No chilli phobias al-Lao-ed: Dtom jeaw pla, ping gai and larb het

We’re back! It’s been a few weeks since we cooked anything exotic, our excuse for last week being that we spent four glorious days in France, drinking champagne and eating fantastic food. In fact, this time last week we were basking in the sunshine, eating a freshly-procured picnic of bread, farmhouse pate, goat cheese, heirloom tomato and red wine drunk out of plastic glasses, with a raspberry tart and rhubarb flan waiting for us to be ready for dessert. Today, we’re inside looking out at the grey sky and wet pavements. C’est la vie.

But back to the mission and country at hand: a dish from Laos. We’ve recently had the pleasure of reconnecting with Wendy, a school friend of Miranda’s who has been brave/crazy enough to join the throngs of people battling rush hour on the London Underground for the past two years. Last night, she joined us for a farewell dinner before returning to the Land Down Under, and that meant we could inflict more Lao-style chillies on her than she was probably expecting!

When researching Lao food, we discovered that the national dish is larb, a salad of minced meat (or vegetarian alternative), flavoured with a variety of herbs and spices and, crucially, toasted ground rice. We also learnt that the Lao eat more sticky rice than any other people in the world, and will often refer to themselves as ‘luk khao niaow’ which, roughly translated, means ‘children or descendants of sticky rice’. Larb and sticky rice needed to feature, then, but salad and rice doesn’t exactly scream ‘dinner party menu’. A bit more reading around eventually led us to create the following menu:
– Dtom jeaw pla (fish soup)
– Ping gai (marinated grilled chicken)
– Larb het (spicy mushroom salad)
– Sticky rice
– For dessert, Gordon Ramsay’s pineapple and mango crumble, which isn’t Lao, but seemed to fit

Importantly, an essential element of Lao culture is that when guests are present, a meal is always a feast, with enough food for twice the amount of diners. Not having enough food for guests would be humiliating for a host. No problem there! The beauty of these dishes was that whilst they needed a bit of prep time for chopping everything up, they were very easy to throw together when it was time to eat them, which meant we didn’t have to spend three hours in the kitchen, leaving our guest alone in the dining room, a la My Kitchen Rules. So, a feast was perfectly doable.

Apologies for the somewhat poor quality of photos this week (not that they’re ever masterpieces): it was more fun to chat than analyse every millimetre of the frame…

Dtom Jeaw Pla
Recipe from ThaiFoodMaster – but it is a Lao dish!

Ingredients
400g tilapia fillet, cut into wide strips
2 Thai long eggplants
3-4 garlic cloves
10-12 red bird’s eye chillies (Yes, that does say 10-12. Yes, that will blow your head off.)
3 shallots
1 banana chilli
5 cups of water
2 tsp salt
2 tbsp fish sauce
2 stalks lemongrass
120g oyster mushrooms
1 cup lemon basil (we didn’t know where to find this so just substituted normal basil, which worked fine)
1/4 cup spring onions, finely sliced
1/4 cup coriander, roughly chopped

Method
1. Grill the eggplants, garlic, banana chilli, bird’s eye chillies and shallots on a BBQ or in the oven.
2. Peel the eggplants and save about a cup of their flesh. (We needed three small eggplants for this.)
3. Peel the garlic, shallots and banana chilli and put them, along with the bird’s eye chillies and 1 tsp salt, into a mortar. Pound together to a rough consistency. Add the eggplant flesh and pound all together into a paste.
4. Put water in a pot over a high heat. Bruise the lemongrass stalks and add them to the pot, followed by 1 tsp salt (we scaled this down a bit to avoid it being too salty) and the fish sauce.
5. Bring the water to a strong boil, then add the fish (avoiding stirring) and mushrooms. Let the soup boil until the mushrooms and fish are done, then add the eggplant/chilli paste and stir well.
6. Turn off the heat before adding the spring onions, coriander and lemon basil.
Serves 4

Grilled veg for soup

Eggplant paste

Dtom jeaw pla

We weren’t joking before when we said this one would blow your head off. Bird’s eye chillies aren’t exactly mild and they certainly made their presence known in this soup. Having said that, the flavours were delicious and perfectly balanced, and it did taste authentic! We did have to run for the tissues before thinking about the main course, though… but we would make it again. We might just cut down on chilli quantity. Just a bit.

Ping gai
Oddly enough, the most popular recipe for this online seems to be from a place called the Queen Mother Café in Toronto. This doesn’t automatically scream ‘AUTHENTIC’, but it was raved about on so many different websites, we went for it. Turns out they weren’t wrong. This specific recipe comes from Milk & Honey.

