Samui Wining & Dining
What Makes it Unique?

Discovering the secrets of Laotian Cuisine

 

8Laos is a land, renowned for its vast rice terraces and smiling people. It is peaceful not only in its welcoming demeanour, but also in its tolerance for different cultures. Foreign languages and architecture have, through politics and geography, charmed their way into the Laotians’ hearts, which are also accepting enough to embrace unfamiliar foods. Overseas influences often lend finishing touches to traditional Lao meals, culminating in a unique dining culture.

    Indeed, while Thailand and most neighbouring countries fail to see the beauty of bread (a buttered roll will complement divinely a bowl of tom ka gai, can’t they see?), Lao people are so good at pin-rolling their baguettes, that somewhere in France, a baker goes blank in front of a packet of flour and wonders: Who’s stolen my recipe? (Thus naturally he turns off the oven early to drink wine and blow smoke rings in a café, trying to find answers in Sartre’s literature).

      The former French protectorate loves the baguette so much, it decided to better the classic French sandwich by using a mix of Western and Asian ingredients. Bakers in Vientiane often spread soft cheese to line the marshmallow soft interior of the long bread, before stuffing it with shredded papaya or home-made carrot and onion pickles. A variety of meats are used in Laotian baguettes, which include slices of pork stewed with fresh herbs and chilli, dyed roasted pork akin to the Cantonese char siu, or a meatloaf pate similar to the Thai muu yaw. The stuffed sandwich is then grilled until golden, et voilà, a delicious Lao all-day snack that bears a resemblance to the Vietnamese bahn mi.

        Understandably, the poor French baker is unlikely to find any carbohydrate solace in the existentialist philosopher’s words. But he can, however, seek revenge by adding his own twist (or garlic) to larb, a minced meat salad widely considered a Lao national dish.

        Larb, phonetically similar to luck in the Lao language, is also known in English as the 'good fortune salad’. The dish is served daily as well as during festivities and ceremonies. Quick and easy to whip up, this meal comprises of ground chicken, pork or beef tossed in freshly chopped herbs to serve with a fish or squid sauce-based dressing. Sounds almost simple enough to prepare; but just like any national staple like the English Sunday roast or the Japanese katsudon, there’s no standard recipe for larb, and no two Lao homes share the same recipe. Nevertheless, a basic larb salad is tasty and totally DIY-able.

       First, marinate the minced meat with fish sauce, before quickly frying the mixture in a hot pan. Then, remove from the heat and drain the excess liquid, before tossing in finely chopped stalks of lemon-grass, cilantro, mint leaves, spring onions, kaffir lime leaves and Thai chillies. Stir in fish sauce and spoonfuls of lime juice before sprinkling with toasted rice powder and freshly sliced shallots. Lao people like rolling the salad in raw lettuce or rice paper rolls, but their priority side dish remains the quintessential sticky rice.

       These fine grains of toil and sweat are an important part of the Lao heritage. Laotians call themselves luk khao niew, sons of sticky rice, as for thousands of years the grains have been fuelling hungry workers, as well as the country’s economy. Sticky rice is steamed to glutinous perfection in a bamboo strainer, and the resulting semi-transparent rice is rolled into a ball by hand and then dipped in a hot tamarind sauce or eaten with the juice of a main meal.

      One of the many soups on a Lao menu is the gaeng kai mot dang, red ant egg soup. Available only during Laos’ dry season between October and April, farmers use a long stick to knock down red ant nests that are found high up on mango trees. After freeing the soldier ants from their nest, the centimetre-long ants are thrown in a bucket of water, where the insects themselves clump together on the surface and the eggs sink to the bottom. The rice-grain size spheres are then rinsed and washed repeatedly to get rid of ant carcasses. Harvesting the red ant ‘caviar’ is hard work; therefore the ingredient is a relatively expensive culinary commodity in Laos. But instead of being eaten raw like Japanese fish roes, the ant eggs are usually boiled in water with tomatoes, green onions, tamarind leaves and hot peppers, without strongly flavoured ingredients such as lime juice or fish sauce to overwhelm the taste of the eggs. The resulting soup is slightly tangy, and the eggs pop in your mouth like caviar, leaving a soggy but neutral after-taste.

      Since over 100 ethnicities inhabit a small country the size of United Kingdom, Laos and its regional cuisines are very diverse to say the least. Apart from the daily staples such as sticky rice, larb and Laotian baguettes, most Lao people also eat noodles and salads, prepared similarly to those of Vietnam and Thailand. But there are more, in fact a lot more Lao signature dishes waiting for your searching taste buds. Words are not enough to describe them all, but there are two words you must know, and those are ‘soen saep’ - the Lao for bon appétit!

 

Kawai Wong


 


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