungent aroma will infuse the home!

 

 

Freezing Fresh Lao Food Ingredients

imageWe live on the edge of Dartmoor National Park, 25 miles from the nearest Asian grocery store in Exeter. The fresh ingredients only get delivered once a week, so even when you do get to the shop you have to be quick.  Many a time I’ve found myself staring glumly at empty shelves as other enthusiastic cooks have got there before me and bought up all the best stuff.  If you see something rare, like a banana flower bud (not often in the weekly deliveries) you have to pounce.

I freeze fresh herbs and vegetables that I consider hold their flavour successfully. Freezer burn, caused by dehydration and oxidation, can be a problem.  Freezer bags don’t stop dehydration so I wrap them well in freezer containers with tight lids to prevent it. I use old padded (with bubble wrap padding) envelopes to store banana leaves and lime leaves.

Delicate leaf herbs don’t freeze well as their cell membranes get broken down by ice-crystals and they turn to sludge when you defrost them (experiment with lettuce for fun!). Larger vegetables and roots can go rubbery too, so are best avoided.

Best frozen sliced placed in a container and used as necessary

Galangal and ginger

Lemongrass

Banana Bud

Fine in a container

Pea aubergines

Coriander root

Thai Finger root

Coconut milk

Curry paste

Padded envelope

Lime leaves

Banana leaves

In ‘Traditional Recipes of Laos’ Phia Sing often calls for a small ball of pork mince or pork back fat. As I tend not to have these in the fridge I freeze them in small portions too.image

Mrs Misaiphon’s Luang Prabang Style Chicken Stew

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The Pak Houay Mixay Restaurant lay in a quiet street off the Mekong River road and was shaded by trees strung with coloured fairy lights. Paper stars swung in the breeze above a picket-fenced verandah enclosing a few check-clothed tables scattered amongst pots of lavish flowers.

Mrs. Misaiphon, the owner, was a renowned cook that my friend Vandara took me to meet. She was an imposing woman, heavily bejewelled and with a white badger-stripe in her hair. She had a big laugh, gravelly voice, and she laid her expensive patent-leather handbag on the table between us like a trophy. She once ran a successful jewellery store but gave it to her sister when she got bored sitting in the shop all day. Her family thought she was mad to start a restaurant in her middle age but now it was so successful they all worked for her in rotation. Last time I was in Laos, the restaurant had moved and doubled in size.

Mrs Misaipon was keen to show me a recipe that I could make at home with easily available ingrecients. She generously invited me into her kitchen and taught me me how to make a Luang Prabang snakehead fish stew (monk fish works well too)  flavoured with seared aubergines and dill.  She told me, “For you this does not have rare ingredients. You can make at home simple with fish or with chicken, of course it will not be quite Luang Prabang but good too”.

Here is the chicken version and, yes, it is easy to make at home. The seared aubergines give it that smokey flavour so prevalent in Lao cooking. You will need a saucepan, a wok, a live flame and a steamer (or you can steam over your sticky rice steamer, as I do).

Ingredients

1 litre of home made chicken stock flavoured with lemon grass

2 tbsps of peanut oil or sunflower oil

1 head  of garlic, sliced

5 shallots, chopped roughly

10 small aubergines (golf-ball sized purple & white in colour)

1 green birdseye chilli, chopped fine

4 chicken breasts with skin, cut into large pieces, or cut a whole chicken into 8 pieces with the bones

2 tablespoons of fish sauce to taste

1 handful of fresh dill, chopped roughly

Method

1.Place the chicken stock in a pan. Add a stalk of lemongrass bent and tied in a loose knot to release the flavour. Bring the chicken stock to a simmer and keep it going on a low heat on the heat. (If you are in a hurry, you can use ready made chicken stock and simmer it a couple of lemongrass stalks for half an hour or so, but remember most Western chicken stock cubes, vac-pacs and powders are flavoured with mediterranean herbs and they will taint the flavour.

2. Fry the chopped garlic, chilli and shallots together in a wok until the shallots are soft and translucent. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.

3. Remove the stalks and sear the aubergines over a flame or BBQ until they are charcoal black all over. Remove the  burnt skin.

4. Steam the aubergines to soften, for about 10 minutes.

5. Meanwhile, place the chicken pieces in a hot wok with the remains of the oil in which you fried the chilli, garlic and shallots. Using tongs to turn the pieces, brown the chicken until golden. Remove with a slotted spoon and add to the simmering stock pot. Lower the heat right down and keep the wok going, add a little oil if you need to.

6. Now pound the steamed aubergines in a pestle and mortar together with the fried chilli, garlic and shallots until well melded.

