Tag Archives: lao food

Magic Matsutake

It can be hard to say goodbye to a place, especially when you’ve uncovered a special, life-lengthening secret along the way. In 1945, when World War II was ending and the Japanese ended its occupation of Southeast Asia, one Japanese soldier was left behind in Xiengkuang Province.

Maybe he chose not to join his fellow troops as they returned to their home country. But the stories that have been told since are certain of one thing: he stayed in Laos for decades. And when he finally made his way home to Japan and reconnected with his fellow war veterans, he couldn’t help noticing that time had not been kind to them.

He, on the other hand, was strong as an ox, with the vitality of a man far younger than his advancing years. His friends were amazed, and demanded to know his secret.

It was simple, he told them. He had, for all these years, been feasting regularly on the matsutake mushrooms that grow in abundance in Xiengkuang. The same mushrooms that are, even today, considered a delicacy in Japan, purchased as shavings in a side dish, rather than harvested freely under the pine trees.

The story – possibly embellished – has become part of local Lao lore when it comes to the restaurant and dining trade. But when Xiengkuang native Manola was setting up Kualao Restaurant, five decades after the Japanese left the country, she had no recollection of matsutake – also known as “pine” mushrooms – being anything out of the ordinary when she was growing up. Nor did her own mother. But in her mission to promote the finest Lao cuisine, and out of a love for her home province, she included the mushrooms on the Kualao menu.

Eventually, a Japanese film crew made its way to the restaurant, where they filmed a Japanese tourist feasting on a plate of matsutake.

“I feel like a king, being able to munch on a whole matsutake mushroom like this,” he said. “In my country, we only get to eat very, very thin slices. It’s very rare and very expensive in Japan.”

But the film crew was not the first sign of interest from the Japanese. Years before, a Japanese researcher had happened upon an online review of the restaurant, and travelled to Laos to learn more about the origins of the mushroom, already well-known for its medicinal qualities. He travelled with Manola to Xiengkuang and took some soil samples home to Japan, where he determined that these were the exact same species as the ones grown in Japan.

Today, matsutake are known to grow in China, Japan, Korea, Laos, Canada, Finland, Sweden and the United States. In Laos, a steady stream of Chinese and Vietnamese traders travel to Xiengkuang to buy up the sought-after and readily-available mushrooms.

Down in the capital, the mushroom is still widely popular, especially when served infused in traditional Lao whiskey. Kualao is famous for its own version of bottled matsutake whiskey, and was among the first restaurants to promote the mushrooms for their rarity and medicinal qualities. Many wealthy diners will order it to impress their guests, especially senior business and state official.

The restaurant is also, not surprisingly, the Japanese Embassy’s first choice when introducing visiting dignitaries to Lao cuisine; the Crown Prince of Japan and four different Japanese prime ministers have dined there over the years, no doubt regaled by the legend of the youthful World War II soldier who lingered in the north, knowing he was onto a good thing.

 

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Originally Published in: Champa Meuanglao

Cooking in the Slow Lane: The World Catches Up To Laos

Slow Food Laos

The world finally catches up to what Laos does best, writes MICK SHIPPEN.

Hemmed in by culinary giants Thailand, Vietnam and China, the cuisine of Laos has never enjoyed the attention it deserves, but one Vientiane chef is determined to change all that.

In this fast-paced world of ours, some things are still best enjoyed slowly. For Ponpailin Kaewduangdy, known to her friends as Noi, this means food: from the selection of fresh and seasonal local produce, to respect for traditional recipes, and most importantly, the pleasure of an unhurried home-cooked meal shared with friends and family.

Noi is the owner and chef of Doi Ka Noi, a unique restaurant that serves a small, daily-changing menu of authentic Lao cuisine. She is also the first and currently only Lao member of the global food movement, Slow Food. “When I found out about Slow Food, I was excited,” says Noi. “Here was an organisation that truly reflected my philosophy towards food and life.”

The grassroots organisation, Slow Food, was founded in 1989 by Carlo Petrini to prevent the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions, counteract the rise of fast life and combat people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from and how our food choices affect the world around us. Today, Slow Food has grown into a global movement involving millions of people in more than 160 countries, all working to help ensure we have access to good, clean and fair food. For Noi, its aims and values are particularly pertinent for modern-day Laos.

Noi with Carlo Petrini, president and founder of Slow Food

Noi with Carlo Petrini, president and founder of Slow Food

“Our country is developing quickly and as much as I welcome this, it is already clear that our food culture and traditions are being threatened by changing lifestyles and the power of food industry.”

When Noi’s colourful restaurant opened last year, she quickly gained a reputation for her daily-changing menu of authentic Lao food. Last year, she was delighted to receive an invitation to attend Slow Food’s biennial event, Terra Madre del Gusto in Turin, northern Italy.

 “Lao food is not well known outside our country. As the first Lao person to attend the event, I was extremely proud,” she says. “This was an opportunity to present my food and culture to the world. I was also able to meet cooks, farmers and activists from around the globe, all with an interest in food traditions and the issues we face. I found the whole experience to be empowering.”

