Ok, Lao food is officially blowing my mind. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve been in flavor heaven all 4 weeks of my trip so far, but Laos is something different.
Since arriving in Luang Prabang for the second time this month, and this time around spending more time doing much less, I have had the opportunity to delve deeper into the food traditions here. And there is a lot to discover. Initially I thought it odd that westerners have no familiarity of Lao food – we know Thai and Vietnamese and I’ve even seen Burmese restaurants in the states, but Lao food is seemingly just not on the map.
But in reality, although Lao cuisine is thought of as distinct from other southeast Asian cultures, the food habits of the Lao people have strongly influenced northern Thai food (or Isaan food) which is very popular in the states. Dishes like larb (actually pronounced ‘laab’ cause the English written version was done for the British accents!), papaya salad, steamed fish dishes, the usage of lemongrass and kaffir lime, and the presence of sticky rice are all influences from Lao cuisine. Oh, and barbecue. The Lao love grilled meat as much as the next carnivorous foodie culture, much to my delight.
The thing that is the most enjoyable to me has been the amount of fresh vegetables and herbs that are used here. With almost everything you order there is a plate of raw green vegetables on the side. This might include green beans, watercress, a few different types of cilantro and basil, various lettuces, fresh dill and limes. As far as I can tell the plate of greens mostly comes with noodle soups, but it’s almost impossible to find a Lao dish that doesn’t use copious amounts of fresh vegetables, many of which I have never even seen before. Obviously the climate is a huge plus when incorporating fresh ingredients considering that almost anything can grow any time of year, but a lot of what they do here we can do in the states.
Using more fresh herbs is a great example – thinking of cilantro, basil, mint and dill not so much as mere elements of flavor, but as delicate green vegetables to use in abundance and in combination with each other. The use of dry spices is rarely seen here – almost only in the form of dried chilies as far as I can tell – and instead fresh garlic, ginger, galangal and herbaceous greens are used. This means WAY more flavor in my opinion, and flavors that meld together seamlessly despite each ingredient being powerful individually.
The use of fresh dill is unique to Lao cuisine, and I have totally changed my expectation and view of that plant! Last night I had fresh spring rolls with dill in them (unknown until I bit into the first one), and it was so fresh and unique to taste dill mixed with Asian flavors…I’m determined to grow it when I get home and incorporate it into more dishes.
This leads me into to my new baby project! I’m starting the ‘What The F Is That?’ Project on my blog. There are so many different and bizarre ingredients and dishes here that I’ve never seen before, and that I’m assuming many people haven’t seen, and I’ve been nerding out and doing research on some of these things to figure out what they are, how they are grown, how the locals cook with them, and how they might be used in western cuisine. So I’m going to start putting that info on the blog, featuring a new ingredient or dish every week (or every few days maybe, because I’ve been doing this a lot!) to share with others.
This week it’s sticky rice! White (hulled), purple, black…there are a few different kinds used in Laos for various dishes, but having a meal here without sticky rice almost unseen. At first when I arrived I was avoiding it for the sake of eating Paleo, but it’s such an important component of the traditional diet that I can’t stay away! Plus it doesn’t upset my gut like gluten and it might be one of my favorite things, so why the hell would I avoid it? On top of that, not eating sticky rice in Laos is like not eating steak in Argentina, not eating tortillas de mano in Mexico, not eating sushi in Japan, not drinking whiskey in Ireland. It’s sacrilege, shameful, blasphemous. I simply won’t do it! So Paleo be damned, I’m on the sticky rice boat, and enjoying every bite.
Sticky rice (also called glutinous rice even though it contains no gluten) differs than other rice in that it gets really, uh, sticky when cooked due to the different starch contents. Sticky rice has a high content of amylopectin which is what creates the stickiness, and according to the ever-trusty Wikipedia, this difference can be traced to a single genetic mutation that farmers in this area starting selecting for over a thousand years ago. At this point an estimated 85% of all the rice cultivation in Laos is sticky rice.
In Laos and Thailand sticky rice is typically soaked overnight, rinsed and then steamed covered in a funnel-shaped bamboo basket over boiling water until cooked. It never touches the water while cooking, which is obviously a difference from normal ‘rice cooker’ rice. When cooked, it is turned out onto a flat surface and beaten with a wooden spoon or mallet, eliminating lumps and ensuring that the rice will stick to itself but not to fingers. Lao and Thai people use the sticky rice to eat other dishes, so it’s best if it only sticks to itself in a ball and not to your hands. The rice is then put into a woven basket and served with other dishes family style.
In addition to eating it with meals, the Lao people also wrap sticky rice around other ingredients (meat, bean paste, lentils, vegetables or sweet things) and steam it in a banana leaf (like a tamale, but dare I say…better), combine purple sticky rice with coconut milk, fresh coconut meat, sugar, sesame seeds and fruit for an incredible dessert, toast it and grind it to add a nutty flavor to dishes (this is amazing and something I HAVE to try at home!), and also make jellies and puddings out of it, most often with coconut and sugar which makes my idea of having ‘self control’ completely useless. I will always be a slave to sweet, sticky, coconut things. Fate accepted.
To me, sticky rice is much more complex and flavorful than ‘normal’ rice (especially the purple and black unhulled varieties), and I enjoy the texture much more as well. Also considering how versatile it is, I’m really looking forward to experimenting with it when I get home. In U.S. stores I think ‘glutinous rice’ is more often seen available, but it’s the same thing and free of gluten!
Hope that wasn’t too much nerdery, but I’m telling you – this sticky rice stuff is amazing! I can’t wait to investigate more unique ingredients – I’m hoping to feature galangal (an alien ginger-ish root thing that reminds me of those screamy baby plants in Harry Potter) before I leave Laos…because at this point I still don’t know what the F it is!