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Southeast Asian Cuisine: Laos

In the final part of our series, Penelope Walsh learns to cook Laos’ national dish, laap

Written by . Published on August 19th 2011.


Southeast Asian Cuisine: Laos

EVEN amongst committed foodies, I would wager, most Londoners’ knowledge of Lao cuisine is limited. Damong Garbutt goes further, saying some have never heard of the country. Lao cuisine, she says, is very ‘specialised.’ “There’s little promotion of the cuisine in Europe by Lao embassies and little foreign travel so it will remain very specialised for the next decade or so,” she argues. There is, in fact, not even a Lao embassy in the UK, the nearest is in Paris. Despite this, she has noticed in her restaurant that customers are open and eager to learn about Lao food. In turn, Damrong is eager to preserve some of the authentic Lao dishes and give people a better understanding.

Based in Ramsgate, in an ideal location for an easy day out from London, Damrong’s restaurant, Surin, specialises in authentic Lao, Thai and Cambodian food. Shortlisted for a Michelin star (“fingers crossed” Damrong says), it has received much critical acclaim, and been praised for developing Lao and Cambodian food in the UK.

Asia Photos Film2 002 Surin restaurant takes its name from Damrong’s hometown in Isaan, the northeastern province of Thailand, which borders on Laos and Cambodia. Life in Isaan, Damrong tells me, is heavily influenced by its Lao and Cambodian neighbours. Damrong herself speaks fluent Lao and Khmer and Isaan’s cuisine shares influences with both countries. There are such large numbers of ethnically Lao people in Isaan, that Damrong comments, “It’s said there are more Lao people in Isaan than in Lao itself so we eat many Lao dishes.” As such, she explains, the cuisine of Northeast Thailand is regarded as spicier, saltier, and with a particular emphasis on hot-sour combinations, due to the Lao influence.

Laos is a very rural society. This is evident in its cuisine, where the simplicity of many dishes reflects their peasant origins. Ingredients, Damrong explains, tend to be fresh and natural and cooking times tend to short. Preparations such as pounding rice or cutting strips of bamboo for soups and salads, can, however, be more time consuming. She adds that Lao cooking techniques do not differ significantly from other South East Asian countries, although there is a greater emphasis on soups and steamed fish. 

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Laos is also renowned for its varieties of rice. Damrong has several of these speciality rices imported for use in her restaurant, including black and red rice. She also imports authentic Lao sticky rice, which is eaten regularly, as the key components of most Lao meals. It is usually brought to the table in small bamboo baskets in order to keep it warm, and diners roll small amounts into balls to dip into sauce. A word of warning, if there is a portion laid out for everyone at the table, it is polite to take pieces from the very edges. I was told, that if a guest takes a piece from the top of the portion (as, embarrassingly, I did), it is said, they are so ravenously hungry, next up, they will want to eat the host’s entrails. It is also polite to leave a little on your plate to signify that you are full and satisfied; and perhaps, that you are not hungrily eyeing up the host’s other body parts.

Alongside sticky rice, “Laap,” Damrong says, is “the typical Lao dish.” A spicy salad made with minced meat, chicken or fish, it is traditionally eaten raw, although nowadays, it is generally cooked. The proliferation of raw foods in Lao cuisine not only distinguishes it from neighbouring cuisines, but also illustrates the influence of rural culture on Lao food. Due to lack of refrigeration and preservation methods, animals hunted in the mountains, were traditionally butchered, prepared into laap and eaten straightaway, feeding several families in the community. Damrong’s recipe for this traditional Lao dish uses minced chicken, and it is cooked.

 

 

Chicken LaapChicken laap

CHICKEN LAAP

 

Serves: 4          
Preparation time: 25 minutes
Cooking time: 20 minutes

 

Ingredients
2 tablespoons long-grain white rice
1 tablespoon peanut oil
1 tablespoon fresh lemon grass, finely chopped
2 small fresh red Thai chillies, seeded, and finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon fresh galangal, finely chopped
750 g chicken mince
1 Lebanese cucumber (130g), seeded, thinly sliced (Lebanese cucumbers can be found in Asian supermarkets, or simply replace with European cucumber)
1 small red onion (100g) thinly sliced
100g bean sprouts
1/2 cup loosely packed fresh Thai basil leaves
1 cup loosely packed fresh coriander leaves
4 large iceberg lettuce leaves

For the dressing:
100ml soy sauce
1 teaspoon chilli paste

 

Method
Heat a dry wok to a high temperature. Add the rice and stir-fry until lightly browned. Remove the rice from the wok. Blend, process, (or using a pestle and mortar, crush) the rice until it resembles breadcrumbs and set aside.

Heat the peanut oil in the wok. Add the lemongrass, chilli, garlic and galangal, and stir-fry until they become fragrant. Remove from the wok and set aside.

In batches, add the minced chicken to the wok. Stir-fry until the chicken has changed in colour and is cooked through.

Place the soy sauce and chilli paste for the dressing in a screw top jar and shake well to combine.

Return the chicken along with the mixture of lemongrass, chilli, garlic and galangal to the wok. Add one third of the dressing and stir-fry for five minutes, or until the mixture thickens slightly.

Place the remaining dressing in a large bowl and add the chicken mixture, cucumber, onion, bean sprouts, coriander and basil. Toss the ingredients gently to combine.

Divide the lettuce leaves between four plates and place the laap mixture on top. Sprinkle with the ground rice and serve.

 

 

EAT MORE
Surin

Recommended in The Good Food Guide and Hardens, and well worth a day trip from London, Damrong’s family run restaurant in Ramsgate offers Lao (and Cambodian) dishes alongside those from the neighbouring Thai province of Isaan.

www.surinrestaurant.co.uk

 

LEARN MORE

Traditional Recipes of Laos by Phia Sing
Phia Sing was Royal Chef at the palace in Laos’ capital, Luang Prabang This collection of over 100 of his recipes (recorded before he died in 1967), also includes information on Lao cooking techniques and food culture.

 

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AnonymousAugust 21st 2011.

Loved your entire series on Southeast Asian food! It is my favourite cuisine and your articles were very informative. Even I have learned something.

Jo GrantAugust 22nd 2011.

I loved this article. Who knew that there were so many different customs during the meal? Really interesting – please keep these coming!

AnonymousSeptember 6th 2011.

What an interesting article! And thanks for the recipe.I think I'll give it a go.

AnonymousSeptember 7th 2011.

Thanks for the intro on Lao food! Very interesting read, also liked the recipe!

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