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Laos Food: Searching for a Lost Cuisine

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Laos Food: Searching for a Lost Cuisine
http://www.foodandwine.com/articles/l...

As far as the article above is concerned, Emily has done a wonderful job at capturing the essence of Laos, its people and Laotian cuisine especially when she mentioned that Jaew (dipping sauce) to the Lao is like butter to the French. The article is wonderful, however, there are some things touched upon in the article that I would like to elaborate on as well as some quirks in the article that I would like to point out:

1) I noticed that Emily decided to pluralize Jaew as "Jaews". In our language, we would never add an S sound to the end of words, whether singular or plural, so seeing Emily spell it as "Jaews" to pluralize it in the English language still looks very peculiar to a Lao like me...hehe.

Also, Jaew is definitely pronounced "Jaew", not "Jaw", which is why we don't romanize it as "Jaw" in English. I've no clue why Emily said Jaew is pronounced as Jaw. Anyway, Jaew is usually one of the spicy components in a traditional Lao meal. However spicy the Jaew is determines how little we would spice the meat dish because we never want the meat dish to compete with the Jaew. That is why our Ping (grilled) dishes tend to be non-spicy because they're meant to be eaten with spicy Jaew.

2) In the article, Emily mentioned that the French chef in Laos named Rubis decided to present the Lao dishes in courses as opposed to all at once. To me, serving them in courses is a shame in this case because to experience a true Lao meal, everything except snacks and desserts should be presented all at once. I had previously mentioned that eating the Lao way is all about balancing the dishes with one another in a communal setting.

i.e.
- spicy soup like Tom Sua Gai can be paired with a non-spicy dish like a Ping (grilled) item.
- spicy meat dish like Laap/Larb can be paired with a non-spicy and gentle soup like Gaeng Jeud. You can also pair Laap with a nice assortment of refreshing raw veggies as the cooling element.
- spicy Lao papaya salad (Tum Maak Hoong) can be complemented with a non-spicy component (i.e. a grilled meat dish, cabbage, other raw veggies, sticky rice or rice vermicelli noodles, etc).
- non-spicy Lao riverweed snack called Kaipen goes great with spicy Jaew Bong.

In short, just remember to balance a hot and spicy component with a cool and refereshing component in the meal. Also, a tangy component (i.e. sour soup) should be paired with a non-tangy component (i.e. Ping item).

I think you get the idea, which is why I would never serve the dishes as separate courses because they're meant to be eaten all at the same time to allow the palate to be excited by the "tangy or spicy" items and then cleansed and refreshed by the "mild" items including raw vegetables...with this pattern cycling back and forth throughout the entire meal, which keeps the meal exciting.

3) I also noticed a quirky recipe name in the article. Emily's decision to name one of the recipes as "Lao Omelet with Dill, Scallion and Thai Chile" looks quite strange to me because Laos has its own Lao chiles locally grown in Laos. We don't use Thai chiles. To make the recipe sound authentic, Emily should've used the name "Lao Chile" for her Lao recipes, since her article is about the cuisine of Laos. The name "Thai Chile" should be reserved for Thai recipes, not Lao recipes if authenticity is important. But of course, the readers may substitute Thai chile for Lao chile depending on whatever they have available to them.

4) According to the article, Chef Rubis said that Lao people eat with their fingers and don't use chopsticks, so please let me clarify his statement for you.

Emily and Rubis were eating at a Ping (Lao barbecue) spot, so Rubis should've been more specific by saying that Laotians don't use chopsticks when eating large, Ping (grilled) items, since we definitely use chopsticks when eating our Lao noodle dishes like Khao Poon, Khao Piak Sen, Khao Soi, etc. Laotians would never use our bare fingers to eat our curry noodle soup like Khao Poon because that would be very messy! Laos is in Asia and like many Asian countries, we definitely use chopsticks for our noodles. For small, grilled items that are cooked by the customer himself, then chopsticks are also used.

We also use forks and spoons for our stir-fried dishes and when we eat steamed rice as opposed to sticky rice. To explain this in another way, French people eat sliced bread with their fingers, but this doesn't mean that they don't use forks or spoons for other dishes. The same thing applies to the Lao. We love using our fingers, but only for snacks or things eaten with Lao sticky rice since it's dry and clumpy. We definitely use utensils for noodles, soups, and other dishes requiring utensils.

Here are some simple rules to remember:
- sticky rice / Jaew / Kaipen / ping items / Laap / raw veggies / breads = finger foods
- regular steamed rice / saucy stir-fried dishes = fork and spoon
- soups = spoon
- noodles = chopsticks

5) Lastly, Luang Prabang does not represent the entire cuisine of Laos. Luang Prabang is just one region in Laos. The regional cuisine of Luang Prabang tends to be more mild and wonderfully veggie-rich due to Luang Prabang's close proximity to the forest. The other regional food hot spots are Vientiane and Savannakhet, which are far spicier than Luang Prabang regional cuisine. Lao fish sauce (paadaek) is also more prevalent in Vientiane regional cuisine and especially in Savannakhet regional cuisine.

I know I've written a lot. =) Despite my comments above, Emily's article is wonderful nonetheless.

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  1. Thanks for the actual link. I was too lazy to look it up. It makes me want to visit that country.

    I don't know what is more wonderful, the article or your additional comments

    1 Reply
    1. re: rworange

      Actually, Melanie was the one who provided that F&W link. I just merely re-pasted it and provided my comments. =)

      Luang Prabang cuisine definitely deserved its own attention, but there's more to Laos than just Luang Prabang. I would like Emily to explore Vientiane and Savannakhet as well to share more Lao regional dishes with her readers.

    2. *CORRECTION*: I didn't mean to type "Khao Piak Sen" in my initial comment because the noodles in Khao Piak Sen are typically short, thick, and chewy, so only a spoon is needed to eat this noodle soup and, therefore, chopsticks are optional. For Khao Poon, however, chopsticks are necessary.