Bamboo shoots; The edible young shoot of the bamboo plant is sold in many forms in Laos. Fresh shoots usually need to be boiled to soften them to an edible form. However those sold vacuum packed in Asian groceries have most likely already been boiled. Tinned shoots for Chinese stir fried will not give the same texture or flavour.
Banana flower: The purple bud at the end of a banana bunch, available from Asian grocers, does not have a strong flavour, but is often used in Lao salads to add texture. Remove outer leaves and shred finely. If prepared in advance, cover with water and a squeeze of lemon juice to prevent browning.
Banana leaf: Extremely versatile, banana can be used as a wrapping, in place of plastic bags or aluminium foil and is perfect as a wrapper for steaming foods. If it is not available at your local Asian grocer, experiment with cabbage leaves, capsicum, ceramic ramekins or baking paper as alternatives.
Basil: Laos has three common varieties of basil. The one preferred for these recipes is called pak itou. It has a slight aniseed taste, and can best be compared with the Thai sweet basil, which makes an acceptable substitute.
Chilli: the popular Lao chilli, mak pet kinou is small & fiery. Use your local chilli to achieve your desired level of heat. Hot chillies build heat; the quantities we have suggested should have a mild to medium spicy effect. if you wish you may substitute dried chillies, chilli paste or powder. To maintain flavour and consistency without fire, capsicum & bell peppers can be used in their place.
Cloud ear mushrooms: A flat brown fungus (Auricularia auricula) usually available in dried form in Asian grocery stores. Soak in warm water 15-20 minutes until they swell to 2-3 times their original size. Rinse in clear water several times and trim
stems. Field mushrooms can be substituted.
Coriander/cilantro: Fresh is best; dried coriander does not have the same pungency‘
Eggplant or Aubergine: Lao eggplants come in a variety of shapes, from small globular and pea-shaped varieties to larger slender ones. For the recipes below, you can use either the slender or more common larger egg-shape if the Asian styles are not available.
Fish sauce: Lao fish sauce (padaek) is a thick pungent sauce made from pickled or fermented fish and is an important salting ingredient in some Lao dishes. It can be an acquired taste to the Western palate and is difficult to source outside Lao strongholds. Use Thai/Vietnamese fish sauce for an acceptable milder substitute. Vegetarians and those who don’t like fish sauce can always leave it out, but will probably wish to season the dish with a little salt, or extra herbs.
Galangal: very similar to ginger, but pinkish in colour and with a more fragrant,less peppery taste. It is used in many Lao salads, soups, pastes and marinades.
Kaffir lime: The distinctive double leaves are used to add a fresh aromatic lime lift to many Lao dishes. The fruit is not used in cooking but in shampoo!
Lemongrass: A fragrant herb with a distinctive lemon aroma. Remove loose outer leaves; cut off the base and top of the stalk and use only the whitish inner stalks. Dried lemongrass is a compromise access fresh. Soak well before using.
Lime juice: Lao limes are small and almost a cross between a lime and a lemon. If you do not have access to fresh limes, lemon juice makes an acceptable substitute'
Oil: Lao people generally use soybean oil for domestic cooking. You can use other oils, but you will of course notice some variation in taste. We have used olive oil, grapeseed, canola and sunflower oil from time to time.
Mint: Lao mint has a milder flavour than either spearmint, peppermint or Vietnamese mint. Try your Asian grocer for the bright green, rounded leaves,
Mortar & pestle: most Lao dishes use these essential cooking implements. A food processor works as a substitute, but does not quite match the way pounding releases flavours.
Pak hom baen, saw tooth coriander: A peppery green leafy vegetable, generally available only in Laos. You can either leave it out or substitute with Vietnamese mint, but use a fewer number of leaves, as the mint has a stronger flavour.
Salt: Lao salt is crystalline rock salt, and not as salty as the processed Western varieties. Please use your judgement and prepare dishes to your own taste
Shrimp paste: In Asian groceries. ‘Gapi’ is a strong-smelling paste made from ground shrimp. When mixed with other ingredients it adds a tasty full-bodied flavour. Indonesian balachan paste can be used instead.
Snake beans/yard long beans: Long green pods that grow to 30cm or more. Most frequently eaten raw. For those dishes where the beans are to be cooked, green/runner beans are an acceptable substitute.
Spring onions: Also known as scallions, these slender shoot-like vegetables have a milder flavour than regular onions. in Laos they are quite small in size, so if only large ones are available, do reduce the quantity accordingly.
Roasted sticky rice powder: Toast or dry fry some uncooked sticky rice over medium heat till brown. Shake pan often to prevent sticking. Pound or blend until coarsely ground. Gives texture to dishes such as Iaap.
Sticky Rice Powder (uncooked): Soak a small quantity of Lao sticky rice for around 4 hours or until soft. Drain the soaked rice, and wash well. Allow to dry. Pound or process to a fine powder. Longer soaking produces a softer texture and a finer powder. Take care not to oversoak; different rice qualities need different soaking times. Ensure a grain can be cut with a fingernail. Thai packaged rice needs only 2-3 hours soaking Cornflour or tapioca can be used in its place.
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