Help with Lao Cuisine
I have done it! I have befriended a family of restaurant owners who are operating a Thai restaurant in Cincinnati. In asking about the family, I learned that they are Lao and that they would like nothing more than to make me traditional meals as long as I remember to call ahead. The first visit I settled for Larb Gai, CHOKED with bird's eye chilies since that was all they had on hand. Today, the family saved me a portion of their lunch of ock gai (?), a stew of pork ribs, banana blossom, thai eggplant and astringent herbs. I am delighted!
A little help if you please; can you offer suggestions of other foods that I should ask after? The plan at the moment is to just defer to the cook but I would like to do one better. Anyone have ideas? Anything goes.
While I am at it, is there a Lao equivalent to Cambodian Prahok ktis? It's a curry of ground pork and lots of fish sauce. I would love to ask them about it but I had trouble today explaining myself.
Melanie Wong referred me to your post.
So I googled Prahok ktis to see what it looks like. I don't know what that Cambodian dish tastes like, but Lao cuisine is definitely not a stranger to padaek (Lao fermented fish sauce).
You might want to ask them to make you something like Pork "Khao Poon" (a Lao curry noodle dish), but ask them to leave out the noodles and have them serve the curry sauce in a tiny bowl. Tell them you want the sauce to be chunky with lots of minced pork to make it more like a meat-heavy dipping sauce. You should also tell them what kind of vegetables you prefer and whether you want them served raw or steamed/boiled.
If that doesn't taste like what you have in mind, then try asking for a tiny bowl of the meat sauce used to make "Khao Soi" (a northern Lao minced pork noodle soup).
There's other dishes made from minced pork and fish sauce, but I can't think of their names right now.
Thanks! I have been reading your posts and was hoping to hear from you.
Last time I was in, the family saved me some of their lunch, a pork dish called Ock Gai(?). It was rib pieces cooked with thai eggplant, cilantro, mint, some astringent herbs and banana blossom. Do I have the name right? Any idea what it was I had?
Thank you for your insight on prahok. I am eager to really get into this. What else would you recommend? The family keeps asking me what I want and I am telling them that I am open to all comers.
Also, what kind of connection is there between Lao cuisine and that of Vietnam, specifically banh mi? I have found reference to a sandwich some have had in Laos called Lao Pate or Khao Jee Pate. Any insight? I would love to find a good spot for banh mi here but don't want to ask them about something that they aren't familiar with.
The family is very friendly, great cooks and very excited to make traditional meals for me. I feel lucky to have found them.
re: Ernie Diamond
So you want to know the connection between Laos and Vietnam? Well according to what I've read and seen, there's some minor Lao influences in Vietnamese cuisine and there's also some minor Vietnamese influences in Lao cuisine. Some Vietnamese people had migrated to Laos from Vietnam and some Lao people had migrated to Vietnam from Laos. But either influences aren't that major. Vietnamese cuisine overall is still very different from Lao cuisine minus a few similar dishes. IMO Vietnamese cuisine tends to be sweeter kind of like Thai, whereas Lao cuisine favors saltiness over sweetness. It's funny to me how one can easily tell if a dish is Lao or Vietnamese/Thai just by the sweetness level of the dish. Also, overall I'd say Lao cuisine is spicier than Vietnamese, though I realize that Vietnamese cuisine varies in different regions. Both Lao and Thai are spicy, but in different ways. Lao cuisine prefers spiciness in our many dipping sauces for Lao sticky rice. There are some spicy Lao soups and extremely spicy salads like our papaya salad, but our stir fried dishes are typically mild. In contrast, Thai cuisine tends to have more spicy stir fried dishes, but the salads aren't typically spicy (if excluding salads of Lao origins). The curries in both Lao and Thai can be made mild to extremely spicy.
Now back to Lao and Vietnamese cuisines, there are some shared elements that came about separately and were due to the plentiful fresh herbs and greens that exist in both Laos and Vietnam. Both cuisines favor lots of fresh herbs and greens, which is something that Thai cuisine isn't heavy on. Both Lao and Vietnamese cuisines have that freshness to them, but Vietnamese dishes overall tend to be lighter and Lao dishes tend to be more herby.
The sandwiches in both Laos and Vietnam are due to both once being colonies of France. They are the remnants of French colonialism. In Laos, the sandwiches are known as Lao "Pate" / Khao Jee "Pate" (if there is pate in the sandwiches) and in Vietnam, they are known as Banh Mi. Bread by itself is known as Khao Jee in the Lao language. There's also other baked goods and sweets incorporated from French cuisine in both Lao and Vietnamese cuisines. Thai cuisine lacks the French influences found in Lao and Vietnamese, but Thai cuisine has more Malaysian influences that aren't as prominent in Lao and Vietnamese.