7. Take the aubergine mixture and quickly toss it in a hot wok and then add this to the chicken pan. Raise the heat under the saucepan pan and cook the chicken through.

8. When ready, check for saltiness, add fish sauce to your taste and throw in the chopped dill. A bit of fragrant basil doesn’t go amiss either but pure dill is good. Serve with sticky rice.

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Lao soup stock – simple meat, fish or vegetable recipes

David Gundry BowlLao Stocks and Basic Soup

In Laos nothing is wasted in the kitchen and most people keep a stock pot simmering away in a corner somewhere. These stocks simmer uncovered for hours on end and simply consist of meat or fish bones, galangal or lemongrass (or both together) garlic and sometimes shallots. These are the ‘vital’ first ingredients as the aromatics counter the ‘smell’ of the meat or fish as I was often told.

Other herbs and additives tend to be added later to suit a particular recipe when it is being made. They are MUCH LIGHTER than a Western stocks and this is one of the keys to Lao cooking. The stock is used as a base to enhance other flavours and ingredients. It must not overpower the dish.

However, since few of us can stay at home for a whole day to watch a stock pot these days you could make a quicker stock in advance and freeze it in bags. In the recipes below I have used meat and fish plus Southeast Asian herbs and vegetables to give then the appropriate perfume. You can experiment with your own stocks. If you want a really lemony stock, add lime leaves and squeeze a lime into it at the end.

Laotians also often serve these extremely light stocks which consist of just water, salt, lemongrass, paa-dek, and maybe some galangal, simmered together with bones at most meals.  Then they throw in other items such as watercress, tomato or local leaves and herbs at the last moment and serve it in a communal bowl, rather as a refresher of the palette, and it becomes a soup. These rarely would be considered something one would write down as a recipe but I suggest some here which can be adapted to individual taste.

Chicken Stock

1 whole chicken, including skin (feet and head if you have)
1 medium red onion, chopped roughly or eight shallots
3 spring onions, trimmed and snapped between your hands
3 cloves of garlic, sliced
2 stalks of lemongrass, left whole but tied in a knot or snapped in two (optional)
1 piece of galangal or ginger, one inch long, cracked with the heel of your hand (optional)
1 red chilli, (optional)
2 tablespoons of padek water or fish sauce
10 black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon of salt

1. Cut up the chicken into manageable pieces with a cleaver. Place in a large pot with all the ingredients except the salt. Cover with water about 2-3 litres and bring to a fast boil over a high heat.

2. Skim off any scum and reduce the heat to a good simmer. Let the stock reduce with the lid off, occasionally removing any scum.

3. After an hour you can remove any large pieces of meat that may be falling from the breast and leg bones to use in another dish. (At this point the meat will still have flavour and the boiled meat was a favourite with my little girls when they were toddlers).

4. Simmer until the stock has reduced by half (another hour or two depending on the size of the chicken), and season with salt if necessary. The result should be a tasty broth with a light dilute flavour; if it is strong and sticky then you have cooked it too long for Lao recipes.

5.Strain the stock and use immediately or freeze in bags for up to three months.

Pork/Beef Stockimage

3-4 lbs of pork ribs, not too fatty OR beef soup bones (as seen above, with the added bonus of being free from our local butcher)
1 medium red onion, chopped roughly or eight shallots
3 spring onions, trimmed and snapped between your hands
1 piece of ginger, one inch long, cracked with the heel of your hand
A small bunch of Asian coriander and roots (optional)
1 red chilli, (optional)
2 tablespoons of padek water or fish sauce
1 tablespoon of light soy sauce
10 black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon of salt

1. Cover the meat bones with water and bring to a boil on a high heat, blanch cook for ten minutes skimming off the fatty scum as it rises, then remove.

2. Throw out the water, rinse the meat and clean the pot.image

3. Put the rinsed meat and bones back in the pot cover with clean water and add the other ingredients except the salt. Bring to the boil and then lower to a simmer skimming occasionally.

4. Reduce by half, adding salt as needed. The result should be a tasty broth with a light flavour, if it is strong and sticky then you have cooked it too long for Lao recipes.

5. Strain the stock and use immediately or freeze in bags for up to three months.

Fish Stock

2lbs of white fish bits (river fish if possible), include heads, tails, bone skin.
4 shallots, sliced
3 spring onions, trimmed and snapped between your hands
3 cloves of garlic, sliced
2 stalks of lemongrass, left whole but tied in a knot (optional)
2 lime leaves, torn
1 red chilli, (optional)
2 tablespoons of fish sauce
10 black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon of salt

A lightly flavoured salmon soup made by my friend Khamtoun to go with laap. She added asparagus which was in season at the time

A lightly flavoured salmon soup made by my friend Khamtoun to go with laap. She added asparagus which was in season at the time.

