Jul 29, 2007

Jeao Mac Len

It seems like the koke and the saat, (in English mortar and pestle), are in use preparing every meal. If nothing else, they are used to crush and pulverize the spices that go in every food. The order in which ingredients are added to the koke is determined by what the ingredient is being used for. Hot peppers and dried spices that need to be crushed into tiny pieces often go in first, liquids like fish sauce are often added last to clean the other things off the side of the koke. Sometimes like in making Tom Mac Kune, that salad made with slivers of green papaya, the green papaya is added at the very end and slightly dented. The denting causes the juices to be soaked up by the papaya more than just mixing. Salt and Bang Nua added early and used to help puree the hot peppers.

It seems like you never see people dicing or grating.

The hollow thunk, thunk, of the saat hitting the coke is a dinner gong telling me food might just be appearing within the next little while to an hour.

The koke itself is non porous even though made of clay, it doesn’t soak up the juices, the rough textured sides help in grinding up things like fresh toasted peanuts or fibrous ginger or kha that looks like ginger.

The inside slopes steeply to the bottom causing loose things to fall and gather at the bottom. You don’t need to aim too well to hit the food with the saat every time.

It’s said a broken koke brings bad luck to the household. I’ll bet, as in someone has to go buy another one and food isn’t good until then, I’d call that bad luck. Prudence suggests a careful examination of any koke before buying to check for minute cracks. Of course if cracks do develop it never hurts to go buy a new one and retire the old one to be used as a flower pot or something. Never hurts to cover all possibilities.

Above are the ingredients for jeao mac len, and my rice basket. Mine is the one with the athletic tape sewn over the edge. I’ve used the same basket to take my rice to work for about ten years now. It was made by one of my sister in law’s boyfriends.

The rice basket on the right is a gift from a woman who was jailed for selling ya ma. I think she was doing quite a long time, perhaps five or ten years, in any case she is out now within the last couple months, hooray. The basket has the finest and smallest weaving I’ve ever seen, she had lots of time on her hands. Notice the dark colour? I think the bamboo was darkened in smoke, it somehow hardens the bamboo. Notice the string has a fancy woven handle as do the edges of the basket. The weaving is so small I think this one could hold water. Click on the picture to blow it up and you’ll see what I mean.

Back to jeao mac len.

The ingredients are cherry tomatoes, hot peppers, garlic, shallots, green onions, cilantro, fish sauce and a little bang nuah. I had a hard time finding cilantro, most has gone to seed or is too small to pick. It should also be noted that I actually only used half of the shallot. See the seeds on the cilantro?

Jeao is usually referred to as “dipping sauce” when people talk about Lao cooking. I’d more call it a mopping up with rice sauce. You more kind of use the rice to scoop some up. It is mostly to help the rice go down. All jeaos are wet, and usually they have some salt, some fermented fish, and often some hot peppers. The food is rice, the jeao just helps to wash it down, kind of like the function of gravy when you mop it up with bread.

To be authentic I should have toasted the ingredients over charcoal in a cooking pot, I don’t have either so had to make use of the gas grill. The hot peppers cook quickly, the garlic and shallot more slowly and the tomatoes take forever. All ingredients should be blackened. The tomatoes not only need to be blackened but cooked all the way so they are cracked and oozing juice. Regular sized tomatoes take a long time. Of course I break off the burnt outsides of all ingredients as much as is very easy to do, but I don’t go to lengths to do so, jeao is supposed to have bits of charcoal floating around in it.

The mixing is simple. Throw the hot peppers and bang nua into the saat, pulverize, add the garlic and shallot, mush some more, add fish sauce and tomatoes mush some more, cut up the uncooked green onions and cilantro, stir them in.

All words beginning in ''mac" are some sort of vegetable, in this case it's tomatoe, mac len.

