Recipes from Laos


Look, I'm on "L!" That's not quite halfway through the alphabet, but it sure is close. Yay, progress.

OK let's talk about Laos. We Americans are quite familiar with Asian food—we love our Chinese take-out, and sushi, and Thai food, and Vietnamese and Korean. Although there's a pretty good argument to be made that our Asian favorites are nothing like authentic, but there you go.
We do tend to bypass some of those lesser-known Asian cuisines, though, which is a shame. I've had some great food from places like Burma and Cambodia, and now Laos.

 VangViang, Laos. Photo by Taylor Miles.

Laos, as you may or may not know, is a small place especially when compared to China and some of its other neighbors. Although with a population of 6.5 million people, I guess you can't really use the word "small."

Laos is a low-income economy and in fact has one of the lowest annual incomes in the world. At least a third of its citizens live below the international poverty line, which is less than $1.25 a day. To put that in perspective, the American poverty line is roughly $16 per day, per person--so yes it is true, to poor Laotions poor Americans look like they're pretty filthy stinking rich. Laos is also the 25th hungriest nation in the world, so it almost feels wrong to cook and enjoy Laotian food when so may Laotians can't even do that on a regular basis. And on that note:

Laotians eat a lot of sticky rice, which is their primary staple. It is generally eaten with the hands, which sounds quite messy. The cuisine of Laos has some French influences but is mostly distinctly its own thing, with unique dishes like a spicy green papaya salad and a raw meat dish called “larb.” I didn’t go with the raw meat dish because, you know, kids, but here’s what I did pick:

Mok Pha (Steamed Fish in Banana Leaves) 
(from The Daring Kitchen)
  • 1 lb catfish or tilapia, cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 1/2 cup sticky rice, soaked overnight*
  • 3 shallots, peeled
  • 2 lemongrass stalks, sliced 
  • 1/2 cup green spring onions
  • 10 kaffir lime leaves, finely sliced
  • 4 tbsp fish sauce
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 6 to 8 chili peppers (optional)
  • 4 to 6 banana leaves, cut into 10-inch piece 
* I cooked mine. I didn't think soaking it overnight would make it soft enough. 

Nam Kao (Spicy Red Curry Rice Salad with Shrimp) 
(also from The Daring Kitchen
  • 2 cups of cooked jasmine rice, cooled
  • 1/2 cup of fish sauce
  • 1/2 cup fresh lime juice
  • 1/3 cup red curry paste (Maesri brand)
  • 1/4 cup fresh mint, coarsely chopped 
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup green onion, finely chopped
  • 1/2 lb shrimp, peeled, blanched, and coarsely chopped 
  • 1/2 gallon vegetable oil
  • 2 tsp roasted peanuts, finely chopped (optional)
  • Red pepper flakes (optional)
  • Lettuce or endive
Cheun Yaw (Fried Spring Rolls) 
(from daianddal)
  • Spring roll wrappers
  • 3 to 4 cups vegetable oil 
For the filling:
  • 2 lbs ground pork, cooked
  • 1 1/2 cups carrot, grated
  • 1 1/2 cups cabbage, sliced
  • 1 1/2 cups bean sprouts
  • 1 1/2 cups mung bean noodles
  • 1 cup black fungi mushrooms, soaked for five minutes and sliced
  • 1 large onion, sliced
  • 2-3 stalks green onions, sliced
  • 2 medium eggs
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tbsp oyster sauce
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tbsp chicken bouillion
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp white pepper
Sweet Dressing Sauce 
(also from daianddal)
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 1 garlic clove, crushed
  • 1/4 cup fish sauce
  • Juice of one lemon
  • 1 tbsp white vinegar
I'm going to start with the spring rolls, because they take the longest. Here we go:

First soak the mung bean noodles in cold water for about five minutes, then drain. Now transfer to a large bowl and mix with the rest of the filling ingredients.

Put a little bit of water in a small bowl, and get your spring roll wrappers ready. Put two tbsp of filling into the middle of the first wrapper.

