SOUTHEAST ASIA - LAO

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SOME LIKE IT HOT
BEYOND HOT and HOTTER

There are two things that every human on this earth shares in some way as a common bond with others.   They are Food and Music.  Every culture I have encountered, has its own DNA in these two fields.  Lao is interesting and in some cases tends to be controversial.  Mostly not true, the entire controversy stems because LAO food sometimes gets a bad rap based on spiciness. 

Mostly overstated, in fact, having some culinary skills I learned that food is basically the same all around the world with a few exceptions like the Antartica which is not big on veggies.  But it’s the wheats and rice , the condiments, techniques and spices, that make foods different.  LAO food is hot when the chef or laymen add the hot otherwise its like everything else.

Columbus’s trips,  guided by the sun, stars and lots of luck were to secure a faster route to India and the spices from that region. He failed, but did bring some popularity to the western half of the world.  I believe it was pizza that convinced him the world was round, and only Chicago has square or rectangular pizza and he never discovered Chicago.

LAO is a totally land locked agrarian country.  Their food is made from many local ingredients that do not contribute to the heat as you will learn. Most of it being freshwater fish, fowl, animal meat and vegetables which are usually flat in relation to their spiciness. But Thai red chilis do grow there, theres the heat and many grow their own along with their other staples.  LAO’s  biggest export product is rice.  

RESTAURANT and HOME COOKING:  Hot is not the norm in retail trade anymore especially with the flourishing tourist and visitor traffic even in Lao.  World class chef Anthony Bourdain just did a special Parts Unknown in LAO available on Spectrum on Demand.

Bourdain on his initial interest in Laos: “From the first time I heard of Laos, I was hooked, and filled with a desire to see the place. Once a storybook kingdom of misty mountains and opium. At one time a protectorate of France. A mysterious land-locked nation bordered by China, Thailand, Cambodia, and, as fate would have it, Vietnam.” 

Bourdain offers some context on Northern Laos: “Enchantingly beautiful, sparsely populated by remote mountain villages. For centuries, home to ethnic minority hill tribes like the Hmong. This is where the CIA recruited, trained, and armed over a hundred thousand fighters.”  “In the end, when the last choppers hurriedly left Vietnam, Laos and many Lao who fought with us were left behind, too. What had been a kingdom was now a Communist regime — yeah, the bad guys won.”

LOCALLY:  Here in Tampa Bay, Florida much of the cuisine served in our Southeast Asia restaurants is fairly neutral, most come with nothing or very little spice wise and supported by a tray of do-it-yourself sauces and pastes.  A fairly good selection for the American palate and food style with condiments of various strengths and potency.  Thats the heat and much is do it yourself.  I suggest: Never ask the Chef for Hot.  Hot in the LAO language is KNU-CLE-AHHH.   These are the chilis and garlics used in LAO cooking.

It’s a mixed cultural thing, the majority of restaurants are Vietnamese in style, or Thai in style, LAO folks are agrarians and grow, Vietnamese and the Thai open restaurants.  Most operate under what I call Southeast Asia Fusion Extra or SAFE.  

I like this idea as Southeast Asia is a huge peninsula with few formal borders so the food served in small regions is whats available.  Asian Fusion combines the best and most popular dishes  the best of many countries in that region. There is a simple reason for this; Vietnam and Thailand are more commonly known.  For years not a lot of mention of the Lao peoples because of the “Silent War”.   Fusion restaurants also incorporate Sashimi and Sushi from Japan and a few common Chinese dishes.  A cornicopia of that part of the world.

Surprise, a huge amount of Italian Restaurants are owned by non-Italians.  My local favorite has a Greek Owner and he does a great job with Italian food and won awards for the best pizza in town.  And another great Pizza place up the street from me is owned by Albanians.  Few ever ordered Albanian take-out, I don’t see it as a marketing tool, pizza is a money maker.

Homes here are a different ball game. Many authentic local (cooked in the home) dishes may be hot if the host knows who is  coming and that the guests have known taste and spicy preference.  