Sun Saap

Jul 23, 2007

The Hmong Thing

I assume this must be some kind of DC-3 flying over a hill tribe village. I grabbed the photo off one of those web sites. Check out the houses. Have you ever seen houses in a hill tribe village lined up in rows?

Well they let the general out on bail, the repercussions of the coup plot are being felt far beyond California, perhaps most ominously with the 7,700 Hmong about to be deported from their safe haven in a Thai refugee camp.

Thailand and Laos are probably feeling very little pressure from the United States. President Bush and his secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, and Secretary of Defence Gates have been cancelling meetings in Singaore, Africa, and Latin America as they try to salvage a middle east policy that goes from bad to worse, and is rapidly spinning out of control. The plight of some former comrades from our last failed war thirty years ago hardly seems worth lifting an eyebrow over.

Meanwhile in the land of plah dek and sticky rice tiny indicators of unease seem to be emerging over the past couple of weeks. It seems as if stepped up security issues on the western border with Thailand are finding their way into the Thai papers.

In one incident Laos detained seven Thai Army Rangers and one civilian over in Xaiyabuli Province. It seemed to take a couple of days before the Lao government even could confirm that it had apprehended the Thais, and then a couple more days to get them released. No doubt communications in neighbouring Nan province Thailand are more modern.

Xayabuli is the province where the Mekong doesn’t form a border but flows much further to the East inside of Laos proper. The actual border itself was in contention for a while in the 80s. This is the area where Hmong have been escaping to Thailand for years, or even perhaps returning to create mischief.

Bokeo Province, the next province north, opposite Chang Rai had it’s own activity the week before, busting a cabal of bomb plotters and conspirators. A few years ago Laos experienced quite a few small bombs, most of them not doing very much damage. In these days of massive truck bombs in Iraq blowing up a motorcycle hardly seems ominous. Arresting twenty suspects for feeding intelligence to dissidents abroad might well be nothing more sinister than having received a letter from a cousin in America.

Finally from an expat blog in Vientiane, all foreigners are being required to re register their names addresses, photo, visa, and so on. Shouldn’t they already have all this on file? He he he. I always assumed that all that ton of paper you have to fill out for visas and customs ends up collecting dust in some corner of the customs and foreign affairs department rotting away. Those new visas are actually a paste on type and I thought they were somehow computerized. maybe not. Notice lately they only require one photo?

Well here’s wishing the 7,700 Hmong get an easy return to Laos. It seems that with the millions of illegal economic immigrants we could find our way to granting a few thousand green cards to these folks.

Jul 22, 2007

Khao Niaw (sticky rice)

Khao Niaw before dawn at the restaurant shacks bus station Oudomxai

I’m surprised I didn’t write something about khao niaw before this. Rice is the basis for food itself in Laos, so much so that the expression to eat is gin khao which might loosely be translated as consume rice.

The comparison for westerners that springs to mind is bread, if you could imagine bread being almost all the calories we eat. The following is a poem taught to infants similar to the way we teach patty cake patty cake.

Dtop meu xa
Dtop meu xa
Gin khao gap plah
Gin khao gap plah

Clap your hands,
Clap your hands,
Eat rice with fish,
Eat rice with fish.

Kids love it. It’s perhaps the first taught activity they hear. They like to clap their hands before they can walk or talk.

Loading rice at the fast boat landing below Luang Prabang

Fish means anything that lives in the water, minnows, fresh water crabs, insects, whatever. Everyone always has rice, then they go out into the river with a net and get fish. Without rice, life becomes a desperate struggle of digging bamboo shoots to try to get enough calories from starch to survive. If you talk to older people they can remember doing just that in the lean years following the end of the war when Laos closed it’s borders and experimented with collectivization.

Khao Jao left, Khao Niaw right

If you look at the rice above you can see a difference between the two varieties. The rice on the left you can see through, it’s translucent, the rice on the right is more white and dense. When digging through the rice bins that’s how I tell them apart. Regular rice is lighter, you can see through it, khao niaw is more thick and dense.

