24. Cambodia and Laos

I’ve long held a desire to visit this part of the world, partly because it’s not far from Australia, partly because of its natural and historic beauty, but mostly because I love the food. The use of liberal quantities of herbs in everything makes the cuisine incredibly fragrant and tasty, no matter what the basis. Both countries draw influences from neighbouring Thailand, as well as China, India, Portugal, Spain and France. There is a clear basis of fresh herbs and vegetables, accompanying fermented sauces/foods (fish paste, rice etc), seafood and meats, coconut-based soups and curries, noodles, and, of course, mounds and mounds of rice. Meal times in both countries consist of a variety of dishes served together and intended to be eaten communally. Lao cuisine has had a massive influence on the typical Thai food that we know and love, as there are more ethnic Lao in Thailand than in Laos itself. Cambodian meals are highly influenced by rice and freshwater fish, with the Mekong at the heart of the country, containing a biodiversity of aquatic life surpassed only by the Amazon river in biodiversity. This watery centre is hugely expanded during monsoon season, when a substantial portion of the country floods, creating a sea of gleaming emerald rice paddies. Cambodian food is also often very watery, adorned with reeds and vegetables, supposedly to mirror the surrounding landscapes of wet rice-paddies. 

Amok trey

amok treyFor my first dish, I well and truly embraced the watery imagery inherent to Cambodian cooking, featuring its national dish, a fish curry called amok trey that originated from the indigenous Khmer people. “Amok” describes a wide family of dishes that are a national staple of Cambodia, although also popular in Laos and Thailand, where curries are steamed inside banana leaves, imparting delicious flavours in a relatively healthy manner. Amok trey (with “trey” specifying “fish”) is traditionally made with catfish, although more recently made with any firm white fish available, for which I used barramundi. The recipe first calls for the creation of an aromatic paste (a type of “kroeung”), made with ground kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, galangal and garlic, as well as two more ingredients that I wasn’t able to source but will just have to wait to visit to try myself: fingerroot and noni tree leaves. This paste is then combined with coconut milk, fish sauce, chilli, shrimp paste and simmered until homogenous and smooth. Beaten eggs are then added to the mixture to help it thicken, and it is spooned over portions of raw fish in banana leaves, which are wrapped into packets and steamed until the fish is cooked through. The end result is a creamy, custardy mixture, with the banana leaves imparting a distinctive flavour to the subtle and sweet fish and coconut. Amok trey is commonly served at the Water Festival, which is typically held in November and celebrates the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River and the end of the rainy season. Boat races and concerts are conducted as part of the three day festival, and many people stop work to celebrate together. I could vividly imagine the smells of amok trey infusing the frivolities of the festival as I cooked it!

Chicken laap, green papaya salad and sticky rice

laap, tam som and sticky rice.jpgLaap is a classic Laotian dish, sometimes said to be the national dish, consisting of spiced mince meat, herbs and sometimes vegetables. Many types of meat can be used, including chicken, beef, fish, pork or duck, either served raw, partially cooked or fully cooked. The mince is typically flavoured with fish sauce, lime juice, roasted ground toasted rice (khao khoua), fresh herbs (especially mint), chilli and padaek, which is a fermented fish paste. Green papaya salad purportedly originated in Laos, where it is called “tam som” which means pounding sour ingredients. The original salads were more flexible in their ingredients, using numerous fruits and vegetables like unripe mangoes or cucumbers. However, the papaya variety has become the most exported and famous, and is now eaten in many surrounding countries such as Thailand and Vietnam. I’m glad that the ingredients are flexible, because I ran into a the problem that my “green” papaya (which I assure you was completely green on the outside and hard as a rock), turned out to be redder than I expected on the inside. Although riper than I wanted, it wasn’t sweet yet, and retained a little of the unripe flavour and texture, so not all was lost. The green papaya is typically peeled and then a large knife is used to quickly hack into the fruit lengthways. These pieces are then peeled away and the process is repeated, created long thin strands of papaya. I suppose you could achieve a similar effect with a cheese grater, but this way is much more fun and dangerous, I guarantee it. The papaya is mixed with lime juice, chilli, fish sauce, padaek, green beans, bean sprouts, cherry tomatoes and sugar, and everything is pounded together forcefully in a mortar and pestle. It’s truly a dish that’s more than the sum of its parts – the perfect balance between salty, sweet, bitter, sour and umami is glorious. I served the laap and tam som with sticky rice (khao niao), which is perhaps the most universally touted of all meals as the national dish of Laos. The variety of rice grains is labelled in supermarkets as “glutinous rice”, although coeliacs and gluten-intolerants needn’t panic, as the adjective refers to the sticky property rather than actually containing gluten. The stickiness comes from the very low amylose and high amylopectin content, and this type of rice forms more than 85% of rice produced in Laos, where it has been a dietary staple for over 1000 years. in fact, Lao inhabitants often refer to themselves as “the descendants of sticky rice”, and the meal is said to be the sticky glue that holds Laotian people together, even across time and space. Once harvested, glutenous rice is either milled, which produces opaque white grains, or unmilled, which produces a purplish colour from the intact bran. The rice is cooked by first soaking raw grains in water for several hours, then steaming it in a bamboo basket, after which it is slightly kneaded to create sticky balls of deliciousness.

