Our first trip to Laos, in 1994, was our virgin foray into Southeast Asia. We were living in Hong Kong, and had lived in and travelled around China, but everything south was, to us, The Unknown.
We had three weeks around Christmas. Someone told me Laos was 'incredible' - or maybe I read it somewhere - and so we booked tickets and took the plunge. Landing in Vientiene was a jolt. The city (if you could even call it a city, then), with its single traffic light, seemed as far from Hong Kong as the moon. With their ready smiles and soft voices, Laos were to 'Hongkies' as day is to night. And the food!Lounging riverside, eating sticky rice with spicy dips and laap, garlicky grilled sausages and soups fragrant with intriguingly unfamiliar leaves and herbs, it was hard to believe we were merely two hours from delicate dim sum.
On that trip we encountered flavors that simultaneously delighted and confused, dishes that mixed Asian ingredients with those we associated with the West. In Luang Prabang we were served a French-influenced uncooked salad of watercress and runny-yolked boiled eggs dressed with a light gado-gadoish peanut dressing. On the surface of an otherwise Thai tom kha gai-like stew of chicken, galangal, and coconut milk floated a surprising flurry of chopped fresh dill. Zest and slivered leaves of kaffir lime lent a pleasing astringency to egg-based tarts.
Bitterness is a flavor we'll always associate with Laos - not the bright, sharp bitterness of a raddichio salad or the caustic, mouth-drying bitternes of arugula (rocket) gone to seed, but the mellow, appetite-rousing bitterness of meaty soups and stews thick with herbs and wild greens. It's a taste and a perfume so common to the country's cuisine that it's hard to imagine a Lao meal without it.
I was reminded of that distinctive bitterness the other day when I came across boxes of long-dormant slides from that and subsequent visits to Laos. Dave's images triggered a rush of memories - of a dusty bicycle ride to a crumbling, abandoned wat in a forest outside Luang Prabang, of a gulp of lao lao and wrists tied with bracelets of white string before a bumpy (and - because our drivers had partaken too - slightly frightening) jeep journey across the Bolaven plateau, of a slow boat from Pakse to a speck of a village and the deserted ruins at its edge. Suddenly I was craving the comfort of a pungent Lao stew accompanied by sticky rice.
That night I prepared the following recipe. The kitchen smelled, to us, like the probably long-gone Luang Prabang hole-in-the-wall where we fell in love with Lao bitter.
Lao Pork and Bitter Greens Stew
Adapted from Alford and Duguid's Hot Sour Salty Sweet (page 245), a seven-year-old book that continues to surprise us and feed us well (every single recipe works, brilliantly). I've changed the quantity of some ingredients, increased the cooking time, and substituted pork ribs for the sliced pork in the original recipe. The bones add tremendous flavor and, after long cooking, slide right away from the meat. If you're averse to bones in your stew then remove the ribs and let them cool, take the meat off the bones, and return it to the pot before serving.
This comforting stew is incredibly easy to make - minimal active time and long cooking. The combination of dill, mustard greens, and lime leaves makes for a complex earthiness marked by gentle bitterness. Sticky rice is the best go-with (very easy to make - just remember to soak the rice overnight), but regular white rice will do. Heat things up a bit with a side of Thai nam prik dtaa daeng, replacing the smoked fish with a teaspoon or two of fish sauce (to taste) and fresh minced galangal, or with a Hmong scallion-chile relish from Andrea Nguyen's article on California Hmong farmers in the August-September 2007 issue of Saveur.
12-14 ounces meaty pork ribs, preferably cut into pieces no longer than 2 inches
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1/4 cup roughly chopped shallots (or red onion, in a pinch)
6-8 garlic cloves, chopped
4-5 cups water
1 pound Chinese mustard greens (choy sum), cut into 2-inch lengths
5 whole stalks dill
small bunch of Chinese chives, cut into 1-inch length (substitute 1/4 cup sliced regular chives)
8 lime leaves
2 Tbsp Thai fish sauce or to taste
5 scallions, white and green parts, chopped
freshly ground black pepper
1. Heat the oil in a medium heavy pot over high heat. Add the garlic and shallots and stiry-fry briefly, until they start to brown.
2. Pat the pork ribs dry with a paper towel and add to the pan. Stir-fry to brown the ribs all over. Add 4 cups of the water and then add the dill, choy sum, and chives. Tear 5 of the lime leaves into pieces and add to the pot as well. Stir to immerse the greens. Water should nearly cover the ingredients - if necessary add more.
3. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to a gentle simmer, stirring to immerse the greens. Partially cover the pot and cook slowly for about an hour and a half, stirring occasionally to make sure all the greens are cooked. Add more water if anything starts sticking.
4. At the end of cooking time the greens should have softened and partially melted into the stew and the meat should be falling-apart tender. Add the fish sauce and taste for seasoning. At this point the stew can be set aside for a couple of hours or refrigerated overnight.
5. Just before serving, bring the stew back to a simmer. Stack the remaining three lime leaves, roll into a tight cylinder, and slice into slivers; add them to the stew, along with the scallions and lots of black pepper to taste. Serve in bowls with rice on the side.