The judicious use of Thai string peppers both red and green, cut in pieces and ground with a mortar and pestle then mixed with lemongrass, coriander, garlic, will raise your body temperature about 15 degrees.   And higher in the throne room.

On one now two occasions, I attended functions at events and filled my bowl with plain noodles.  The host asked If I would like a little pepper, I said very little, She gave me about a quarter of a teaspoon.  I mixed it well, and my mouth still exploded.  Those chilis are volatile.  At the other meeting,  I had the Papaya salad thinking it was cole slaw in nature and that blew my ears off.

NOTE:  The Most Popular Prepared Chili Sauce is Chinese  - (World wide from a simple farmer in California now known as the King of  Chili sauces)  is Sriracha by Huy Fong Foods found in almost every grocery store, every fusion restaurant and lately in every grocery store.  It was the star of a TV special on the food channel.  It was also on “ How do they make that”?  Millions of bottles and gallons denote it’s popularity.

Basically it’s made from California red Chilis, a variant from theJalopena family.  In most Tampa Bay local places other type of sauces are available.   Commonly Thai Chillies diced very fine in a lite oil is one option.

Actually my LAO friend gauges the heat by how many tiny pieces on each bite.  Also on some tables is something forged in fire at the local nuclear plant, darker in color, basically ground powdered dried red peppers in oil, rated a ten on the earthquake scale and presented with the five star burp award by the Zantac Corporation and Medic Alert. 

Use it wisely, a little goes a long way. I suggest use a toothpick and try it on your tongue first before you ruin your dish, and your entire evening. Eventually your tongue will forgive you.  

COMMONALITY:  Laotians like fiery salads, spicy dips “sticky” rice, and grilled meats, fish and poultry.  Contrary to what you might think, Laos is justifiably acclaimed for its food. Lao food is distinct from other Asia cuisines, although it is somewhat similar to the food found in the northeastern part of Thailand in the area known as Isan. Most Lao dishes contain vegetables and herbs, rice or noodles and fish, chicken, pork or beef. 

The freshness of the ingredients is very important to Lao people who like to prepare everything from scratch, rather than use pre-prepared ingredients, as they believe this makes their food more delicious.   Some Laotian dishes are similar to Vietnamese and Thai dishes because the ingredients are common to the area.  

BACK TO THE CONTROVERSY:  Some...claim LAO food is spicy but not as spicy as Thai food.  But I have had Lao hot that put Thailand next to Greenland on the map.  Depends on whether the cook came from a certain province or training. The entire chef based controversy is exactly that, what the host, chef, cook added to the dish. I tell it as “BLAND to BRANDED”.

Normal: Many are on the mild side. French-influenced Laotians dishes are said to be particularly good. Laotians dishes are often served in communal dishes. After the Chinese rules LAO for decades, the French entered the scene and new dishes were created. 

The Rice:  Glutinous or sticky rice is preferred to Japanese style white rice. It is sometimes cooked in bamboo tubes or woven rattan baskets with chili sauce or spicy fermented fish sauce.  Herbs such as galangal and lemongrass are favored and padaek (Lao fish sauce) is found on every table.

Laotian cooks strive for the perfect balance between sweet, sour, cooked, fresh, mild, bitter, salty and spicy; dishes are served in bite-size pieces in accordance with the Buddhist custom that no whole animal be cooked and served; and texture and color are important. 

Dishes are often flavored with sauces, pastes and fermented fish concoctions such as:
Nam paa - fermented fish sauce
Paa daek - a thicker spread made with fermented fish, rice husks and rice dust
Nam paa daek - a sauce made from paa daek 
Nam phak kaat - a paste made from fermented lettuce leaves
Jaew ngaa - sesame paste
Nam kathi (coconut sauce).

