My Citizens – please accept My apologies for the all-too-frequent lacunæ between posts of the last several weeks, as My depression has been profound and it has been a Herculean struggle to try and write recipes for all of the patient and loyal members of TFD Nation!
Despite the profundities of dealing with clinical depression, fear not – for I have emerged from My shadowed limbo to share another recipe of merit, replete with spicy goodness to rouse not only your palates, but My own as well! As such, and without further ado – please join Me on a tour of the rarely-experienced cuisine of Laos in general and this delicious spicy tomato ‘salsa’ in particular!
Lao cuisine or Laotian cuisine is the cuisine of Laos, which is EXTREMELY distinct from other Southeast Asian cuisines!
The staple food of the Lao is steamed sticky rice. In the Lao language, sticky rice is known as khao niao (Lao:ເຂົ້າໜຽວ): khao means ‘rice’, and niao means ‘sticky’. Lao people eat more sticky rice than any other people in the world. In Laos, a tiny landlocked nation with a population of approximately 6 million, per-capita sticky rice consumption is the highest on earth at 171 kg or 377 pounds per year.
Sticky rice is deeply ingrained in the culture, religious tradition and national identity of Laos. It is a common belief within the Lao community that no matter where they are in the world, sticky rice will always be the glue that holds the Lao communities together, connecting them to their culture and to Laos. Affinity for sticky rice is considered the essence of what it means to be Lao. Often the Lao will refer to themselves as luk khao niaow, which can be translated as ‘children or descendants of sticky rice’. Today’s dipping sauce recipe is in fact designed for sticky rice (as well as vegetables and meats) and will light up your palate like the 4th of July!
The trifecta of Laos’ national cuisine are sticky rice, larb, and tam mak hoong. The most famous Lao dish is larb (Lao: ລາບ; sometimes also spelled laab or laap), a spicy mixture of marinated meat or fish that is sometimes raw (prepared like ceviche) with a variable combination of herbs, greens, and spices. Another Lao invention is a spicy green papaya salad dish known as tam mak hoong (Lao: ຕໍາໝາກຫູ່ງ), more famously known to the West as som tam.
Lao cuisine has many regional variations, corresponding in part to the fresh foods local to each region. A French legacy is still evident in the capital city, Vientiane, where baguettes are sold on the street and French restaurants are common and popular (which were first introduced when Laos was a part of French Indochina).
The Lao originally came from a northern region that is now part of China. As they moved south, they brought their traditions with them. Due to historical Lao migrations from Laos into neighboring regions, Lao cuisine has influenced the mainly Lao-populated region of northeastern Thailand (Isan), and Lao foods were also introduced to Cambodia and northern Thailand (Lan Na) where the Lao have migrated.
With the Columbian exchange, non-native crops—such as tomato, papaya, sweetcorn, pineapple and chili peppers—were introduced to Southeast Asia probably through the various sea ports of modern-day Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam via the Philippines and Malacca. Through trades with the Portuguese and other Europeans, acceptance and cultivation of non-native crops and ingredients quickly spread throughout Southeast Asia.
By the mid-1500s, the Europeans were already exploring and trading with mainland Southeast Asia reaching as far as Vientiane and Luang Prabang, Laos. Some of the more notable Europeans who had travelled as far as Vientiane and Luang Prabang or wrote extensively about their experiences were Fernão Mendes Pinto (1542-1545), Diogo Veloso and Blas Ruiz (1596), Geebard van Wusthof (1641), Giovanni Filippo de Marini (1642-1648), Jean-Baptiste Pallegoix (1830), and Henri Mouhot (1861).
Simon de la Loubère (1642-1729) observed that the cultivation of the papaya was already widespread in Siam around the early-1700s and by the time Jean-Baptiste Pallegoix (1830) arrived as missionary to Bangkok; the papaya and chili peppers was already fully integrated in the Lao territory, dependencies and the Southeast Asian food culture as a whole. According to Henri Mouhot (1826–1861), the French explorer and ‘discoverer’ of Angkor Wat, during his trip to Luang Prabang, he noted that the Laotians absolutely adored chili peppers.
In his book, Culture and Customs of Laos, Arne Kislenko noted the following about Lao cuisine:
Any discussion about Lao cuisine cannot be limited to Laos. There are approximately six times more ethnic Lao in the Isan region of northeastern Thailand than in Laos itself, which makes it necessary to go beyond national boundaries in search of definitively Lao food. In fact, with the recent droves of migrants from Isan further south to Bangkok, the Thai capital has in many respects become the epicenter of Lao cuisine. Some estimate that more Lao are there than in any other city in the world, including Vientiane. There are also sizable expatriate communities in places like the United States and France that make for numerous culinary variations abroad.
According to the cultural anthropologist Penny Van Esterik, during the 1950s and 1960s, Lao food was little known by the central Thais and could be found only where there were gatherings of Lao or northeasterners:
In the 1950s and 1960s glutinous rice, roast chicken, laab, somtam (papaya salad), and other Lao favorites were available in Bangkok only around the boxing stadium where northeastern boxers and fans gathered to eat and drink before and after boxing matches. Lao food could also be found outside construction sites in mobile food carts providing construction workers from the northeast with their regional foods and beside gas stations serving long-distance bus drivers.
