A Kitchen Inspired by a Laotian Christmas
I take a deep breath and I am awakened by the savory smells of what mom’s been cooking long before sunrise. The air is filled with fragrant herbs and spices. My senses are overwhelmed with joy. As I come down the stairs, I can hear the bubbles dancing in the stockpot. It’s drawing me close, comforting my soul and my belly is crying for breakfast! The kitchen is overflowing with a feast fit for a king! It’s as if my mom had a secret kitchen brigade working hours overnight, but alas it’s just her. There’s bamboo soup, sticky rice, spicy chili dip, laap, whole fish, papaya salad just to name a few. WAIT? Rice and fish for breakfast, you ask? Yes please! Breakfast, lunch and dinner. This is my Christmas. Lao cuisine is my comfort.
Christmas time for my family is all about gathering around the kitchen (or even on bamboo mats on the floor) and sharing all the wonderful foods we grew up eating. My mom is a phenomenal cook who shared her talents with my brothers and me. We learned the importance of layering flavors and textures. Usually when I describe the cuisine to my friends, I say it’s spicy, sour, salty, sweet, bitter and crunchy! When I was a child and would invite my friends over to my house for Christmas it was so exciting to be able to share my Laotian culture. I thought to myself that it was either going to be a disaster and my friends wouldn’t want to eat or it was going to be the best meal ever that would stick with them for a lifetime. I was not disappointed.
Having grown up in the United States, we couldn’t deny having turkey, ham or green bean casserole at the table for Christmas. In fact, it’s a faux pa if we don’t have mashed potatoes, or as my mom lovingly refers to as “smack potato!” But there’s something special about incorporating something different. Rice is a big part of our culture, sticky rice to be more specific. Sticky rice (khao niaow) is glutinous sweet rice that comes from Southeast Asia. You have to wash and soak the rice for several hours before cooking. When you put your hands into the rice and let the grains fall between your fingers you really feel like you’ve traveled to Laos and are standing in the middle of a rice paddy field.
Once soaked, it’s steamed in a specially designed bamboo basket, which sits on top of a metal pot. There’s an art to finishing the rice. It’s carefully flipped inside the basket and then laid out on a special mat. It’s important here to move the rice around and allow some of the steam to escape. The rice is rolled into a ball and put into another bamboo basket for serving. Sticky rice is meant to be eaten by hand as is most of Lao food. Magically, the rice sticks together but not to your hands. It’s versatile and can be used to dip, stuff, put in soup, or be eaten plain. The rice becomes a utensil for us. Most commonly, the rice is accompanied by a spicy chili dip called jeow mak phet. This is the perfect combination of garlic, spicy chilies, fish sauce and lemon juice. I use this dip on everything!
In addition to rice, our meals usually include a meat dish, greens and a soup or stew. Our most popular meat dish is called “laap.” Laap typically consists of minced meat, toasted rice, spices, and herbs. Sticky rice is the perfect vessel to dig into this tasty dish. The meat is hearty, the herbs delicate and the toasted rice takes it to another level adding a hint of nuttiness. We add a touch of lime and serve fresh cucumbers on the side. The cucumbers go perfect with the heat of the chili and add the signature crunch for texture.
For additional crunch, papaya salad is another comforting classic. Here we use green papaya, cherry tomatoes, garlic, fish sauce, a touch of sugar and lots of fresh chilies. All these ingredients are pounded in a special Lao mortar and pestle called a “kohk.” I’ve had mine for many years and it’s much like a cast iron skillet that becomes well-seasoned over the years. Serve this alongside a whole roasted fish, stuffed with onions and chilies and you’ve got yourself a feast.
Lao Style Spicy Green Papaya Salad
“Tam Mak Hoong”
1 Small Green Papaya
2 Cloves Garlic
2-3 Thai Chilies (or more depending on how spicy you like it!)
1 tsp Sugar
2 tsp Fish Sauce
1 tsp Fermented Fish Paste (Padaek) or Shrimp Paste
Pinch of Salt (if the fish sauce is not salty enough)
Juice of 1/2 Lemon
6-8 Cherry or Grape Tomatoes, Halved
Peel the green papaya and roughly julienne the flesh. Set aside.
In the special mortar and pestle “khok” add the garlic, sugar and chilies. Pound the garlic, with the sugar and chilies until it forms a paste like consistency. Add the julienne papaya. Pound the papaya while using a spoon to fold the chili mixture into the papaya until incorporated. Add the fish sauce, fermented fish paste, salt and lemon juice. Pound and fold until incorporated. Taste. Adjust salt or spiciness if needed. Add the tomatoes and fold into the papaya salad. Serve with crisp greens or my favorite, pork rinds. Enjoy!
And just when you thought that was it, soups and stews usually make the menu. There’s one soup in particular that doesn’t always get the attention it deserves called “gang naw mai” or bamboo soup. It’s an acquired taste but for me, it’s not only about the great taste but also about the memories of cooking with my mom and trying to get my sister-in-laws to eat this. The soup is rich with pork stock, ribs and a little fermented fish. Bamboo adds unique sourness and another important ingredient are ya nang leaves. These leaves are native to Laos, are dark green in color and add bitterness to the soup that is unforgettable. Of course there’s always heat as well. You can’t forget those little red chilies!
The holidays for me are about family, food and trying new things. Like the holidays, food brings people together. It provides nutrition, education and brings about great conversations. The next time you’re planning your holiday menu try something new. I highly recommend being adventurous and try some Lao cuisine. Who knows…it may become a new holiday tradition for you and your family. Happy Holidays!
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