Connect the dots

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Laap It Up

Loads of Thai, tons of Vietnamese, there was even once upon a time a Cambodian restaurant in Fort Greene where the BBQ place now stands. However,  I have never eaten Lao food. Yes, as a New Yorker, I'm ashamed to admit this. We like to pride ourselves on the fact that every cuisine on the planet is available to us. If you're craving Senegalese or even Uzbek, it can be satisfied somewhere in New York. However, in this case and in my research, I can't even find ONE, not even in Queens - the ethnic food mecca of The Big Apple. So, what is Lao food? The closest you can get to Lao food without hopping on a plane to Luang Prabang is getting a taste of northeastern (Isan province) Thai cuisine.  The home of som tom and sticky rice, this region borders Lao therefore sharing not just its cuisine but its language as well.

The best place in Luang Prabang to sample some Lao favorites and local specialties and learn how to cook them is the rightfully popular Tamarind Restaurant.

The night before my cooking class, we decided to sample some of Tamarind's specialties at their restaurant to see what I had signed up for.

Bamboo shoot soup with local greens

Preview to the cooking class...
On Alex's plate: (from top left, clockwise: sauteed pumpkin, homemade sausage, buffalo jerky and spiced river weed (my personal favorite snack, nori-like).

They tuk-tuk-ed us first to the market and then to the jungle where a pavilion centered on a lotus pond set the stage for the day's cooking.

Staples of Lao cuisine include the following aromatics: lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, garlic, shallots, spring onions, galangal, basils, mints, and other local green herbs picked in the forest that I've never even heard of before. Then there's the myriad of stinky fermented fish sauces and chilies. But a Lao meal is not a Lao meal unless there's sticky rice or khao niao on the table. You'll know where the rice is by the basket on the table. They come in all sizes - from the individual portion to the tire-sized one used for large parties. Since sticky rice, eaten by hand, is used instead of steamed rice, liquid sauces such as curries are replaced with dips also known as jeow - the most common ones made of eggplant or tomato.

Make your way to the meat section and you'll find some of these delicacies: 

If Laos has a national dish, it's laap. Laap is most often made with chicken, beef, pork, fish and for our class, buffalo, flavored with fish sauce, lime juice, chili and fresh herbs like mint and basil. For extra bite, we added long beans and bean sprouts. Cooked buffalo bile as well as roughly ground toasted rice was added to the sauce for extra flavor. Sometimes raw meat or fish is used, a bit like Laos' version of ceviche. It's traditionally eaten with, take a guess... yes, sticky rice.

With the longest part of the Mekong snaking its way through Laos, river fish are abundant. The small parcels of banana leaf found at every market have a mix between Cambodia's fish amok and Vietnam's cha ca la vong. Laos' mok pa, is river fish marinated in lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf, dill, basil, chili, and shallots, mixed with ground toasted rice to thicken the sauce, wrapped in fresh banana leaf and steamed. 

My favorite and something I promise to make at the next party: chicken stuffed lemongrass. The smell alone lets you know that you're in for a treat. Mix minced chicken with spring onions, kaffir lime leaf, garlic and coriander/cilantro, score a stalk of lemon grass like a lantern, stuff the chicken into the "basket", dip into an egg batter and deep fry.

For dessert, there's coconut milk mixed with yes, again, sticky rice, of the purple variety this time. Otherwise, dig into the fresh succulent mangosteens, juicy rambutans and longans, perfumed mangos, and tart tamarinds to digest all that delicious Lao food you just ate!


  1. Alex looks so cute! I'm afraid to find out what the basket of ducklings are destined for.

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