Beer Lao accompaniment par excellence: dried mushrooms fried with chilies, garlic, and lime leaves
We're back in Kuala Lumpur unpacking suitcases full of goodies purchased during our trip, including:
- a particular style of thin, cheap hammered metal bowl that we became obsessed with early in the trip, searched for at every market we visited, and finally found in plain sight on our last day in Chiang Mai at Warorot (I'm now wishing I'd bought more than 4).
- three types of tua nao (pressed and sun-dried fermented soybean cakes), a northern Lao and Thai kitchen essential
- many varieties of chilies, dried and left whole and ground.
- a bundle of dried branches of the northern Thai variety of prickly ash, berries still intact.
- a thick slab of artisan brown cane sugar.
- a kilo of nicely tart and exceptionally flavorful mango leather (about U$3.50).
- an 8-pack of mung bean vermicelli -- not a particularly exotic ingredient but one that is for some reason hard to come by in Kuala Lumpur.
- kai pen, Luang Prabang-style river algae that's pounded into a sheet, sometimes seasoned (ours has bits of garlic and tomato and lots of sesame seeds), and dried in the sun -- eaten toasted or deep-fried, usually with jaew bong (a lovely sweet-spicy dip made with dried buffalo skin).
- an amazingly delicious sort of 'preserve', of het lom (a meaty brown mushroom seen in northern Thailand and Isaan, especially around September/October) fried with whole dried peppers and prickly ash in a pool of oil, picked up last Friday at Chiang Mai's Cin Haw market. (The seller recommended eating them with khao tom/congee but I'm also envisioning them tossed with stir-fried minced pork, scallions, and good noodles.)
Also, speaking of fungi, the treat pictured above: slivered dried mushrooms fried with garlic slices, lime leaves, and dried chilies till crisp.
Spied at the morning market near Luang Prabang's National Museum (and then subsequently at other markets around town), it's reminiscent of Thai-style fried peanuts and cashews -- but oh so much better.
When those already intensely fragrant dried mushrooms hit the oil they lose whatever moisture remains and become nothing but carriers of pure mushroom essence. A single spindly crisp delivers a punch of mushroom flavor to which the fiery dried chilies and grassy-limey lime leaves are the perfect complement.
This isn't a snack to be eaten by the handful but slowly -- one piece at a time, one after another, preferably with an ice-cold beer Lao to sip as a chaser.