Ingredients
4lb chicken thighs, skin on and deboned

For the marinade:
1 bunch coriander
6 cloves garlic
1 tbsp black peppercorns
3 tbsp oyster sauce
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp vegetable oil

For the dipping sauce:
1 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
3 sprigs coriander (we just used a small handful)
2 cloves garlic
2 tbsp white vinegar
1 tbsp lime juice
1 tbsp chilli sauce (we used sriracha)
1 tbsp fish sauce

Method
1. First, make the marinade. Blitz the coriander, garlic and peppercorns in a food processor until finely chopped. Add the oyster sauce, fish sauce and vegetable oil and process until combined.
2. Cover the chicken all over with the marinade, cover with cling film and refrigerate for as long as possible (at least one hour – we did about seven).
3. For the dipping sauce, combine the water and sugar in a saucepan and bring to the boil over medium heat, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Continue cooking for 10 minutes or so until reduced and syrupy. Cool completely. When cooled, add to food processor with all of the other ingredients and process until smooth(ish).
4. When the chicken is ready, cook on a BBQ or under a grill until cooked through and looking all nice and charred.
Serves 6

Ping gai

Ping gai dipping sauce

These were the original recipe quantities. We approximately halved the amount of meat to serve 3, but then forgot about that when making the marinade and dipping sauce, so we had too much of those, but no one was complaining. For such a simple dish, this was delicious: really flavoursome, and the chicken and dipping sauce were a perfect combination. The blog we got the recipe from said that the temptation to drink the dipping sauce out of the bowl would present itself. There may be some truth in this. Definitely one to make again, especially now BBQ season seems to be nearly upon us.

Mushroom Larb
Although this would more commonly be made with meat, we didn’t really think pork salad really worked as an accompaniment to grilled chicken, so we found this mushroom version. Again, it does come from a Thai website – Marion’s Thailand – but it is widely known that this is the national dish of Laos.

Ingredients
2 tbsp uncooked rice
2 tbsp vegetable oil
100g wood ear mushrooms, cut into chunks (don’t know what these are – we used shiitake)
150g oyster mushrooms, cut into small chunks
100g enoki mushrooms, bottom stems trimmed away
200g swiss brown mushrooms, cut into small chunks (don’t know what these are either – we used chestnut. Basically, we bought every type of mushroom available in Croydon)
1/4 cup sliced spring onions
2 tsp dried chilli powder (or adjust to taste)
2 tbsp sugar
4 tbsp fish sauce
Juice of 3 limes
1/4 cup coriander, roughly chopped
1/4 cup mint leaves, roughly chopped
Cabbage leaves and snake beans to serve (it didn’t say what to do with these – we left the cabbage leaves raw and lightly steamed the beans)

Method
1. Heat the rice in a wok over a high heat, stirring often until dark golden brown. When cool, grind to a powder in a food processor (or mortar and pestle).
2. Heat the oil in a wok over a high heat. Add all the mushrooms and stir fry them for about 2 minutes or until they just start to collapse. Remove from the heat and toss through everything else. Serve with cabbage leaves and snake beans.
Serves 4

Mushrooms for larb

Larb het

Again: delicious! In fact, having bought Croydon out of mushrooms we now have a kitchen full of them, so we’re planning to make it again tonight to eat with pork chops (and the leftover dipping sauce from the ping gai!). The only thing requiring any effort in this recipe was cutting up all the mushrooms. Otherwise, you basically throw everything in a wok and the flavours do the work for you.

Lao dinner

Lao dinner

As mentioned, we served the ping gai and larb with sticky rice and followed it with a South-East Asian-inspired fruit crumble, and we think it made a well-rounded meal and (hopefully) a nice send-off for a good friend. We already knew we liked South-East Asian food so were probably coming into this at an advantage, but we’re really looking forward to what the next few weeks bring us as we work our way through neighbouring countries. It’s also (once again) very well-timed, with summer being upon us (apparently).

So bon voyage, Wendy – safe travels, and we’ll see you on the other side of the world. And as for this blog: see you next time for something Vietnamese!

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4 thoughts on “No chilli phobias al-Lao-ed: Dtom jeaw pla, ping gai and larb het

  1. A wonderful (& memorable) send off! I shall have to make this when I get home too – the flavours were amazing (even the chilli)!! Thank you so much for opening your home and your kitchen on multiple occasions. Looking forward to seeing you both next in Aus!

    • Glad you enjoyed it, and thanks for commenting. I’m glad to have found your blog: your food philosophy seems very similar to mine so I will look forward to reading your thoughts! 🙂

  2. Pingback: First BBQ of the summer: Tajikstani qurutob | Good Food on Bad Plates

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