The Lao condiment game goes hard. At every table set to eat you can find at least one jeow (pronounced like you’re trying to say ‘jail’ with gum in your mouth). These can be loosely defined as dips that you’d apply to your food, or eat just straight up with khao niao. They accentuate and augment the flavors of what you’re eating, but sometimes take stage as a headlining feature themselves. Jeows are versatile and diverse, showcasing any number of seasonal ingredients, ferments, charcuterie or fish products.
A staple of the Laohaus menu is jeow som, a multi-purpose dip with a lot of punch. It can be made quickly with ingredients the Lao cook likely has on hand: garlic, sugar, chilies, lime juice, fish sauce, and salt. The heat of this jeow varies depending on the chilies preference of the person making it, but it is usually spicy, salty and sour. Simply thum your first three ingredients with a little salt to either a coarse or fine consistency and add the lime juice and fish sauce. The guys usually finish theirs with fresh cilantro leaves. It’s an amazing compliment to Lao fried chicken, and tasty to have as a dip with sticky rice.
Much Lao food is prepared outside on a small charcoal grill. Cooking at moderate to low temperatures with the food low to the coals is generally employed for a number of dishes. The technique of skewering vegetables and then cooking them until blackened before thuming them together is fundamental. Obviously, a gas grill or even an oven with a broiler setting can be used as a substitute to the charcoal grill and the end result will be delicious, although cooking with charcoal imbues the food with smokey depth.
Jeow maklen is a jeow that employs this technique, blackening tomatoes, shallots, garlic, and chilies, peeling them once cool enough to handle and pulverizing them in the mortar and pestle, adding sugar, fish sauce, and cilantro to the mash. Again, this multipurposed jeow can find home in many places, but stands out with eggs.
Not all jeows are so fresh and vegetal. A prized accompaniment to beef is the polarizing jeow bih. First and second generation Lao-Canadians seem polarized by it, holding it up as a loved and necessary accoutrement to beef, or jeered as a strange tasting liquid of gross origins. The debate seems to centre around what it is, exactly: beef bile, mixed with an assortment of Lao food’s usual suspects, fish sauce, chilies, shallots, green onions, and cilantro. Beef bile is dark green to yellowish and has a strong, bitter flavor. In Canada beef bile is easiest acquired at Portuguese specialty stores, as its used in papaitan, a bile and offal soup. As it is with most good things, once you’ve gathered up the courage to get over your own damn self, you’ll discover jeow bih to be a deep, unctuous dip with all the sexy spicy-bitterness of a dangerous affair – and its way less likely to ruin your life.
There are numerous different jeows with numberless variations to them. We’ll go through them more in greater detail over the next few months, but until then: “when I dip, you dip, we dip.”