While in Turin, Noi cooked food in the Asia and Oceania Kitchen. “My menu included oua hua si kai, lemongrass stuffed with pork, glass noodles and herbs served with jaew mak len, a spicy chili and tomato dip, and kai pen, fried Luang Prabang river weed.” Noi laughs when she says she had to send her proposed menu to Slow Food in advance, but when she arrived in Turin it had been change to ‘pork stuffed with lemongrass’.

“Obviously, they thought I had made a typing error and that it wasn’t possible to stuff slender stalks of lemongrass with pork. All the other chefs in the kitchen were amazed when I cut and concertinaed the slender stalks and filled them with pork.”

The Slow Food organisation has also been instrumental in the creation of the Ark of Taste, which maps and researches traditional food products in order to promote and safeguard biodiversity, while also supporting small-scale producers. Noi recently nominated kai pen river weed, and is delighted that is was accepted as an Ark of Taste product.

“Laos has many indigenous products worthy of protection, and I intend to nominate several others,” she says.

A highlight of her time at Terra Madre del Gusto was meeting Carlo Petrini, the founder and president of Slow Food.

 “Carlo is a food hero and an inspiration to thousands of people around the world,” she says.

As the first Lao member, Noi asked him what she could do to help promote the movement when she returned home to Vientiane. “He told me I should continue to celebrate the diversity of Lao food and indigenous culture, and to connect with farmers and producers. He added that it was always important to work with joy in my heart, and that with my passion for Lao food and my beautiful smile I would conquer many people,” she recalls. “I am not embarrassed to tell that it was a heartfelt and emotional moment for me that brought tears to my eyes.”

Bolstered by her experience, Noi returned to Laos full of ideas for Doi Ka Noi and her distinctive cuisine.

[ngg_images source=”galleries” container_ids=”24″ override_thumbnail_settings=”1″ thumbnail_width=”100″ thumbnail_height=”75″ thumbnail_crop=”1″ images_per_page=”20″ number_of_columns=”0″ ajax_pagination=”0″ show_all_in_lightbox=”0″ use_imagebrowser_effect=”0″ show_slideshow_link=”0″ slideshow_link_text=”[Show slideshow]” template=”/home4/laotiantimes/public_html/wp-content/plugins/nextgen-gallery/products/photocrati_nextgen/modules/ngglegacy/view/gallery.php” order_by=”sortorder” order_direction=”ASC” returns=”included” maximum_entity_count=”500″ display_type=”photocrati-nextgen_basic_thumbnails”]“In recent years, the food scene in Vientiane has changed and not necessarily for the better. Sure, there is more choice but our own cuisine is becoming debased by fads for fusion, the influence of neighbouring Thailand, an influx of fast food and international restaurants, chefs using poor quality ingredients, liberal use of MSG and stock powders, and a young generation that has little interest in its own food,” she asserts.

What I discovered at Terra Madre del Gusto is that I am not alone in believing that my food culture is worth defending.There are millions of people around the world fighting to uphold culinary traditions and biodiversity. Here in Vientiane, I have loyal customers who understand what I am trying to do and I am very grateful for their support and encouragement.

Word about Noi and her delicious food is certainly spreading. Just last month, Timm Vladimir, the Danish celebrity chef, two-time Masterchef winner, cookbook author TV host and passionate foodie, was in Vientiane as an advocate for the charity CARE, and Noi spent a memorable day teaching him the secrets of Lao food.

At Doi Ka Noi, the celebrity chef discovered that all ingredients are bought fresh from the market each morning, soups and stocks are made the old-fashioned way without the need for MSG, and sausages are home-made. Depending on the season, the daily changing menu of just seven or eight items can include ingredients dok krajeow wild ginger flowers, a tiny but flavourful mushroom called hed bee that grows on tamarind trees and is only available for a few weeks a year, pak koot foraged fiddlehead fern tops, and others used in dishes rarely found elsewhere. Noi is a passionate and intuitive chef, and Doi Ka Noi is clearly much more than a commercial venture. It reflects her history and her outlook on life today.

 “I learnt to cook as a young girl at my late grandmother’s side. The recipes I use every day are tangible memories and a celebration of my love for her,” she says.

 Noi grew up in a rural subsistence farming community in Khammouane Province, and while now a modern city lady, she loves to tend the herbs and vegetables growing in the Doi Ka Noi garden. Provenance and traceability are increasingly important to her and she hopes to source more produce from organic local farmers. “It will be a slow process of natural development. But all the better for it,” she says.

Or-Laam: A Dish Fit For A King

Or-Laam

It wasn’t an easy job, being a Lao king. Imagine the discomfort of having to dress in the finest silk and adorned in the purest gold in an air-condition-less era in one of the most humid places in the world. Imagine the burden of wandering around the royal gardens anticipating the next invasion from warring neighbouring armies, monitoring the tributes that vassal princedoms had to pay, balancing the complex power-hungry factions of the court, and last but not least having to select a politically agreeable husband for your daughter.