1. Place the fish bones in a large pot with all the ingredients except the salt and 2-3 litres of water. Bring to a fast boil over a high heat.

2. Skim off any scum and reduce the heat to a good simmer. Let the stock reduce with the lid off, occasionally removing any scum.

3. Simmer until the stock has reduced by half  and season with salt if necessary. The result should be a pale, light broth which is not too salty.

4. Strain the stock and use immediately or freeze in bags for up to three months.

Southeast Asian Vegetable Stock

1 lb of turnips peeled and chopped into big cubes, or Asian white radish
4 medium carrots
2 stalks of celery or two leeks, chopped roughly
2 stalks of lemon grass tied in a knot
2 tablespoons of Asian coriander roots
1 piece o f ginger, one inch long, cracked with the heel of your hand
10 pepper corns
1/2 teaspoon of salt

In this recipe I am using turnips instead of Asian white radish which may be hard to find. It is a good substitute.

1. Place the vegetables in a big pot and cover with water.

2. Bring to the boil and then lower to a simmer, skimming occasionally.

3. Reduce by half to two thirds or more adding salt if needed.

4. Strain the stock and use immediately or freeze in bags for up to three months.

Luang Prabang Watercress Salad

imageThis is a delicious salad served all over Laos but particularly in Luang Prabang province. The watercress in LP is crisp and fiery with small round leaves, a special variety unique to the area, and dressing is made with an egg yolk base that has its origins in the French occupation. When I was served this dish it always decorated with sliced hard-boiled egg whites without the centres, no idea why but that’s how it was.

The dressing is cooked in a wok for a few seconds and then poured over the salad so you have to serve it immediately or it will wilt alarmingly.

Ingredients

1 crisp lettuce, such as mini cos

1 large bunch of watercress, the wilder the better

1 handful of mint leaves, stalked removed

1 small handful of coriander leaves

I small handful of dill, chopped roughly

2 spring onions, roughly chopped

4 small fragrant tomatoes, cut into eighths

6 rounds of cucumber cut in half

3 hardboiled eggs, whites only, sliced, (two yolks used in dressing, use the other for something else)

I small handful of chopped roasted peanuts

 

Dressing

3 cloves of garlic finely sliced

2 spring onions, finely chopped

2 tbsp of fish sauce

A little sugar 1/2 teaspoon

The juice of two limes

2 hardboiled eggs, yolk only

Directions

1. Hard boil the eggs in advance, allow them to cool, remove the shells and cut them in half. Remove the yellow centres and then cut the egg whites into slices. Set aside.

2. Assemble the salad ingredients on a plate to your own design.image I usually assemble it in layers so you have to dig in to find the surprise herbs and sprinkle the mint leaves after the dressing as my home grown mint variety turns brown when the hot sauce touches them.

3. Take a small bowl and mix the lime juice, fish sauce and the pinch of sugar (not too much please) and set aside. 

4. Crush the peanuts in a pestle and mortar.image

5. Take the sliced garlic, spring onion and fish sauce and place them in a hot wok. Heat for ten seconds stirring constantly.image

4. Add the cooked egg yolk and meld it into the sauce with the back of a spoon until it disappears into the sauce.image

5. Pour over dressing over the salad and sprinkle with chopped peanuts.

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Mawk Kai – Lao chicken steamed in banana leaf

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This is a fragrant treat for the barbeque on a Summer’s eve. The chicken is pounded with aromatic herbs and wrapped in banana leaf, then barbequed  The chicken steams in the banana leaf and the charcoal adds that faint hint of smokiness that is so frequently found in Lao cuisine. Yum.

Image 1 Ingredients

125g uncooked sticky rice

4 stalks of lemon grass, sliced (or 6 kaffir lime leaves)

8 cloves of garlic

3 shallots, peeled and sliced

2 spring onions (green part only)

10 basil leaves, sliced

500g chicken cut into small pieces

1 tablespoon fish sauce or a tsp salt

2 eggs

Banana leaves

Method

1. Soak the rice in warm water for half an hour or so, rinse three times and drain off the water.

2. Using either a food processor or more traditionally, a pestle and mortar blend or pound the soaked sticky rice, lemongrass, garlic, shallots and spring onions.

3. When the mixture becomes a rough paste, add the chicken and basil and pound/blend again to create a mousse-like texture. Then add the fish sauce and eggs and mix them in with a spoon.

Image 24. Take you banana leaves and wash them. Blanche the banana leaves in boiling water from the kettle. This cleans the leaves and also softens the fibres which helps prevent splitting when you wrap the chicken mixture.

