For this second round of Project Food Blog 2010 (thanks, by the way for voting me through!), the challenge is to tackle a classic dish from another culture that is outside our comfort zone or that we are less familiar with.
I’ve chosen to introduce you all to a classic from Lao cuisine that I discovered on our trip there last summer. Landlocked Laos is often overlooked on the South East Asian backpackers’ trail due to its lack of beaches, so whilst tourists flock to neighboring Vietnam, Cambodia or Thailand, Laos remains delightfully tourist-free (for now).
Can I let you in on a secret? Laos is a foodie paradise. We were not expecting much from the food so it was a nice surprise to be wowed at pretty much every meal (you can read my article about the food discoveries to be had in the former royal city of Luang Prabang here). It’s definitely not haute cuisine and the Lao way of eating is fairly laid-back. Food tends to come all at once and is laid out on the table for everyone to help themselves. There’s rarely much cutlery on the table as meat and/or fish are generally scooped up with a ball of the ubiquitous sticky rice which also mops up the sauces and juices, or wrapped in edible leaves. One type of cutlery we happened upon a few times was these spoons (for noodle soup!):
After visiting the Plain of Jars, we headed out of the tourist zone to a small village where our local guide wanted to show us what the Lao people have done with all the scrap metal left from the bombs dropped on Laos during the Secret War of the late 1960s and early 70s. It’s certainly inspiring how people who still live amongst an insane amount of unexploded ordnances can turn the situation around and show such resilience. Here, a lady melts down scrap metal to make the spoons.
I *was* going to share a noodle soup (which you could find everywhere across Asia), for this challenge but decided on a newfound favourite dish from that trip – laap (also spelled larp and larb) – a minced meat salad that is a Lao classic that I was not familiar with until that trip. This is also known as the “good fortune” salad so I am hoping it brings me luck in this challenge!
I believe I ate it most days for either lunch or dinner (or – ahem – sometimes both!) and it became the dish that we simply had to order when it was on the menu – much like crème brûlée (when we travel in France, Neil and I always order this when we see it. We’re on a mission. To find the best). The thing is, there was not one “best” version of laap. Regional variations meant that every time we ordered it, it was just ever so slightly different, but always delicious and addictive. My photos do *not* do its deliciousness justice…
(yes, yes, flash photography. Pre-DSLR. As I said in my first Project Food Blog post, I am not afraid to post imperfection, if nothing else, it shows how far my photography has come in the past 15 months..). In any case, we ate a LOT of laap. But I had never made it until now.
I *have* been meaning to make this for months now but had it in my head that it was very complicated. I guess it’s the complexity of flavours but this really tastes like you have spent hours in the kitchen when in fact, it takes only about 40 minutes!! This, in my book, is a winning dish.
Typically made with beef or chicken, laap can also be prepared with other meats or fish; the meat is minced, flavoured with fish sauce and lime juice and mixed with chili and mint. Ground, toasted glutinous rice helps bind the ingredients and the finished dish is served with sticky rice and assorted vegetables in lettuce leaves. (I used tomatoes and cucumber to cut the heat from the chilis)
We served this with sticky rice made in the microwave (find directions here) since we don’t own one of these gigantic bamboo steamers…
It was an absolute revelation, made in the microwave. Perfect texture and it was still good the next day, reheated. I am glad I know a way of making this taste authentic without too much fuss and will be making it again soon. I imagine with a little coconut milk it would taste awesome too!
4 tablespoons raw glutinous rice
1 pound ground chicken
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1/4 cup minced green onions
1/4 cup fresh mint
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
juice and zest of two limes (approx 1/4 cup)
1 tablespoon Asian fish sauce
1 to 2 small (1-inch) fresh Asian chiles, minced
Accompaniments: lettuce leaves (I find romaine works well as it doesn’t fall apart), sticky rice, fresh mint, Thai basil, cilantro, roughly chopped tomato and seedless cucumber, cubed.
Cook the rice in a dry small heavy skillet over medium heat, stirring constantly, until golden brown, 4 to 6 minutes (rice will smoke). Use a spice grinder to grind rice to a coarse powder.
Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over high heat, then stir-fry chicken until cooked through, about 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly to break up the meat. Remove the pan from heat and stir in 2 tablespoons of the rice powder. Add the rest of the ingredients and stir through.
But even more perfect rolled in a lettuce leaf…
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