Anyway, those sandwiches are stuffed with various things so Lao sandwiches and Vietnamese sandwiches aren't identical, but similar in that fresh herbs are used. I'd say that Vietnamese sandwiches tend to be sweeter than Lao sandwiches due to the differences in the marinades or seasonings used to flavor the meats.
Lao sandwiches have developed over the years due to tourism in Laos. There's now more varieties than before. So Lao people who had left Laos to come live in the U.S. in the early 80's may not be familiar with or know how to make Lao sandwiches like the ones commonly found in Laos today. If you're in Laos then definitely order yourself some tasty khao jee pate, but since you're in the U.S. it's easier finding banh mi over here.
I'm not sure what the word "Ock" means in "Ock Gai" because English spellings of Lao names can be quite tricky, but I think you're referring to a traditional dish in Laos called "Aw Gai" or "Or Gai" that is a very herby and thick stew-like dish and uses local varieties of Lao eggplants grown in Laos. But in the U.S. you can use Thai eggplants instead, if Lao eggplants aren't available. Anyway, "Gai" means chicken in the Lao language so I'm not sure if "Ock Gai" is the correct name for a pork dish. =)
To fully experience a traditional Lao meal, there should always be some: 1) sticky rice, 2) soup, 3) grilled meat dish or minced meat dish, 4) dipping sauces, and 5) salads, raw vegetables, or stir fried veggies. But if you're having a traditional Lao curry-based meal, then those curry dishes are pretty much standalone dishes because they are already too rich and savory. So a Lao curry noodle soup would be eaten by itself and a Lao curry stew would just be eaten with Lao sticky rice. There's no need to incorporate all 5 elements if you're having a curry-based meal.
Remember to mix and match properly. If your main dish is spicy, then order a mild soup. If your main dish is mild, then order a spicy soup or spicy salad to go with it. Lao cuisine is all about contrasting from one extreme to the next within the same meal to keep your tongue always cleansed and refreshed.
Here are my recommendations as far as Lao cuisine is concerned:
-Naem Khao (Lao crispy rice ball salad/lettuce wraps with bits of fermented pork)
-Pun (Lao style lettuce wraps with meats/fish or egg rolls)
-Pad Lao noodles (saucy) or Khua Mee noodles (dry)
-Khao Poon (Lao curry noodle soup with or without coconut milk)
-Khao Soi (two types of a northern Lao pork noodle soup with or without coconut milk)
-Khao Piak Khao (Lao soupy rice porridge topped with fried garlic, green onion, cilantro, and optional hot chili sauce)
-Khao Piak Sen (thick and brothy Lao chicken noodle soup with the above toppings)
-Kaipen (Lao riverweed snack) with Jeo Bong (Lao chili paste)
-Luang Prabang watercress salad / Lao salad with tangy egg dressing
The following dishes should be eaten with Lao sticky rice:
-Beef/Chicken/Pork "Larb" (Lao minced meat salad...the national dish of Laos)
-Goi Pa / Goi Goong (Lao fish or shrimp dish that is minced or pureed)
-Sai Oua (spicy Lao sausages with crushed lemongrass, kafir leaves, and cilantro)
-Siin Savanh (Lao flash-fried beef "jerky")
-Jeun Pa (Lao crispy fried fish)
-Pon Pa (spicy Lao pounded fish mixture)
-Mok Pa (Lao steamed fish)
-Mok Nor Mai (Lao steamed sliced bamboo shoots)
-Soop Nor Mai (Lao sliced bamboo shoot salad)
-Ua Si Khai (Lao grilled stuffed lemongrass bulbs with minced pork or chicken)
-Tom Kheung Nai (Lao beef organ soup)
-Tom Yum Pa/Goong (Lao hot and sour fish/prawn soup)
-Tom Sua Gai (Lao hot and sour shredded chicken soup topped with toasted rice)
-Gaeng Jeud (Lao lightly-seasoned pork and tofu soup)
-Gaeng Nor Mai (Lao bamboo soup in feremented
-Gaeng Phet Ped (Lao duck curry)
-Som Phak (Lao pickled vegetables)
-Som Moo (Lao fermented pork sausage)
-Yum Gai Tom (tangy Lao boiled chicken salad)
-Yum Sen Lon (tangy Lao salad with glass noodles)
-Yum Goong (tangy Lao prawn salad)
-Ping Goong (Lao freshwater prawns grilled whole)
-Ping Pa (Lao grilled fish) stuffed with whole lemongrass stalks ("si khai")
-Ping Siin / Ping Lin (Lao grilled beef or beef tongue) with spicy or bitter dipping sauce
-Ping Siin "Nam Tok" (spicy Lao waterfall sliced beef salad)
-Ping Gai (Lao grilled chicken) served with:
*Tam Mak Hoong (spicy Lao shredded papaya salad)
*Tam Mak Thua (spicy Lao long green bean salad)
*Tam Mak Teng (spicy Lao shredded cucumber salad)
*Tam Mak "Carrot" (spicy Lao shredded carrot salad)
Lastly, try all of the various Lao dipping sauces called "Jeo" from dry to saucey. There's so many different types that it's hard to keep count. They are usually very spicy. Most are non-meat based, but some are. Some also have crushed pork rinds as an ingredient...this kind is one of my favorites! There's also one called "Jeo Mak Gok" that uses Lao hog plums...very delicious. Again, 99% of these sauces should be eaten with Lao sticky rice using your hand. =)
You know how Korean cuisine tends to have a lot of mini side dishes especially when eating Korean BBQ? That's how Lao cuisine is such that our meals tend to always include several tiny bowls of various dipping sauces/tiny side dishes to eat with the ubiquitous sticky rice that's a standard in Lao cuisine.
