Location: Southeast Asia
Population: 6.8 million
Geography: A heavily forested and mountainous landlocked nation
Signature flavours: Sticky rice, fish sauce, lime, mint, shallot, chilli pepper, lemongrass
I love the flavours of southeast Asia, namely Thai, Vietnamese, and Chinese foods. Having no experience with Laotian cuisine, I was looking forward to creating a menu. I found a number of fantastic books — including Lao-specific Hawker Fare and Laotian Ant Egg Soup — and ended up using them to build a menu that showcases the diverse, umami-centric tastes of Laos. (“Laotian” refers to something from the country of Laos, while “Lao” refers to something of the Lao people who live in Laos and parts of northern Thailand.)
Sticky Rice: Laos is the biggest consumer of sticky rice in the world, and no meal is complete without it. Like the paps of north Africa and the basmati of South Asia, sticky rice is the vehicle by which stew goes from bowl to mouth.
Prep and cooking time: At least 6.5 hours (depending on soaking time)
Tum Som Mak Hoong: A savoury green papaya salad with the umami flavours of shrimp paste and fish sauce, featuring Thai eggplant, chillies, and garlic.
Prep and cooking time: 20 min
Goi Pla: A chopped meat salad called laap is one of the national dishes of Laos. This fish variety of laap incorporates finely chopped raw snapper, lime juice, green beans, and fresh herbs.
Prep and cooking time: 30 min
Garlic Duck: Crispy fried duck in a marinade of garlic, chilli pepper, fish sauce, black pepper, and honey (my addition to temper the saltiness).
Prep and cooking time: 15 min
Banana Rice Balls: Sticky rice mixed with coconut milk and sugar, molded into balls around a slice of ripe banana, then rolled in desiccated coconut.
Prep and cooking time: 60 min
The Shopping List
Asian supermarket T&T supplied us with Thai eggplant, green papaya, Thai basil, shrimp paste, and fish sauce. King’s Cafe and their fantastic vegetarian shop gave us the seitan-based “duck.” Sticky rice and all other ingredients came from our local No Frills.
Unlike most varieties of rice, sticky rice is soaked and steamed, rather than boiled. I had my doubts about how well this would work without a special cone-shaped steamer, but my little steaming basket did the job and the rice came out soft and sticky. We ate pinches of it along with just about everything.
The use of fish sauce is liberal in Lao cooking, to say the least, and many of the dishes turned out very salty. The garlic duck was so salty, in fact, that I opted to add a little honey. The honey ended up glazing the garlic and the duck pieces and the dish was wonderful: crispy, garlicky, and a little bit sweet.
The goi pla was a new experience for both Eric and I. We’ve had ceviche before, from Samoa and from Fiji, but this was altogether different. Saltier, with the aromatic addition of fresh Thai basil and mint, the goi pla was juicy, fishy, and bursting with flavour.
Admittedly, tum som got the least love of all the dishes on the table. It was a curious blend of fruit and fish, and neither Eric nor I enjoyed it too much. That said, a dish with as much personality as this might be more of an acquired taste, so maybe we should keep trying it.
We finished the meal off with a couple of rice balls each. By the time they had cooled and were ready for eating, the coconut milk-soaked rice had reached a mochi-like consistency. With the chunk of sweet banana in the middle and the crunchy coconut on the outside, they were an excellent finish to a meal that was a brand new experience all the way through.
Disclaimer: I’m not a professional chef. I’m just a passionate cook with a curiosity for flavours I’ve never tried. For great recipes from gifted local cooks, follow the links above.