My superlative Citizens! Welcome to the first installment of TFD’s “Week of Rare Dumplings” – and I have decided to share perhaps the most obscure one (at least to Westerners) to start with! The King of Karma believes in elevating this recipe from the country of Laos for many reasons, not the least of which is the truth that Lao food is one of My all-time favorite cuisines and deserves a FAR wider audience. With that – let us discuss the delicious history of Laotian cuisine and sakoo yat sai dumplings!
I have always been intrigued by sakoo yat sai being served inside lettuce leaves, akin to enjoying Korean bulgogi in a similar fashion. It may seem odd to wrap dumplings in lettuce leaves, but trust Me – the Lao have achieved a unique textural experience (one I consider a masterpiece, in fact!) in not just the filling of sakoo yat sai, but the skins, the wrapping and the accompaniments all to be savored in a unique bite that any Asian (or foodie!) will simply adore!
As eruditely detailed in this (excerpted) article I found on factsanddetails.com:
Lao cuisine is the cuisine of Laos, which is distinct from other Southeast Asian cuisines. The Lao originally came from the north in a region that became China, but moved southward and brought with them their Lao traditions.
Due to historical Lao migrations from Laos into neighboring countries that share borders with Laos, Lao cuisine has strongly influenced the neighboring region of Northeastern Thailand (Isan) and some Lao culinary influences have also reached Cambodia and Northern Thailand (Lanna) where the Lao have migrated.
The staple food of the Lao is steamed sticky rice which is eaten by hand. In fact, the Lao eat more sticky rice than any group or people in the world; sticky rice is considered the essence of what it means to be “Lao”—many Lao even referred to themselves as, “Luk Khao Niaow”, which can be translated as, “children/descendants of sticky rice”. Galangal, lemongrass and padaek (Lao fish sauce) are important ingredients. [Source: Wikipedia +]
Lao food differs from neighboring cuisines in multiple respects. One is that the Lao meal almost always includes a large quantity of fresh raw greens, vegetables and herbs served undressed on the side. Another is that savory dishes are never sweet. “Sweet and sour” is generally considered bizarre and foreign in Laos. Yet another is that some dishes are bitter. There is a saying in Lao cuisine, “van pen lom; khom pen ya,” which can be translated as, “sweet makes you dizzy; bitter makes you healthy.”
A couple of the green herbs favored in Lao cuisine but generally ignored by their neighbors are mint and dill, both of paramount importance. Galangal is a cooking herb that is heavily favored in Laos, unlike in neighboring countries.
It appears in probably the majority of Lao dishes, along with the conventional herbs: garlic, shallots, lemongrass, etc. Another distinctive characteristic of Lao food or more properly, Lao eating habits, is that food is frequently eaten at room temperature. This may be attributable to the fact that Lao food served with sticky rice is traditionally handled by hand.
Amanda Hesser wrote in the New York Times, “Laotian food hasn’t yet made it onto the world stage, and that may be because most people treat lush and tiny Laos like Luxembourg and Andorra — countries too small, too obscure, to bother with. Until I visited, the most elaborate description I had been given of the cuisine was that it was ”like Vietnamese but with better sausage.”
“Traditionally, Laos does have better sausage than Vietnam — everything from blood sausage to slender pork links to water buffalo patties flavored with kaffir lime leaf. Laotians also eat pho, only it often contains more greens than its Vietnamese counterpart.
Some of the most traditional foods found in Luang Prabang are bamboo salad; edible leaves filled with eggplant, rice noodles, lemon grass, ginger and coriander; deep-fried eggs stuffed with pork; fish and meat salads called laap; sun-dried buffalo; and pork belly cured with vinegar and garlic and grilled on sticks. Laos, like its neighbors, depends on rice as a staple.
But Laotians eat sticky rice, which they crush into a ball with their fingers and use like a sponge to soak up sauces, instead of using chopsticks. They also eat a great deal of vegetables and herbs, with a preference for bitter, herbal and astringent flavors, the telltale characteristics of Laotian cooking.
“Traditional Laotian cooking involves a lot of game, wild boar and river fish, as well as the occasional bug and water monitor. Because Laos, which is wedged between Thailand and Vietnam, is landlocked, there are no ocean fish. ‘If you give a Lao a fish from the ocean, they won’t like it,” one Vientiane chef said. ”They’ll say it doesn’t smell of the earth.””
Amanda Hesser wrote in the New York Times, “The city of Luang Prabang was once known throughout Laos for its exceptional food because the royal family, who had the best cooks, resided there. After the Pathet Lao sent several members of the royal family to re-education camps (where it is presumed they died), people went back to cooking more simply, and the composed cuisine of the monarchy went into hibernation.
Much of the rice eaten in Laos is glutenous (sticky rice), the variety favored by the Lao. It is often cooked by warping the rice with leaves which are interested in a bamboo tube and placed by a fire. Padeck is the distinctive and unique Lao traditional food. It’s a mixture of fish and salt that is marinated and preserved in a jar for minimum of a year up. In the countryside people eat turkey and “mak kok” (a small green fruit that tastes astringent at first but tastes sweet after a swig of water).
