Cooking lessons from Laos
One of my favorite experiences in Laos, was a cooking class run by a lovely Laos woman. The first part of the class was a tour around the local market where we learned about the ingredients we were about to use. First we learned about the differences between all the varieties of regular rices and sticky rice (which is a lot), and why sticky rice was more common in Laos due to its easy cultivation (sticky rice does not require rich soil to flourish). We were shown the many varieties of herbs and greens they use (many of which I could not recognize, and didn’t even have English names, according to our teacher). We sampled coconut meat and were told it is believed by the Laos people to be very important for strengthening the liver. After this, we were shown how “older” coconut meat is turned into coconut milk (you can see this machine they use in the following picture).
The fish sauce they use is made with raw fish that has been fermented for a minimum of 3 weeks, although they do not recommend this for tourist as it may upset the stomach. I must admit the market was quite a feast for the nose and the eyes, but the real fun was about to start in her kitchen by the Mekong river. The most important part of of the cooking lesson from Laos was that everything was made fresh and from scratch, which contributes greatly to the taste and nutrition of the food. The second most important is the use of the pestle and mortar; this crushes the veggies, chillies and herbs which allows all the juice and flavor to be released. This is especially important for the famous “papaya salad” or “Som Tam“. To cook the food we used barbeques, which was especially effective for the dips we made where we barbequed tomatoes, chillies, shallot and garlic and then crushed them in the pestle and mortar for a divine BBQ flavor. I would need several blog entries to explain every intricacy I learned in my cooking lessons from Laos, so instead I will leave you with a very famous (and one of my favorite) Laos dishes courtesy of our teacher: Laab Gai.
You will need:
2 chicken breasts
1 small onion
1 teaspoon chicken stock
Chillies to taste
Half tbsp coriander
1 tbsp galangal
3-4 spring onions
1 kaffir lime leaf
1 cup of sliced banana flower
1 tbsp sticky rice powder
1 generous handful of fresh mint leaves
1 teaspoon of fish sauce
Chop the chicken and onion finely. Fry onion and add chicken. Cook until lightly browned. Add chicken stock and stir. Remove from heat and set aside.
Peel the outer layers of the banana flower and thinly slice the white section into a bowl of cold water.
Add thinly sliced chillies and finely chopped galangal, coriander and spring onions to the chicken. Add the chopped mint leaves.
Add fish sauce.
Mix together lightly and serve with lettuce leaves for wrapping or with sticky rice.