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.