Another of Lao invention is a spicy green Papaya salad dish known as tam mak hoong or more famously known to the West as som tam. Tam Mak houng is made from sliced raw papaya, garlic, chile, peanuts, sugar, fermented fish sauce and lime juice.
Laotians Dishes include sticky rice and “laap”, “tam som” (a spicy papaya salad made with chilies, lime juice, peanuts, garlic and paa daek), “foe” (Vietnamese style rice noodle soup), “samla machou” (tangy sour fish soup), “bok-bok” (a spicy papaya salad), “ping kai” (spicy grilled chicken), “khao ptak sen” (a noodle soup with crushed ginger and pork or chicken), “khao pun” (flour noodles topped with spicy coconut sauce), “naem” (spicy sausage with herbs rice and chilies), barbecued fresh fish, grilled meats (often served as small kebabs), steamed fish or chicken in banana leaves and sour bamboo soup made with fermented bamboo shoots.
Every region of Laos has its own specialties, for example in Luang Prabang one treat is kaipen a fried snack made of fresh water weed eaten with jaew bong, a sweet and spicy Lao paste made with roasted chilies, pork skin, galangal and other ingredients. Vientiane province is known for its heavily-salted, fermented “pa daek” fish paste, “koy paa” (sour and spicy minced fish salad), “kaeng paa” (fish soup) and “neung paa” (a delicious dish of steamed fish and fresh herbs).
Luang Prabang specialties include “nang khu-wai haeng” (dried water buffalo skin), “jaew bawng” (a jam-like condiment made with hot chillies and buffalo ski), “aw lam” (a thick soup made with mushrooms, meat, eggplant, and a bitter forest herb called “Sakhan”), “ao-lam” (a salad made with a unique river vegetable similar to seaweed, it is often pressed flat and served with sesame seeds), “jaeo-bong” (tamarind-flavored fish soup), “khai paen” (dried river moss lightly fried with sesame seeds and garlic), watercress salad, rice dishes flavored with chicken and Mekong River fish, stir-fried with morning glory stems.
Southern specialities include water buffalo skin and tamarind jam. Fish lovers will enjoy Champasak Province’s Mekong fish dishes, such as fish salad (laab paa and koi paa), fermented fish (paa dek), and the local specialty, pureed fish (paa ka tao).
Indian, Vietnamese, Thai and Chinese dishes are also widely available. They include things like fried noodles, fried rice, fried rice with chicken, fried rice with pork, fried rice with prawns, Indian-style curry, crisp fried noodles, sweet and sour vegetables, beef in oyster sauce, chicken with ginger and coconut milk, fried rice with ginger, curried chicken, grilled fish in banana leaves, pork, chicken or prawn soup, and curries.
As you can see – a most unique and varied cuisine indeed! Like their Cambodian and Northeastern Thai neighbors, Lao people have no hesitation eating a wide range of insects as part of their normal diet, though I believe Cambodians alone eat (VERY LARGE) spiders on a regular basis.
Back to more palatable (to Westerners, anyway) discussions – specifically to the delightful gustatory joy that is sakoo yat sai!
Sakoo yat sai are pork and peanut-filled dumplings eaten with fresh herbs, a sprinkle of fried garlic, a small piece of chili pepper, and wrapping the dumpling(s) in lettuce that ideally should be eaten right out of the steamer! You’ll frequently find sakoo yat sai eaten at many Lao New Year gatherings in April – especially in the Sacramento-area of California that is home to the largest Lao Hmong expat population in the world! Sadly, there is no historical provenance on these dumplings that I can find to share with you.
The filling exemplifies the sweet, spicy and flavor-packed profile that is the hallmark of Lao cooking – fatty ground pork, cilantro stems, garlic, shallots
palm sugar, finely-chopped sweet pickled radish, finely-chopped roasted peanuts, Thai dark soy sauce, top-quality fish sauce, garlic oil, and freshly-ground black and white peppercorns.
Tapioca balls and sesame oil are the only other unusual ingredients needed, the others are linked above for easy purchase in making the ULTIMATE sakoo yat sai recipe – My own, of course! 😀 Sakoo yat sai are NOT easily found, even in many Lao restaurants, but it is truly worthy of making just once at home to know what all the fuss is about! To see all of the current Lao recipes here on TFD, this link shall serve as your Psychopomp, guiding you to these buried recipes posted over the last 8+ years!
Sakoo yat sai may be kicking off the week of rare dumplings, but trust Me, My Citizens – there are still 5 more delicious and unique recipes to go (as noted in My previous post, I’m resting on the 7th Day, taking a cue from a friend.) 😉 In the meantime, sakoo yat sai shall fill My dreams and soon enough – My empty stomach as well! Sakoo yat sai is truly deserving of being a part of your meal rotation – it’s just THAT good and proffers a unique flavor experience from a unique country/cuisine!
Battle on – the GeneralissimoPrint
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