Historian, researcher and writer, Katherine currently lives and works in Mumbai, India and travels widely throughout Asia. You can read further about her discoveries and adventures on her blog, Mumbai, Masala and More.
Much of Laos’ culinary culture seems to take place outside. Everywhere you go things are being boiled, stewed and sizzled in outdoor stalls. A crepe maestro would be deftly rolling out the thinnest dough creation in the world over a giant pan (France’s colonization of Laos has brought baguettes and European-style pastries into popular usage). Eating is also communal; in the street, you can see people sitting around a meal served at the ka toke, the traditional low circular platform made of rattan where all the courses are brought out and eaten together.
Lao cuisine is distinguished by its pungent, spicy notes; unlike its milder Vietnamese and Cambodian cousins, its generous use of chilli peppers brings a fiery basenote to most of its dishes. This quality brings it closer to the cuisine of neighboring Thailand–Laos’ onetime conqueror and arch-nemesis. In fact, most of the specialized ingredients for its dishes, such as fish sauce, can be bought in Thai food stores. However, Lao cooking is set apart by its generous usage of fresh herbs, especially those with a sharp taste–heaps of them fill the outdoor vegetable markets with a bracing fragrance. Galangal, lemongrass and kaffir lime are widely used and, among the fruit, it is the acrid green papaya that is the main ingredient in the country’s most popular salad.
Meat is another one of the groundstones of Lao cuisine, as is seen in its most famous recipe, Lab (also spelled larb, laap, larp, laab), a celebratory dish that is commonly made to mark a housewarming, the birth of a baby or New Year’s. Beef rules the roost, so to speak, and is considered to form an especially satisfying contrast to the piquant taste of the herbs.
Spicy Laotian Beef Salad (Lab, Larb Recipe)
Serve 4 as a side dish or appetizer; 2 as a main dish
Victoria’s Note: As I was testing Katherine’s recipe to take the accompanying photos, I found myself addicted to lab. The flavors are bold and explosive, with a wonderfully refreshing sensation. I already envision making it often during the sweltering summer months; although, eating it by the fireplace picnic style has also been quite enjoyable. Lab can be made with chicken or pork but beef is most commonly used in Laos. An essential component to the dish is khao khua, a traditional Lao roasted rice powder, which is very easy to make. It adds a crunchy, nutty note to the salad, which serves as a delicious foil to the bright, herbal flavors of the dish. Traditionally, lab is eaten as a mixed salad with garnishes and some sticky rice on the side. Feel free to adjust the amount of chilli peppers to your taste.
1lb ground or minced beef (or chicken, pork)
4 shallots, 2 sliced in thin rounds and 2 minced
5 spring onions, sliced in thin rounds
2 garlic cloves, sliced in thin rounds
2 hot chilli peppers, sliced in thin rounds (or to taste)
1 tsp sugar
1 Tbsp fish sauce, or more to taste (see note below)
salt, pepper, lime juice to taste
2 Tbsp khao khua, roasted rice powder (see note below)
Herbs: sliced spring onions, mint, coriander leaves/cilantro (a handful of each)
Sliced string beans (optional, best to use tender, summer variety)
Hot chilli peppers, sliced in rounds, to taste
1 lime, sliced
Heat one tablespoon of oil in a frying pan, then add shallots sliced in rounds (reserve minced shallots for later,) garlic, spring onions and chili peppers. When they have browned, add the beef, sugar, and fish sauce. Once the beef is well cooked, add more salt, lime juice and adjust the seasonings. It should be well-seasoned and richly flavored. Set aside and let cool.
Toss beef with herbs, minced shallots and roasted rice powder. Serve with garnishes on a side.
Fish Sauce—is a condiment that is derived from fish that undergoes a process of fermentation. It has a rich, umami flavor and high-quality brands smell savory and meaty, rather than pungent and fishy. My favorite brands are Vietnamese Three Crabs and Thai Squid which are widely available from Asian grocery stores and online. Here is a great guide for buying fish sauce from one of my favorite cookbook authors, Andrea Nguyen.
Roasted Rice Powder (khao khua)–adds a pleasant nutty taste to the dish. To make it, put 2 tablespoons of rice into a frying pan without oil and toast, stirring frequently, over medium-low heat until it turns brown and smells well toasted. Remove from the stove and crush into powder. Can be made in larger quantities and stored in an air-tight container.
Photography of Laos by Katherine (market scenes at Luang Prabang, the medieval Lao capital), of salad by Bois de Jasmin.