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5. Place a leaf on a chopping board and cut a square about 12cm (6”) wide. Cut away the hard stem, this will help when wrapping.  Add a couple of heaped tablespoons of the chicken in the centre of the leaf. Fold the leaf into a packet and tie with kitchen twine.Image 46. Grill on a BBQ for 5 minutes or so turning half way through. Open one to check it is cooked through and replace on the BBQ for a few minutes more if needed.  Image 9

Serve with sticky rice, greens and jaew, and allow your guests to unwrap their own parcel on their plate like a gift.Image 10

Lao Mushroom Chilli Jaew (mushroom chilli sauce – Jaew Hed)

Image 3I’ve had mushrooms in my veg box for the fifth week running which put me in mind of a recipe taught to me by Seng Sone Darasavath, at the Darasavath guesthouse in the Northern Lao town of Luang Nam Tha.  Seng Sone was an extrovert, thirty-year-old single mother who ran her own business in Laos with canny charm. She spoke English and Chinese and crocheted hats at great speed in between capably multi-tasking the business and looking after her excitable toddler, Micky.

The evening I arrived, she took the time to sit down and introduce herself to me, whilst coping with twenty raucous communist party officials on a drunken night out, and offered to teach me to cook the meal I ate on my first night there – chicken and potato curry, served with a plate of steamed vegetables and two super hot jaew, one made with fermented shrimp paste and another with mushrooms.

Jaew is pounded sauce or rough paste, the main ingredient of which is chilli.  The varieties are endless, and you may wish to try my tomato jaew recipe on my blog link here.  Seng Sone’s jaew was extremely hot; she used twenty bird’s eye chillies for one small bowl, though today I used four, as I didn’t want to my guests to detonate during our barbeque.

Seng Sone had big plans to build another guesthouse and restaurant in the hills ten kilometres away near her family’s poppy fields, and I’m sure a woman of such determination is now the head of a mini-empire in the region. I still have a delicate crocheted hat she presented to me when I left the area and, of course, her recipes to share.

Ingredients

3-4 large flat field mushroomsImage

4 -20 birds eye chillies, seared, stalks removed

1 head of garlic, seared black and then peeled

2 shallots, seared black and then peeled

a little peanut or sunflower oil

½ tsp coarse sea salt

1 tblsp of paa dek or alternatively, Thai fish sauce. (see paa dek notes at the end of the recipe)

10 Basil leaves

Method.

Baste the mushrooms with a little oil and grill until juicy. Set aside.

Spear the chillies, garlic, and shallots on a skewer. Then sear them over an open flame (gas ring or even a candle if desperate) until well they begin to blacken.

Rub off the worst of the soot and discard the onion and garlic skins. Roughly chop up the onion and garlic, leaving the chilli to one side.

Transfer the vegetables to a wok with a little oil and stir fry for 2 minutes stirring constantly.Image 1

Transfer everything to a pestle and mortar in the order below and pound until they turn to rough paste.

First pound the chillies and salt pound to a paste then add the garlic and paa dek (or fish sauce) and keep pounding.

Image 2 Next add the shallots and when they have reached paste form add the sliced grilled mushrooms and pound some more.  You may need a spoon to scrape the mixture around as you pound it.  I prefer the mushrooms to stay in larger lumps so I only pound for about ½ a minute.

Add the basil leaves and pound some more.  Serve with sticky rice.

Image 4Notes on Paa Dek

The famous Paa-Dek of LaosImage 9

Paa-dek is a condiment of fish chunks mixed with brine, rice dust and rice husks. These ingredients are fermented in large pottery jars for up to a year to produce a salty fishy sauce with a pungent aroma.  This may sound a little off putting (remember, we eat fermented mouldy milk) but the taste is very similar to preserved anchovy fillets.  The mixture may be used straight; or the fish chunks are washed of their rice husks and used alone; or the liquid is used without the fish chunks.  I often saw people pour a ladle into a wok with another ladle of water, then hard boil it for a minute, sieve the result and use the flavoured water. Image 5

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You can buy Thai and Philippino versions of paa-dek in jars which will give you the closest similar flavour .

Anchovy sauce

I have also found a good alternative in a thick muddy brown bottled anchovy sauce available in most Asian supermarkets, which you can just splash in to give a near-as- damn-it authentic flavour with the added bonus that it is easier to handle.  Or use English bottled versions made with anchovies and salt (NOT vinegar).

With neither available you can make your own, like many British Laotians do in an emergency.

Home made English Paa Dek water

Place 400ml of fish stock (or half a stock cube with 1/2 litre of water) in a small saucepan with ten 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.