At the conclusion of the Vietnam War, between 1975 and 1995, it was estimated that approximately 200,000 Lao refugees crossed the Mekong River into Thailand. Most stayed in the refugee camps while other moved to Bangkok looking for work.
With the opening of the Mittraphap Road and the northeastern railway connecting central Thailand to her northern provinces created a gateway for one of Thailand’s biggest inter-regional migrations during the economic boom of the 1980s, as demand for labour increased. It was estimated that between 1980–1990 about 1.1 million northeasterners moved from the northeast to central Thailand and Bangkok. This, in turn, helped popularize and create an unprecedented demand for Lao food outside of Laos and the northeast.
Van Esterik further noted that, “[i]n attempting to include northeastern food in a standardized national cuisine, middle-class Bangkok selected and modified the taste of a few dishes—grilled chicken, somtam, laab—by reducing the chili peppers and increasing the sugar, and ignored other dishes such as fermented fish and insects.” According to Professor Sirijit Sunanta, these dishes were then represented as Thai food when presented to the world.
Although more ethnic Lao live in Thailand than in Laos, and Lao cuisine is key to popularizing Thai food abroad, the word ‘Lao’ is hardly mentioned; perhaps due to forced Thaification (1942–present), an official attempt to promote national unity and ‘Thainess’, in which any mention of ‘Lao’ and other non-Thai descriptors were removed and replaced with euphemisms such as ‘northeastern Thai’ or ‘Isan’.
Consequently, Thaification has led to social discrimination against northeasterners, and the word ‘Lao’ became a derogatory term. Being ‘Lao’ was stigmatized as being uneducated and backward, thus causing many northeasterners to be ashamed to be known as Lao. More recently, as Lao identity loses its stigma, there is now a real sense of resurgence and pride in Lao identity, particularly among the Isan youth.
In the West, even with sizable expatriate communities, Lao cuisine is still virtually unknown even though much of what is served in Thai restaurants is likely to be Lao or Lao-owned. In fact, unbeknownst to most people, when they eat their favorite som tam, larb, and sticky rice at their favorite Thai or northeastern Thai (Isan) restaurants they are actually eating the Thai versions of traditional Lao food. This accidental reinforcement of Thaification by the expatriate Lao communities and Lao restaurateurs is well observed by Malaphone Phommasa and Celestine Detvongsa in their article, Lao American Ethnic Economy:
Unlike […] ethnic specific stores, Lao-owned restaurants are doing better in reaching out to the general public. Although there are some restaurants that advertised as singularly “Laotian”, many Lao restaurants are established under the guise of Thai restaurants and Thai/Lao restaurants to entice mainstream customers. Because most Americans are unfamiliar with Laotian food, Lao entrepreneurs have aimed to acquire more business by advertising themselves as Thai restaurants: the latter have successfully achieved popularity with the mainstream population. These restaurateurs would then incorporate Lao dishes onto the menu.
Although there are many similarities between Lao and northern Thai cuisine, certain foods will distinguish a true Thai restaurant from a Lao-owned restaurant would be the inclusion of “sticky rice” on the menu…
Now – with the ethnographic history of Lao cuisine out of the way, let us discuss the dipping sauce recipe at hand!
Jeow mak len, is a traditional Laotian condiment that traditionally accompanies grilled meat, fresh vegetables, or fried fish – all Summer favorites here in the United States, making this a most timely recipe to post indeed! As it keeps in the fridge for about 3 days and is very easy to make, I am confident it will be a hit at your next cookout as people are blown away by your ‘Asian salsa’!
While this spicy dipping sauce is one of MANY in Lao culture, it’s actually a personal favorite of many. The basic ingredients are familiar to any Mexican salsa maker with one exception: tomatoes, garlic, shallots, fish sauce, sugar, cilantro, and green onions. When any Asian dish is translated into English, you can bet that there are going to be many variations in names – some of these variants include:
- jaew mak len
- jiew mak len
- jiew marg len
- nam jeaw mak
- Thai dipping sauce
- Lao dipping sauce
The word jaew (as well as the other ways it’s translated when spelled out) means ‘sauce’. The words ‘mak len’ means tomato, so this recipe in Lao literally translates to ‘tomato sauce’. If jaew sauce had to be explained, it’s best described as a spicy salsa, with a smokey flavor from grilling the vegetables and a huge hit of umami from fish sauce. It is not a difficult condiment to make – no more difficult than Mexican salsa, although it has a few extra ingredients in my version such as dark soy sauce with mushroom flavor (a TFD addition for even more umami) and two types of piscine-based condiments to best imitate the way it is served in Laos.
The first is the classic Southeast Asian version of fish sauce – easy enough to find and this one is my strongly-preferred version. The second is a Lao and Cambodian thick preserved fish sauce called prahok that is not only incredibly hard to find in the U.S., it exudes a potent (and to many Westerners, repugnant) odor. As such, I recommend substituting mashed anchovy in its place – as always, I only endorse Ortiz brand anchovies which are easily found via Amazon here.
Citizens, I hope you enjoy this delicious dipping sauce at your next outdoor soirée, bbq or even just for midnight snacking with chips – it’s that good! It’s also a GREAT way to use up your Summer bounty of tomato, whether Roma tomato (My grocery store choice), cherry tomato or if you’re REALLY lucky – an heirloom tomato grown in your own garden! This would be a great dipping sauce to serve alongside another of My favorite Lao condiments – sweet and spicy chili dipping sauce!
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