But even with the weight of the kingdom on his shoulders, a king still has to eat. We do not often think about that vital and much-anticipated interruption – the queen calling him in for an elaborate supper. One that took many hours to make, and, in Laos, almost certainly featured Or Laam.

Like many traditional Lao dishes, Or Laam is made from simple ingredients that have been available to local people for as long as anyone can remember. And, like many Lao dishes, the secret to Or Laam’s distinctive flavour and texture is mired in the country’s long history.

But the famous Luang Prabang delicacy differs from many other much-loved Lao foods in that it is, quite literally, a dish prepared for a king.

Or-Laam

Centuries ago, and even as recently as the 1940s and 50s, rural populations in northern and central Laos often ate what has become known as Or – small amounts of meat stewed in large amounts of vegetables. The meat was usually whatever had been caught that day which also had to be bulked up – for nutrition as much as meat scarcity – with as many vegetables that came to hand, with the dish varying in ingredients from village to village, province to province.

But when it came to cooking for the royal family, no expense could be spared, both in terms of time, and the quality of the ingredients. The country’s finest chefs discovered that meat that was already cooked – grilled or sun-dried – was far more fragrant and flavourful when it was boiled than fresh meat, preferably for at least two to three hours at a time. And it was only after years of culinary trial and error did the chefs come to the realisation that when added to the stew, another ingredient, pepperwood (known in Lao as sakkhan), created another wonderfully magical aroma that gives Or Laam its title as the dish of kings.

If planning Or Laam for the King’s supper, the kitchen staff would usually begin preparing the elaborate dish around noon – selecting the dried or grilled meat, and boiling it with vegetables including eggplants, yardlong beans, black-ear mushrooms, lemongrass, chilli and pepperwood. It is a dish that, for centuries, was synonymous with luxury, requiring the means to source the very best ingredients and plenty of time in which to prepare it.

It is, in other words, a dish fit for a king, although today, many traditional Lao restaurants serve it. The Champa Meuanglao Editor’s choice is the version served up by the Vientiane institution Kualao Restaurant, a much-loved restaurant housed in a beautifully restored, yellow-walled French villa in the city centre, close to the equally iconic That Dam stupa.

Champa Meuanglao

Written by: Francis Savanhkham
Originally Published in: Champa Meuanglao,  official Lao Airlines in-flight magazine, 2017 May-June Edition

A First Look: The Largest Lao Food Festival in Laos

Lao Food Festival 2017

The much anticipated 12th Annual Lao Food Festival officially opened at the Chao Anouvong Park in Vientiane Capital today, exhibiting a variety of foods from across the nation.

The aim of the festival is to bring attention to Lao cuisine, and to showcase some of the little-known dishes that are more common in the provinces.

Visitors are able to taste-test a variety of Lao foods, and hungry patrons can dine at the many restaurants that have opened their kitchens to the festival.

This year, the Lao Food Festival boasts 178 booths, the highest number on record. The festival runs for three full days, from 25-27 January 2017 at the Chao Anouvong Park (9am-8pm).

Here’s a first look at the festival:

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Lao Food Businesses Receive Korean Expertise

Lao Food Korea

Korea’s food experts are sharing their experience in branding with Lao food companies.

The “Product Development Workshop for Micro, Small & Medium Enterprises (MSMEs),” organized by the ASEAN-Korea Centre and Lao PDR’s Ministry of Industry and Commerce, provides an opportunity for the companies to “enhance competitiveness and develop market strategies targeting domestic and overseas markets through lectures and consultations on branding, marketing, and packaging of food products.” The event runs Jan. 9-11.

“With an aim to graduate from the least-developed country by 2020, the Laotian government recently established its eighth National Social Economic Development Plan for 2016-2020, of which one of the key sectors is the food industry,” ASEAN-Korea Centre Secretary General Kim Young-sun said.

“Despite great potential, with rich natural resources, a strategic location bordering five major markets, and a competitive labor force, the food industry of the nation remains underdeveloped, mainly due to a lack of infrastructure and packaging and processing technologies.”

During the workshop, the Korean delegation lectured on food branding, marketing, and packaging.

Participants learned about basic packaging technologies and took part in simulation exercises on the first day of the meeting.

According to the ASEAN-Korea Centre, the following session will focus on marketing strategies targeting overseas markets. The Korean experts will visit local companies for on-site consultations and market research.

The organization said the MSMEs have been a backbone of the ASEAN economy, accounting for around 95 percent of businesses. It has conducted such product development workshops in 10 ASEAN members.

In July, a team of Korean businesspeople visited Brunei to help the ASEAN nation boost investment and promote bilateral trade in several high value-added industries such as biotechnology, cosmetics and e-commerce through the Investment and Market Research Mission and the Product Development Workshop. The ASEAN-Korea Centre, with the Energy and Industry Department at the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, hosted the event.

The ASEAN-Korea Centre is an intergovernmental organization established in 2009 to promote exchanges among Korea and the 10 countries.