Now bring the sides together so they are just touching. Now fold up the bottom of the wrapper and roll it up like a tiny burrito.

Make sure you have a tight roll, but be careful not to roll it so tightly that you make a hole in the wrapper. Use a little bit of the water to seal the spring roll and then move on to the next one. Keep going until you either run out of filling or wrappers.

When you're ready, start heating the oil up in a large pan over medium-low heat. Test the oil with the non-stirring end of a wooden spoon--if bubbles rise around it, the oil is ready.

Now drop a few of the spring rolls into the oil. There should be plenty of room for them to move around without touching each other--you don't want them to stick. When the rolls are golden on all sides, they're done. Remove and drain on paper towels. Serve at once.

I served these with a sweet dipping sauce, which you make like this:

First mix the sugar and water together and heat over a medium flame. After the sugar dissolves, add the crushed garlic. Now turn off the heat and add the rest of the ingredients. Stir to combine.

OK, next we'll do this crazy weird rice balls thing. Here we go:

First, mix the shrimp with 1/4 cup lime juice and 1/4 cup fish sauce. Let chill in the fridge while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

Gently mix the red curry sauce with the rice. Add the egg and 2 tbsp of the fish sauce and mix until sticky.

Now take a small amount of the rice mixture and roll into a two-inch ball. Repeat until all the mixture is gone.

Meanwhile, heat some more oil. Yes, this is a very deep-fried culinary experience. When the oil is ready, drop the balls in and fry until golden. Transfer to a strainer and let drain and cool.

Now crush the rice balls up into roughly 1/4 inch pieces. Stir in the rest of the fish sauce and lime juice. Add the shrimp, herbs, peanuts and red pepper flakes (if using).

Serve over the lettuce or endive. 

OK, now for the fish. The instructions explicitly say that you need to go to the Mekong River to catch a giant catfish, so you'd better get moving on that. I actually cheated and bought some fish at Safeway.

First make the cocktail sauce, like this: put the sticky rice, lemongrass, shallots, chili pepper and green onions into a blender, adding up to a half cup of water as needed. Puree until it is a saucy consistency. Add sugar and salt to taste.

Now put the fish pieces in a large bowl and pour the cocktail sauce over.

Mix gently and add the Kaffir lime leaves and the whole chili peppers (if using).

Now place some of the fish mixture on a banana leaf. Fold into a triangle shape and secure with toothpicks. Steam for 25 minutes (I used a vegetable steamer. It was messy, but it worked fine.)

One thing that really struck me about this meal was this: you would not taste anything like it in a restaurant in the US, at least not one designed to appeal to Americans. It was very, very different. I'd like to say that means it was authentic and I did a good job cooking it, but if I do say that then someone is going to email me and tell me the opposite. So I will say, I've never tasted anything quite like it, and in a good way.

I liked the fish, though it definitely maintained a banana leaf flavor, which for some people can be a bit too earthy. It was also very heavy on Kaffir lime flavor, which I happen to like, but again it's an odd flavor that I don't think a lot of Americans are used to. But over all, not terribly strange. The rice and shrimp salad on the other hand was crazy weird. it was really spicy and the texture was very unusual. The spring rolls were the most familiar of the three dishes. I've had plenty of fried spring rolls, but probably not with these particular fillings. They had a great crunch to them, both inside and out, and the sweet dressing was a perfect match for them. My kids, of course, preferred the spring rolls and not really anything else. Martin was OK with the other two dishes but I think he preferred the spring rolls, too. I liked it all--it was exotic and interesting and tasted great, too.

Moving on down the alphabet now! Next week: Latvia.


Recipes from Kyrgyzstan


Disappointingly, I came up short on my search for recipes for the second week in a row. This surprised me a little because this week we're in Kyrgyzstan, which is much father east than the other "-stan" nations, so I guess I expected the cuisine to be a little more unique. It must be because delicious food becomes sort of pandemic, like pizza. It jumps cultures.

