Every place has got its staple flavors. Often times, white chefs might not know how to make a dish in a way that legitimately resembles someone else’s cuisine, but they know what herbs and spices to use so they’ll often try their hand at it and mark their menu with the word “authentic.” A dish loaded with smokey chilies, cilantro, lime, oregano, and cumin will inevitably call to mind Mexico; scallions, thyme, and allspice together make a dish Jamaican; turmeric anywhere, in anything – BOOM – Indian. When and how to use each of these herbs and spices in its right place is quite a bit more complicated and asks a deeper study of the cuisine, but hey, those people probably won’t eat here. So long as the benchmark flavors are nailed, it can at least be seen as tactful homage.
Lao food also has its preferred herbs and spices, but the cuisine has a tendency to duck away from homogeneous dishes and smooth sauces, so one simply can’t put all of them in a Vitamix and call the dish Lao (sorry, Chaz). In fact, the economy of herbs and spices being rendered different through how they’re prepared or when they’re incorporated into a dish is what defines the flavors of Lao cuisine. Things are transformed in the alchemy of grilling, pounding, frying, stewing, combining with fish sauce and padaek, being brightened by acid. Like painting, colours are made by mixing others together on the palette: a bit of this, and a bit of that, and the combinations are endless.
Here’s a brief overview of some of the common, fresh-use plant-based aromatics that star in Lao cuisine. There will be more of a discussion about roots, barks, and dried spices later on.
Shallots, garlic, lemongrass. These are one of the trinities that make up the flavor base of Lao cooking. Shallots tend to be preferred to onions in many cases, garlic is all over the place, and the unmistakable flavor of lemongrass can be found in a variety of preparations. These ingredients are treated in a number of different ways, depending on the dish: all of them are chopped and sauteed, pounded raw, grilled black and peeled or used charred, added raw, simmered in stocks, and fried into crispy bits. Each method of preparation accentuates the vegetable differently and brings a different dimension to the dish.
Cilantro, Mint and Lemon-Thai-or-Holy Basil. Cilantro leaves are everywhere. Two difficult to accommodate dietary misfortunes at the restaurant are fish allergies and cilantro aversions. Cilantro is in everything. Sorry. They are used fresh as garnish, in salads, in jeows, soups, stews, larbs. There are other herbs in Laos, like saw mint, that make their appearance mitigating the amount of cilantro used, but they are difficult to obtain here. Mint is used in fresh rolls and salads. Again, in Laos lemon basil is used frequently, but because of availability thai basil is an available substitute. (That said, if anyone in the Stratford-Tri-City area has lemon basil seed, hit us up.)
Dill? One of the biggest surprises of the Lao herb garden is dill. Stereotyped as a cold climate summer herb, dill is most associated with the cooking of Northern Europe, Eastern Europe, and Russia. Yet, bound up with coarse pork fat in the Lao sausage sai oua (one of the most divine sausages under the sun) or in many of the awks, dill shines as an unmistakably Lao ingredient.
Lime leaves. Keffir lime leaves show themselves in many dishes, commonly found in soups and stews, stir fries, salads, and again present in sai oua. They are dark green and shiny, and have an unmistakable sweet, citrusy fragrance. These are commonly available at most Asian grocery stores, and freeze well if you’re not going to use them every day.
Pandan leaf and betel leaf. Pandan leaf can be found in most Asian grocery stores. They’re a pleated leaf that’s bright green and shiny. They’re most commonly used in desserts like sago pearls in coconut milk. Its sometimes called Asian vanilla because it has a faint vanilla taste. Betel leaves are a heart-shaped leaf that come from a vine. They’re used at times as a lettuce wrap, or to wrap the beef mixture in phing seen nguah, which are like little grilled meat blunts. They can easily be substituted with grape leaves and treated similar to Lebanese dolma.
and of course, chilies. Chilies are in everything, and there’s absolutely no room to be a sissy about them. If you want it not to be spicy go eat a bag of shit. Otherwise, you’re going to be ingesting those fiery red beauties by the dozens. Most common varieties are thai bird’s eye chilies, although fresno and cayenne can be used if that’s what’s available. Thai bird’s eye chilies clock in at about 100,000 on the Scoville scale, which is a fare amount of punch, but that scale goes pretty high – into the millions. Think of the Scoville scale as a mountain range with steep trails and tall peaks: a jalapeno is like a beginners trail that’s kind of pretty but doesn’t offer much exercise; a bird’s eye chili is like a beautiful cliff side with a view of the countryside. It’s a view people that don’t want to eat spice will never have because they’re dying alone in suburbia.