Rush-That-Speaks (rushthatspeaks) wrote,

Visiting the Lao Kitchen: Authentic Lao Cuisine, Lao American Women Association (365 Books, Day 364)

It is day three hundred and sixty-four what is this I don't even. WHAT AM I GOING TO DO WITH MYSELF ON TUESDAY. Well. It will be very odd not to have to read a book. I can't tell whether I'm looking forward to it or not.

So this is a cookbook by the Lao American Women Association of the Washington, D.C. Metro Area, which they donated to the Fairfax County library. It's meant to show the differences between Laotian cooking and the food of other countries in the region, and to provide recipes for members of the Laotian diaspora. It is, in fact, bilingual, English-Laotian.

Lao food turns out to be heavily influenced by Thai and Vietnamese, but unsurprisingly is a thing of its own. In Laos, the default rice is sweet sticky rice, which is served with meals instead of only as a dessert; quite frequently in order to make it more savory it will be soaked in salt water before cooking, or boiled and then fried as a chunk until crunchy, or roasted (raw or cooked) and then ground to powder. But you also get it in balls, eaten out of hand plain, or dipped into sauce.

There's always a dipping sauce on the table, or several, and there's usually a plate of raw or roasted vegetables. Lettuce wraps are popular. The default mode for meat and fish appears to be poached, boiled, or grilled; there's very little distinction between soup, stew, and salad, as things labeled salad quite frequently have broth and the omnipresent vegetable plate is meant to be combined with the soup or stew if one sees fit. Steaming is a popular preparation too, in banana leaves (though there's a note which says you can fake banana leaves with a layer of plastic wrap on the inside and a layer of tinfoil on the outside, a note I have been waiting for some time to see in a cookbook because I do not usually have access to banana leaves).

Dishes of particular note include the beef stew with boiled cow bile, which the author says is so bitter that only middle-aged and older people eat it; the various forms of larb, which is the raw chopped salad that can be made of beef or pork or fish or shrimp mixed with chilis and spices; and the entire section marked 'Dishes favored by the diaspora', which are foods that very clearly show their Lao ancestry but which use techniques or ingredients that come from somewhere else or are easier to find in the U.S. (You can make pâté the same way you make larb.)

Desserts are centered around coconut milk and sweet sticky rice, in various combinations, colored with different flavorings and served in layers.

Although this is a fascinating book, and does explain to me very clearly some ways in which Laotian cooks see their cooking (I particularly appreciate that the recipes are sourced as to where in the country the cook comes from, so that you know whether something is Vientiane-style or from the north or south), I would not recommend cooking from this unless you are a very good cook. I am a little afraid to try, because there is no standardization of amounts whatsoever: things will be measured in 'cans' or 'packets'. Some names of foods are not translated into English, and loofah is noted as 'Chinese okra', which is just confusing. (I think it's loofah, but I could be seeing the picture wrong.) I don't know what size of pepper they mean when they say large, I don't know what they mean when they list 'red pepper', 'chili', and 'large red pepper' in the same recipe-- I can, of course, conjecture-- but basically these are recipes written by people who have a deep understanding of what proportions of ingredients are appropriate for the food they are working with, and who are not necessarily working for an audience that does not already know this. In order to cook from this a person would need either to know what the food ought to taste like, or to be able to adjust ingredients on the fly in such a way as to produce something which tasted good to the cook, with the knowledge that the result might not be what the recipe intended. A couple of these recipes are sufficiently vague that I'm not really sure I'd use the word recipe: more guidelines. Loose guidelines. I freely admit to being intimidated.

But it's better than having no idea about Laotian food at all, which is where I was starting from, and the association says that at least in 2006 when this book came out there wasn't much by way of Laotian restaurants in the D.C. area. So I recommend this, because I learned things.

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Tags: 365 books, author: lao american women association o, genre: food and cooking

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