Anyway this week's rice dish and the bread dish I chose are both hauntingly familiar. Think way, way back to the Kabuli Pulao in Afghanistan and not so very long ago to the baursak in Kazakhstan--both recipes are pretty similar to the ones I did this week both in ingredients and in name. But the main dish not as much. More on that in a sec.

 Lake Toktogul, Tien Shan Mountains, Kyrgyzstan.
Photo by NMK Photography.

Kyrgyzstan is actually closer to China than it is to either Afghanistan or Kazakhstan. Kyrgyzstan is one of those former Soviet Republics, and it actually did quite well as such–especially during the 1920s, when the region made great strides both culturally and socially. Literacy was improved, too, and so was education overall. After its split from the Soviet Union in 1991, some poop started to go down–organized crime groups started vying for power, a bunch of people were assassinated and there was civil unrest that persisted for a long time, even as late as 2010, when at least 75 people were killed in “bloody clashes” with the police. A bunch of religious and community members were subsequently arrested, and then the country passed a law prohibiting women under the age of 23 from traveling internationally without a “parent or guardian,” get this–in order to support “…increased morality and preservation of the gene pool.” Yeah, this was recently. So I would not really want to live there, even though they do a lot of cool stuff on horseback, like picking up a coin at a full gallop, mounted wrestling and running super long-distance horse races, though maybe not that thing where they have to do battle over the headless carcass of a goat.

Anyway, they eat fruity rice dishes and fried bread, which are both delicious. And this thing that they also eat was traditionally made with organ meat, but thank goodness can now be made with other things, because I don’t do organ meat. So that said, here are the recipes:

Kuurdak (Chyz-Byz)
  • 2 lbs beef or lamb or mutton, cut into small chunks
  • 4 onions, peeled and sliced
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil 
  • 3 green bell peppers, seeded and julienned
  • 1 cup cabbage, julienned
  • 1/2 tsp ground red pepper
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 bay leaves
  • About 2 cups water
  • 2 tbsp tomato paste
A rice dish:

Shirin Paloo
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil

  • 4 to 5 carrots, peeled and cut into thin strips

  • 3 onions, sliced
  • 1 cup dried apricots

  • 1 cup golden raisins
  • 
1 cup prunes
  • 1 tsp salt

  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 5 to 6 cups water

  • 2 cups basmati rice
Some fried bread (yum!):

Borsok
  • 2 cups of flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp sugar
  • 1/4 tsp yeast
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
Let's do the meat first. Start by browning the meat in the oil ...

... then add the rest of the ingredients.


Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, until the water is absorbed and the vegetables are tender (30 to 45 minutes). Remove the bay leaves and serve immediately.

Now for the rice:

First heat the vegetable oil over a medium flame and fry the onions and carrots until soft (10 to 15 minutes). Now add the water and bring to a boil.

Add the rice and and continue to boil until the water has been almost completely absorbed.  Add the dried fruits and mix well. Turn the heat down to low and cover the pan. Let cook for another 15 to 20 minutes, until all the water has been absorbed (note you can add a little more water if the rice dries out too soon).

Finally, the bread:

First mix the flour with the sugar, yeast and salt. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs and add the milk. Add the egg and milk mixture to the flour and stir, adding enough water to make a firm dough. Cover and let rise in a warm place for two hours. Roll the dough to 1/4 inch thickness and cut into rectangles of 1 inch by 2 inches.

Now pour 1/4 cup of oil into a pan and heat over a medium-high flame.

Fry the dough pieces on both sides until they puff up and turn a golden brown color.

So I will bet you can guess what my kids thought of the bread. Do you see that giant pile of bread in the photo? It was gone in about 15 minutes. That was by far the favorite part of the meal, though it really was not unique compared to the many other versions of fried bread I've made over the course of this endeavor. The rice: also not that unique, but still pretty tasty. The beef, which was the only unique thing on the table, was a little meh. It was a little too vegetable-heavy for my tastes, and also it wasn't as tender as I like beef to be in a stew. For that, I think it should have been cooked a lot longer.

Anyway, moving on. Next week: Laos.





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