A few rocks, some firewood, a pot and a mortar and pestle are all that is needed to prepare a delicious Lao meal. Local Lao people buy fresh ingredients daily at the morning and evening markets. Fresh ingredients such as vegetables, leaves and herbs are gathered in the fields and jungles while all sorts of fish are caught along the rivers. Whatever livestock runs around the house yard can create a feast for the family.
Bamboo skewers grill meat and fish on the fire while meat wrapped in banana leaves roast in hot ashes or steamed in bamboo baskets; the pot is used for cooking soups and stews or to fry meat or fish.
The mortar and pestle is used to pound fresh roots and spices to make chilli pastes and the Lao favourite – papaya salad. Of course, no meal is complete without sticky rice.
Most meals in Laos (and northern Thailand) are served with some kind of Jeow – a sauce or dip which contains chilli. In Thai, dips are called nam prik. The most common jeow is jeow mak phet pa (chilli with fish sauce) or nam prik pla in Thai. Add a bit of garlic, coriander and a good squeee of lime, you can spice up any dish!
The classic jeow is either fairly dry or a paste, which plays a principal role in the daily finger eaten sticky rice diet. Its preparation calls for the chillies, shallots and garlic to be roasted first- a process that takes away their acidity and adds a smoky taste. At home, this can simply be achieved by wrapping the ingredients in foil and placing under the griller for a short period of time. The ingredients are then pounded with a mortal and pestle to produce the dip.
The choice of jeow is enormous and solely depends on what other ingredients are at hand. The particular herb, vegetable, meat, fish, or insect that adds the distinctive flavour, gives the name to the dip such as jeow dok het (mushroom dip). Other examples include a tomato dip, a sawtooth leaf dip and an eggplant dip. I have written previously about the famous northern Thai eggplant dip (nam prik num) – a dip that I call Chiang Mai Salsa. There are also some Lao varieties that are identified by their province of origin like Luang Prabang, Xieng Khouang and Samneua.
With every jeow, a combination of vegetables are served alongside: fresh cucumber and long beans; raw or pickled bamboo shoots; scalded califlower, broccoli, cabbage, ferns, etc. Eaten together with sticky rice and any grilled meat or fish, you have a light, healthy and fulfilling meal which is so simple to prepare.
With such few simple cooking utensils, the Lao people know how to magically produce culinary delights, finely balanced in flavour and varied in preparation – all of which are incredibly heathly being light and fresh.
One of the restaurants where you can experience a great selection of local Lao foods all on one banana leaf is at the Kualao Restaurant in Vientiane. For 120,000 Kip (approximately US$ 15), the selection includes: Orlam Gai (Chicken curry), Larb Muu (spicy pork with lemongrass), Mak Pa Namkong (fresh Mekong river fish with lemongrass steamed in banana leaf, Kai Kuam (deep fried eggs), Geang Churd Taohuu (clear soup with glass noodles, tofu and minced pork), Gai Hor Bai Teui (Chicken cooked in Bai Teui leaves), Jeow Mak Phet Pa (fish sauce with chilli), an assortment of local vegetables and sticky rice served in a traditional bamboo basket.
Every meal in Laos is like Thanksgiving – an auspicious and merry occassion blessed by the presence of family, friends, neighbours and colleagues. Try a taste of Lao and enjoy!
For more things to do in Laos (besides eating), see my previous post – 40 Great Ways to Experience Luang Prabang, Laos. I will be continually undating my blog to bring you more from this beautiful land of smiles and temples!