To get all the juice from a lime without any seeds, make three cuts as in the picture above. This gives you three equal squeezes, with leftover juice in the middle if you need more.

What is Lao cuisine?  I arrived in Laos knowing next to nothing about it, and was eager to learn more.  As a first step, I signed up for a one-day cooking school in Luang Prabang, highly regarded and once visited by Gourmet’s Ruth Reichl for her television series.

Here’s what I found out:  Lao cuisine is light; most of the flavor comes from fresh herbs and spices; it is less spicy and oily than Thai food; it’s typically more viscous than Thai or Indian cuisines, which tend to feature more curries and thus to be more liquidity; and sticky rice is the “signature” rice, always eaten with your hands (white rice is only usually eaten with foreign foods, like Thai curries and sauce-heavy Chinese dishes).  Above all, Lao cuisine is very tasty!

Phosy Market

I began my day of cooking school at Luang Prabang’s largest market, Phosy Market, where farmers come from the surrounding areas to sell their goods, some arriving as early as 4 a.m.  Other workers come a little later to help the farmers with organization and presentation—creating bunches of herbs, knotting long-stemmed herbs into circles, and the like for ease of sale.

After I arrived, I first stopped at a stall serving up some delicious-looking hot food.  I went for a stick of buffalo tongue, cooked on a bamboo skewer over coals and coated in chili sauce.   While I ate a lot of good things, this was not a favorite—the buffalo tongue was very tough, comparable to chewing gum.

Making kanom krok on the sidewalk

More enjoyable was something we had already tried several times on the street in Luang Prabang: warm flat circles of fresh coconut milk and rice, served sizzling from a cast-iron griddle heated over coals (kanom krok).  This particular batch in the market contained shredded pumpkin, and was sublime.  The man took them out of the griddle (one by one) and placed them on a banana leaf, piping hot, for immediate consumption.  Fabulous.  (We were lucky enough to be in Laos during coconut season, when the coconuts are at their best and sweetest.  During other times of year, kanom krok is made with coconut powder, rather than with fresh coconuts, as they were when we enjoyed them.)

After finishing the kanom krok, I headed from the outside of the market, where there were primarily produce and herb vendors, to inside where I checked out the dry goods (including many varieties of ground chilies and rice).  From there I moved to the meat section.  Vendors, primarily female, wielded huge knives as they chopped up whole pieces of animal.  Chicken feet, pig ears, and whole pig legs lay out across the tables, among the other, more familiar cuts.  In addition to meat, brightly-colored red gelatinous rectangles graced many tables—congealed pig blood for making soup.

After finishing our market exploration, the class got in a tuk-tuk, and headed out to the countryside on the river just outside of town to start cooking.

Over the course of the day, we cooked several dishes, by far the best of which chicken-stuffed lemongrass—fresh herbs and chicken stuffed into and fried in lemongrass.  It was super delicious, but very awkward to make—both the cutting and the stuffing of the lemongrass.  (To make it well at home, I’m going to need a lot of practice; it’s cut into lantern-like shapes, which were difficult to form—see pictures below.   For anyone living in or visiting Vermont, I promise to try my best.)

We also made a broth-based soup, a local specialty called orlam, which we flavored with many ingredients including vegetables, herbs, lemongrass, and a piece of wood (after cutting off the bark).  To thicken the soup, we each toasted a flat ball of sticky rice (marshmallow style), pounded it, then tore it into pieces until it melted into the soup, which we ate with spoons (not rice).  A tip for the home cook: to flavor broth with lemongrass, after removing the outer pieces, tie the lemongrass stalk into a single knot for easy removal before eating.

From our instructor Joy (a Lao man, married to an Australian), I was able to get answers to some of my and Patrick’s questions.  Primarily, why isn’t Lao cuisine more spicy?  Laos like to use chili paste, called jeow bong (a Luang Prabang specialty), or just chilies, as a condiment, so the heat comes on the side.  (In contrast, in Thailand, we found the hot peppers in our dishes.)  Most Lao meals are cooked over coals (part of the reason it’s so easy to get such good street and market food – Laos make it the same way at home).

Cooking sticky rice

In my class, we cooked sticky rice in an upside down, hat-shaped bamboo basket, set in a tin-covered clay pot over coals (a double boiler of sorts).  All herbs and some other ingredients were mashed in a mortar and pestle before use.  Homemade fermented (pungent) fish sauce was used in every savory dish.  (Fish is covered in salt for months and then strained.  Presto.)

Once our food was ready, Joy taught us how to eat Lao style with our hands: first, take a small amount of sticky rice from the communal basket (which is traditionally wicker, lidded, and cylindrical); knead/squish the rice into a flat ball; then dip it into one of the communal food dishes (but remember: no double-dipping, and don’t leave any rice in the communal dishes!).  I can say from experience that when eating something like, say, stringy green vegetables or eggplant dip, getting food to stay on your rice can be a challenge.  (You can see how this would be a nearly impossible way to eat curry.)  Luckily there is no stigma associated with using your left hand for eating here, which makes things a bit easier for a novice.  It is also acceptable to use your thumb for gripping the food on your rice (along with two fingers—using all four fingers is impolite).  Another key rule is to refrain from licking your fingers (no matter how delicious the food!).

Patrick, Jude and I really enjoyed the food in Laos.  As noted earlier, it’s great on the streets – often better than in restaurants.  Highlights include:

– Local Luang Prabang sausage, which we often saw drying on bamboo racks on the side of the main street
– Chicken cooked between bamboo sticks on an open grill in the night market
– Eating barbecue prepared right at your table, over sizzling coals, under a grimy tent beside the Khan River, and dodging stray sparks
– Previously noted kanom krok or hot coconut balls, eaten with a toothpick on a banana leaf on the side of the road
– Countless combinations of tropical fruits whirled into blended delicious-ness from smoothie street stalls
– Superb baguette, originally brought to Laos, of course, by the French (favorite toppings include local lime marmalade and tamarind-coconut jam)
– Stuffing and hand-rolling lettuce leaves, filled with whole fish pieces just steamed in a banana leaf, fresh vegetables and herbs, and hoping they wouldn’t fall apart before reaching our mouths
– The classic Luang Prabang snack: fried river weed, sprinkled with sesame seeds and garlic, and served with chile paste

Selling oranges at Phosy Market

 

Dill is commonly used in Lao cooking

 

Eggs for sale at Phosy Market

 

Regular white rice for sale. White sticky rice is a lighter shade of white.

 

Pepper tree, which we used to flavor soup (in foreground is galangal, similiar to ginger)

 

Banana flower

 

Whole chickens inside Phosy Market

 

Cutting lemongrass before stuffing it

Chicken-stuffed lemongrass ready to eat (with fingers!)

 

River-side table BBQ

 

Fried river weed with sesame seeds, garlic, and chili paste

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  3 Responses to “Exploring Lao cuisine: Buffalo Tongues in the A.M. and How to Make a Lemongrass Lantern”

  1. I am so hungry after reading this post! When I visit Vt, I would enjoy anything “Laos style” – and I would NOT be critical of how it looked at all! One thing about all of the food pictures, not only here but in other countries, is that they are so colorful! Farmers markets in the states just don’t have such a variety of color – some in the fall, but not uusually.

  2. I had the same reaction as Jennifer–I now feel hungry! I was also struck by how different the food seems to be from other food, even Asian food, that I’ve eaten. The pink eggs, among other items, were unexpected!

  3. Can you share the name and address of the riverside table BBQ place? I am going to Luang Prabang on the 4th Dec and would love to try this meal.

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