More and more communities in rural Laos are opening up their doors to foreign visitors in the form of homestays. Ban Hat Khai, a village located at the edge of Phu Khao Khuai National Protected Area, in central Laos, is an example of this. I spent a night with a family there a week or so ago, and in addition to meeting some very nice people and gaining an insight into rural Lao life, I also got to witness some Lao food made firsthand. The resulting three dishes comprised one of the better meals I had in Laos.
The first recipe I witnessed is essentially a 'dip' of grilled tomatoes that is as simple as it is delicious, and is also very Lao. The second two dishes took full advantage of two live ducks picked up at the market. On previous visits to Laos I hadn't really noticed how fond the Lao are of duck, but on this trip I seemed to see it everywhere, particularly grilled, which other than Bali, where I think it's technically roasted, is something haven't really encountered elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
Jaew Mak Len Tomatoes, 4 Medium-sized chilies, 5 Shallots, 5 Garlic, 2 small heads Salt, to taste Fish sauce, to taste Cilantro, green onion, chopped
Skewer the tomatoes and grill over a coals until the exterior is slightly charred and the inside is tender. Toss the chilies, shallots and garlic directly into the coals. When slightly burnt on the outside and soft inside, remove from coals, and along with the tomato, peel off all the burnt bits. In a mortar and pestle, pound grilled ingredients together into a rough paste/dip and season to taste with salt and fish sauce (and MSG, if desired). Garnish with chopped cilantro and green onion and serve with sticky rice and par-boiled vegetables such as green beans or cabbage.
Tom Pet and Laap Pet Ducks, 2 Ginger, peeled and sliced, one 5cm section Galingale, peeled and sliced, one 5cm section Shallots, peeled, 6 Chillies, red, 3 Lemongrass, bruised, 2 stalks MSG, to taste Fish sauce, to taste Small sour tomatoes, halved, 10 Young tamarind leaves
Cilantro, one small bunch, chopped Phak hom laap (a local herb; substitute with mint), equal to amount of cilantro, chopped Green onions, 4 stalks, chopped Shallots, 4, sliced Khao khua (ground roast sticky rice), about 2 Tbsp Fish sauce, to taste MSG, to taste Lime juice, to taste
Kill ducks. Remove innards and feathers. Joint ducks, separating the bones from the meat. Skewer the meat bits and grill over coals until fully cooked.
For the tom pet, a duck broth, while meat is grilling, bring a large pot of water, enough to accommodate the bones from both ducks, to a boil. Add ginger, galingale, shallots, chilies and lemongrass. Bring to the boil and allow to simmer for about 20 minutes. Season to taste with MSG and fish sauce, add tomatoes and young tamarind leaves. The resulting broth should be equal parts meaty and tart.
For the laap, when the meat is grilled, chop finely and mix with the chopped herbs. Add sliced shallots, khao khua, fish sauce, MSG and lime juice to taste. Serve with a platter of additional fresh herbs (more cilantro, a few sprigs of dill, mint) and sticky rice.
If you're interested in taking part in a homestay in Ban Hat Khai, information on visiting Phu Khao Khuai is available at the Tourist Information Centre in Vientiane.