Quite the list!
In the DC area, there was a place called Canton Gourmet Express run by a Lao woman. It is no more. She offered a few Lao dishes on her menu. We convinced her to prepare a multi-course Lao meal for us. I distinctly remember a dish called 'gui ba fish' which was served as a salad with a lot of intricately chopped vegetables. The fish was shredded in little bits and maybe it waspreserved. It was blazing hot. Nam Dok (beef salad with lots of ginger. very hot) Also a salad with 'banana flowers.' Several kinds of bbq'd meats, a fish paste dish called Larb Pla. Soup dau mai (not a soup) made with bits of chicken tendon.
Have you heard of any of this. The meal was spectacular with lots of intricatlely cut raw vegetables throughout.
Yes, I believe most of those are in my list. =)
Your "Nam Dok" is most likely a different spelling of my Ping Siin "Nam Tok".
Your "Gui Ba" is most likely my "Goi Pa".
Your "Larb Pla" is the same as my "Larb" Pa.
Your "Soup Dau Mai" is the same as my "Soop Nor Mai".
And yes, Lao people love eating raw, unseasoned vegetables. We also eat banana flowers used as a topping or made into a salad.
Holy cats...you are outstanding.
Forgive me for making all these comparisons with the cuisine of Vietnam but that's where I have a little experience. There is real enthusiasm for soda-based drinks in Vietnam (is that a stretch?). Is there any equivalent in Lao cuisine? What would one drink with a Lao meal?
Wow yummyrice, Nice explanation on the similarities/differences between the Southeast Asian dishes.
The list of Lao food you have up there makes me very hungry. I need to go and visit my mom tomorrow :) You are missing a few that I enjoy very much (in no particular order):
Khang naw mai - Thick bamboo shoot soup (uses padaek)
Khang het - same as above but with mushrooms
Jaew naw mai som - I don't really see this as a jaew, but I do like to complement it with siin lot and sticky rice.
Soop gai - Spicy/sour chicken soup
Sai oua - Lao sausage
Oua doc kaa - Sausage type dish that uses an orange flower as its casing
Thom Kem - Salty dish with Eggs and Pork eaten with jasmine rice
There are a bunch more, but it's getting late and I can't think of them right now. You really did capture the essence of a truly Lao meal though. Brings back memories of when i used to live at my parent's house. I miss the food so much. Although I did recently started to learn how to cook from my mom. But of course, I am nearly not as good as my mom.
One thing that's missing: I like Lao style hotpot too. Sukiyaki Lao. (This Sukiyaki has no resemblance to the Japanese one and is served with a peanutty sauce). This is great in the winter time.
In the summer, if you can, get yourself invited to a bbq and get (bbq cow tongue).
Love the sausage, would go for Goi Goong over Goi Pa but that's a personal preference, whatever's fresher, the sweetness of it will come through.
I also like snacking on unripe mango or sliced crab apples dipped in sauce is good. Mine had sugar, toasted rice powder, sliced chilis, kepi or pa daek, nam pa and I think that's it...haven't made it for awhile...it's the tart stuff dip and hits the sweet, salty, bitter, spicy to balance the sour of the fruit.
Thom Kem...is awesome with (well cleaned) intestines and eggs. My mom makes hers sweet and salty. It's caramelized meat and turns the soup a deep brown. You add the eggs later. One of my favourites, a wintery type of dish and fatty so you eat it once a long time, but so good.