Most Laotian meals consist of rice or noodles eaten with fish and vegetables, and to a lesser extent chicken and pork. Vegetarian meals are widely available.   Beef is considered an expensive luxury and tends to be more expensive than other meats.   Catfish and cotton fish (a local white fish like a perch) are favorite fresh water fishes. Because Laos is not near the ocean seafood dishes are generally not available except at expensive hotels and restaurants. 

Fermented bamboo shoots are used in a favorite Lao dish, sour bamboo soup. In rural areas cultivated foods are sometimes supplemented with wild fruits and vegetables from the forest. The influence of France is can be found is in crème caramel is available at most restaurants. 

Baguettes, sometimes croissants and Laotian versions of French pastries, are available at every market and in every downtown area. You can even find snails in some places. French-Laotian cuisine is a real delight.

      

STICKY RICE - Lao food is traditionally eaten with sticky rice using fingers. In the countryside, people eat family-style, sitting on the floor, sharing a few dishes. Lao traditional food is dry, spicy and very delicious and is based on fish, buffalo meat, pork, poultry and especially herbs.

Sticky rice naturally sticks together so it is easy to roll into small balls, dip into food and eat with your fingers. A traditional everyday Lao meal is simple and normally consists of sticky rice, some natural vegetables and at least one kind of spicy sauce to dip the sticky rice into, plus perhaps some fish or meat. 

Another daily favorite is noodle soup (called feu also spelt pho) which is a hearty soup incorporating meat, noodles and vegetables. Don’t be surprised if when ordering your noodle soup, a huge plate of local salad vegetables arrives at the same time, together with a range of sauces and condiments. 

Other than sticky rice—which can be eaten either sweet, sour, or fermented— Laotian food is very rich in vegetables and is often browned in coconut oil.

Both meat and fish are usually grilled or steamed and as a result, the flavors are fresh and the dishes are low in fat. Restaurants and food stalls, lit by fluorescent tubes, in provincial towns, sometimes visited by backpackers off the beaten path, bowls of beef noodle soup and lukewarm Beer-lao are the norm. 

Most Lao meals consist of khao niaw (sticky rice) served with fresh greens dipped in chilies or fermented sauces, and laap (chopped meat or river fish salad mixed with onions, lemon grass, and spices and served with rice flour sauce and often wrapped in lettuce leaves).  Also, rice or noodles with spicy chopped or curried fish, chicken, pork, eggs, soup and/or vegetables flavored with lemon grass and served with laap .

Laap (sometimes spelt laab or larp) is a dish that is particular to Laos and is often served on special occasions such as weddings, Baci ceremonies or other celebrations as in Lao language laap means luck or good fortune. However you will find it served in every good Lao restaurant around the country. 

LAAP - Laap is made from chopped or thinly sliced meat or fish that is mixed with lime juice, fish sauce, mint, coriander, spring onion, chili and uncooked rice grains that have been dry fried and crushed. It is usually accompanied by vegetables including eggplant, fresh chilies, mustard leaves and lettuce. It can be eaten with ordinary rice or sticky rice and is usually eaten with fish/meat soup depending on the main ingredient being used. If you are a visitor it is useful to ask that your laap is cooked, as in some parts of the country locals like to eat it raw, particularly fish laap.

Breakfast is generally eaten between 6:30am and 7:30am and often consists of French bread served plain, or with eggs or with pater and vegetables or of foe (Vietnamese noodle soup), poached eggs and tea or coffee. Lunch is generally eaten between 12:00noon and 1:00pm. Many people eat out, grabbing a quick meal or snack such as a bowl of noodles, sandwiches, or laap. 

Dinner is generally eaten between 6:00pm and 7:00pm. It is the main meal of the day. It generally an informal meal with meat or fish, rice and is similar to lunch except often more dishes are served. Main dishes made at home, include a variety of stir fried dishes and soups.

 In the past, a Lao family would eat home cooked meal together sitting on the floor around a Lao-style table called a pa kao or ka toke. Though this tradition is still common in the country side, it is not widely seen in urban areas nowadays.

http://factsanddetails.com/southeast-asia/Laos/sub5_3b/entry-2957.html

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