Up Close

Sticky rice is denser but by weight has the same calories as regular. Other than the affluent people in town everyone eats khao niaw, except for mountain people. Mountain rice isn’t grown in paddies but on burnt hillsides. The mountain rice, and all other rices are called Khao Jhao. Jasmine rice is simply a high grade of Thai rice, similar rices are grown in Laos but in much smaller quantities.

Second rice crop above Xiengkok

I like the mountain rice in that it has a nutty flavour. I think the taste comes from the fact that the milling is done by hand using one of those foot powered coke and sats. Small pieces of the husk up near the top and on the side of the grain are left on the rice. If you look carefully you can see them.

Mountain rice at 1200 meters just above Nambo

Getting back to the subject at hand… Khao Niaw cost about a half a dollar or a little more per kilo when I left Laos in March of 07, cooked or uncooked. It costs so little that my wife used to send me down to the market to buy it for dinner if we had unexpected numbers of people. I also buy it to eat when traveling, it can be eaten hours later and is still good, or many hours later if there is no place open when the late bus gets in. The many hours later kind is a little dried and hardened but still edible.

Talk of carrying it brings me to the implements for cooking and carrying khao niaw. There are three necessary utensils that can’t be substituted.. A pot to boil the water, a basket for steaming, and a basket for storing cooked rice. I’ve heard of people cooking in a regular rice steamer, I don’t believe it, seems like if there were a way to do it well the Laotians in America would have switched long ago. Reheating with a microwave doesn’t cut it either. All that does is heat it up, it’s not moistened from the steam, and it quickly dries out when it cools down.

That same bus station restaurant in Udomxai, she's brewing up my coffee.

There is something about the shape of the pot that allows water to be heated quickly and with a lot of steam concentrating the steam at the top of the pot and forcing it through the cone basket. I suggest anyone wanting to cook sticky rice take a look at the video on the Thai Lao Food Blog.
Scroll half way down the page for the video. Notice she uses a pot lid to cover the top of the cone? My wife bought a bamboo cover while in Laos. It sits on top of the cone similar to a lid but it allows the steam to escape, just keeps it there a little longer, and you avoid getting water dripping on the rice, don’t want soggy rice, oh no.

If you are looking at the video watch the flip, essential. Notice too how the rice doesn’t stick to the sides of the cone. That’s a broken in cone, when new they tend to stick. I like the plastic ones sold by the Hmong people for just that reason but my wife prefers bamboo. Says she doesn’t want a bunch of plastic in her food. I think she whets down the cone for a little bit before steaming to avoid the sticky rice sticking to the cone syndrome.

Transplanted rice

In the video that’s a tiny amount of rice, I typically steam about three of four times that much for a day.

Also on the Thai Lao video the writer, Ms. Larprom, tells how to reheat the left over rice from the last batch. In Lao households cooking and reheating rice is an ongoing process. Rice is often cooked more than three times a day, often just to heat it up. Hot rice is definitely preferable to cold rice. Rice can be recooked up to three times, after that it begins to turn into a glob of wallpaper paste.

The last but one of the most important parts of the cooking is allowing the rice to air and give off it’s steam. In her video Manivan uses a storage basket to stir it in. People who cook a lot of rice such as for a family often have so much rice they use a flat bamboo platter and a wooden spoon or chop sticks to lift the rice and let it fall apart. I think the reason is not only to stop it from cooking but to allow all the steam to escape rather than cooling when it reaches the outside of the pile of rice. A friend once described the process as pulling the rice apart such that if there were a lost ring in the rice it would be found.

After airing for the few seconds it takes the rice to cool it is piled loosely into a rice basket and covered with the top. There is a reason why rice baskets are woven bamboo. They keep the heat in and slow the escape of moisture but allow enough water vapour to escape so that you don’t get slimy rice. Rice kept in a plastic bag doesn’t keep as long.

Sun Saap