Bai sach chrouk

Bai sach chrouk .jpgBai (rice/food) sach chrouk (grilled pork) is a Cambodian breakfast dish sold by roadside vendors early in the morning to sustain the people commuting to work. I’m a big fan of substantial breakfast foods, and strongly believe that, if there were vendors selling fresh aromatic food on my way to work, I would have a much easier time getting out of bed in the morning… If you can honestly tell me you would rather eat cardboard cornflakes in cold milk than this explosion of colour and flavour for breakfast, then I think there is something broken inside of you. The dish consists of thinly sliced pork fillet marinated in a mix of garlic, soy sauce, sugar, lime, fish sauce and coconut milk, then slow-grilled until the outside is golden and caramelised. The grilled pork is served over white rice and also commonly with pickled vegetables. I made the pickled vegetables by slicing thin strips of carrot, cucumber, daikon and ginger, then sealing them in a jar full of rice vinegar, sugar, chilli, and hot water. The sour and sweet flavour of the crunchy vegetables was an ideal accompaniment to the rest of the dish. Apparently all of the vendors who sell this dish offer to serve it with a massive hit of chilli and also sell extremely strong iced coffee from the same stall. I have a strong suspicion that this is the best kept international secret that might be the ultimate cure for those who struggle to wake up in the morning – just make sure you use responsibly!

Khao poon

Khao poon.jpgKhao poon is a noodle soup from Laos, that is popular all over the country, but particularly associated with the Hmong ethnic group from the mountainous regions of Laos and Thailand, where colder temperatures call for warming broths. The dish has a base of curry paste made from pounded chillies, garlic, shallots, lemongrass, kaffir lime, galangal and ground coriander and cumin. Once this delicious concoction is a homogenous paste (and excess aliquots are sequestered into the freezer for later use..) a few spoonfuls is fried in  little oil (along with extra garlic/ginger/shallots if desired) until exploding with fragrance. Next, cooked and shredded meat is added, which commonly includes pork, fish or, as I used, chicken.  Given that it’s a common recipe for home cooks, the other additions are flexible, and I chose to also add bamboo shoots and hard-boiled quail eggs for a bit of diverse texture. Once the red curry paste has coated everything, coconut milk and chicken stock is added to create a rich and creamy soup. Cooked fermented thin rice noodles (sen khao poon) are then added. These noodles are incredibly popular in Laos, and are made via an ancient process of first soaking rice grains and allowing them to ferment slightly, then grinding them into a west paste, which is steamed in banana leaves, kneaded, strained, then pushed through a colander to create thin noodle shapes. Once served, the bowls of khao poon can be garnished with fresh shredded carrots, bean sprouts, cabbage and herbs – all of which add a wonderful contrast of textures, colours and flavours to the meal. Indeed, this soup exemplifies the best aspects that Laotian cooking has to offer: fresh herbs and vegetables, as well as the inclusion of powerhouses of flavourings that add a lot of satisfaction without many extra calories. As most meals are boiled or steamed without much oil, the main calorific content comes from coconut milk, which provides healthy fats to keep you full up for hours after eating. Perhaps this final trait has contributed to the popularity of khao poon at weddings, where guests need comforting nourishment to power through the long hours of festivities.