Like many people, I wasn’t familiar with Lao or Cambodian food before I visited Southeast Asia. The two cuisines aren’t as well known as their Southeast Asian neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam. Both Lao and Cambodian food are similar in some ways to their neighboring countries. They have curries similar to Thailand, but not as spicy. From Vietnam and the colonial influence they have baguettes and dark, rich coffee. However they are distinct cuisines, with their own proud histories and unique elements.
The staple food of Laos is sticky rice, which Laotians eat with every meal. You ball up some sticky rice in your hand and then use it to scoop the main dishes into your mouth. On my trek we had sticky rice coming out of our eyeballs – sticky rice with stir-fried vegetables, sticky rice with scrambled eggs, fried rice.
preparing sticky rice
I learned about the building blocks of Lao cooking by taking a cooking class at Tamarind in Luang Prabang. We started with a market tour, where our teacher pointed out commonly-used ingredients – fresh bamboo, banana flower, Lao basil, chili, cilantro, fish sauce, galangal, kaffir lime, lemongrass, Lao mint, pak hom baen (saw tooth coriander), shrimp paste, snake beans, Lao eggplant, and cloud ear mushrooms.
variety of herbs and eggplant
the purple thing is banana flower
woman preparing fresh bamboo
congealed pig’s blood
local fruit (from left to right: dragon fruit, green mango, longon, apple, rambutan)
Many Lao dishes are made from pastes of herbs, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf, shallots, garlic, and fish sauce. These pastes are made in large mortar and pestles. Once the paste is combined with meat or fish the food is either grilled over a charcoal-fired clay brazier or steamed in a banana leaf.
ingredients set out at the tamarind cooking school
making a paste in a mortar and pestle
fish steamed in a banana leaf
Mok Pa: Fish Steamed in Banana Leaves
recipe from Tamarind Cooking School
Note: you may need to visit your local Asian supermarket to find some of these ingredients. Banana leaves can sometimes be found in the freezer section.
3 TB sticky rice powder, uncooked
5 Asian shallots
1 clove garlic
1 chili (to taste)
2 inches inner lemongrass stalk, finely chopped
1/2 tsp salt, to taste
3 kaffir lime leaves (bruised with a pestle to release flavors)
3 TB chopped dill
2 TB chopped Lao basil (can substitute Thai basil)
2 small spring onions/scallions, chopped
2 TB water
1 TB fish sauce
4 banana leaf rectangles approx 21 x 25 cm
In a mortar and pestle, place sticky rice powder, shallots, garlic, chili, lemongrass, and salt. Pound to a paste. Add lime leaves, dill, basil, and spring onions. Pound further to incorporate. Add water and fish sauce. Stir in fish pieces.
Run each banana leaf over a flame but do not allow to burn. They should soften and become a little shiny. Take two banana leaf rectangles and place one across the other. Place half the fish mixture without any liquid residue at the center of the leaf. Fold each side up and secure the leaves together with a toothpick, creating a pyramid shape. Just before finally sealing the package, spoon in a little of the liquid residue.
Steam gently for 15 minutes over a high heat or until cooked. When the banana leaves turn a khaki shade, they are cooked.
Serve with sticky rice and steamed vegetables.
Cambodian cuisine is influenced by neighboring Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and even China. It’s also reliant on the abundant freshwater fish from the Tonle Sap Lake and rice of course. I took Cambodian cooking classes in both Siem Reap and Battambang and learned about traditional ingredients and dishes.
ingredients for banana leaf salad
banana leaf sliced
eating my creations in siem reap
market in battambang
snake fish from tonle sap lake
nary of nary’s kitchen starting our class
ingredients to make paste for fish amok
fish amok in banana leaf bowl, ready for the steamer
making fried spring rolls
frying spring rolls
marinating beef for beef lok lak
finished beef lok lak
fish amok and spring rolls
recipe from Nary’s Kitchen Cooking School
100g white fish fillet
3-4 cloves garlic
1/2 tsp sugar
pinch of salt
1-2 kaffir lime leaves
1 tsp prahok (Cambodian fish paste) (can substitute shrimp paste)
150-200mL coconut milk
1/2 tsp chicken bouillon
1 square cm cube fresh turmeric root (can substitute turmeric powder)
1 square cm fresh galangal
1 square cm fresh finger root/Chinese ginger
1-2 red sun-dried paprika (can substitute paprika powder)
1-2 fresh nhor leaves (can substitute spinach or kale)
1-2 stalks fresh lemongrass, take the white part about 10cm long from bottom
banana leaves to make a package bowl (can use ceramic bowl)
1/2 tsp cornstarch
Thinly slice fresh lemongrass. Slice galangal, turmeric, kaffir lime leaf, and finger root. Pound together in a mortar and pestle until well combined. Soak then clean sun-dried paprika then mince until it is a fine paste. Mix into the paste along with garlic and prahok/shrimp paste and keep pounding until it is a fine paste, for about 10 minutes.
Thinly slice the filleted fish and put in a bowl. Add chicken bouillon, sugar, salt, and then stir with a spoon. Add the paste from the mortar, along with enough coconut milk to make a thick mixture. Reserve 40mL of the coconut milk to make coconut cream.
Fold two stacked banana leaves to make a bowl. Package it with toothpicks at the four corners, or use a ceramic bowl.
Make coconut cream by simmering 40mL coconut milk and then add cornstarch. Stir and cook with low heat until thick.
Tear up nhor leaves and put in the bottom of the banana bowl. Spoon all the fish into the bowl then cook in a steam cooker. Steam for 20 minutes then sprinkle 2-3 TB coconut cream over the fish amok along with a few slices of red paprika and thinly sliced kaffir lime leaf on top for garnish.
Other Favorite Lao and Cambodian Foods
As per my usual custom, I ate a lot of street food in Laos and Cambodia. Here are some of my favorites:
barbequed whole fish at the luang prabang night market – perfectly cooked and infused with lemongrass. you could always find a variety of barbequed meats for a quick protein-rich snack or meal.
lao khao soi soup in luang prabang. just like neighboring vietnam, soup for breakfast is popular in laos
lao coffee – a delicious brew of strong coffee and condensed milk. I was addicted!
baguette sandwich in angkor wat, cambodia. kind of banh mi-like, with pork, cucumber, shredded green papaya, and chili sauce.
cambodian iced coffee, with strong coffee and condensed milk. this stuff is seriously crack.
fresh fruit can be found everywhere. this is unripe mango, which is crunchy like apples
delicious fried goodies – these are doughnut-like with a sticky sesame glaze
unbelievably tasty beef stew for breakfast in kampot, cambodia
fresh spring rolls at the central market in phnom penh
These photos make me miss Southeast Asia! I enjoyed the food of Laos and Cambodia –not as much as Thailand or Vietnam, but it was still pretty tasty.