More is generally known to Canadians about Thai cuisine than of Lao. People fucking love Thai food. Many Lao immigrants to Canada have found themselves cooking Thai food, many of them owning Thai restaurants. The descriptor “Northern Thai” in many instances actually means the food of Laos. There is a kind of brand recognition thing going on, and that may be the difference between a blank stare through the window and a packed dining room so who can blame them.
Although there are many similarities between Thai and Lao food, there are also a number of differences that will be covered over many many posts. Whether this holds true in Thailand or not, the concept has been repeated enough times that its certainly true here: Thai food is about the balance between sweet, salty, acidic, umami. The dish comes together when it balances out. This approach is not so much the case in the food of Laos.
The pursuit of umami depth is a central point to Lao cooking. Called Nhua the dark, meaty depth of flavor is the bass-heavy backdrop for many of the Lao hits. Things are traditionally cooked over coals, and things such as shallots, onions, galangal root, and chilies can be cooked to a point of charred caramelization, loaning a smokey depth to soups and condiments called jaews. Like the Mekong that flows through Laos, the Lao fish sauced called padaek runs through the cuisine. River fish mixed with rice bran and salt are subjected to long, hot fermentation times producing a pungent, sludgy dark liquid that when mixed with sugar, lime and chilies synchronizes into an unmistakable ultimate umami experience.
“Lao people talk about nhua as a good thing, or if you had something that wasn’t good or missed the mark you would say it doesn’t have nhua.” Nhua is half of the word for MSG, monosodium glutamate the flavor enhancing compound, called pang nhua. Surrounded by countries like China, Thailand and Vietnam that have made liberal use of MSG in their cuisine, Laos was slow to catch on the trend. Less MSG is used in Laotian cooking than in its neighboring countries, and even if its accepted as a modern convenience its still kind of shameful. In explaining this Chris tells me: “A good Lao cook would brag that ‘my cooking has nhua without pang nhua!”