August 10, 2010 § 3 Comments
The sun was still shining overhead and the mosquitoes were out in full force when we set up for dinner around two tables on the backyard patio. A huge bamboo bowl brimming with Nam, spicy red curry rice salad, sat on the center of one table and we gathered round, our plates already filled with Mok Pha, steamed fish in banana leaves, and summer cucumber salad. We were exhausted after spending the day in the kitchen, though excited at the prospect of eating these dishes of which many of us had never heard before. On August 7, I hosted a Lao cooking class with one of my fellow interns as a fundraiser for our organization, Legacies of War.
The day started at 9 a.m., when the hosts arrived to start organizing tables, setting up information booths and prepping the food. We chopped onions, peeled cucumbers, folded napkins and arranged detonated cluster bombs for display. We put together goodie bags with Lao cooking starter kits, including a can of red curry paste, a small bottle of fish sauce and a container of purple sticky rice, all tied up with curled red and white ribbon. By the time the guests arrived, the house in Cleveland Park had been transformed into a festive kitchen, with ethnic cloths on the tables and individual workstations each featuring a cutting board and large chopping knife. The guests came from all over the DC area and included students, church friends and former Foreign Service representatives. We introduced everyone to our organization — which is dedicated to raising support and funding for unexploded ordnance in Laos dropped by the U.S. during the Vietnam War-era — and then we all got started cooking.
Using our hands, we tossed cooked rice with red curry paste and fish sauce, giving the rice a warm sunset color and spicy kick. We added two eggs and formed the rice into small patties about the size of half a tennis ball and dropped them into a boiling pot of oil. Minutes later, they emerged crusty and golden brown. After they cooled, we would toss the patties back into the bowl, crush them in our fingertips and toss them with lime juice, more fish sauce, finely chopped green onions and diced shrimp.
Then we got started on the Mok Pha. Laos is a land-locked country; hence, most of the seafood used in its cuisine is bottom-feeders found in its rivers. We tossed small strips of tilapia and fresh mint leaves with a puree of sticky rice, green onions and lemongrass. Then we loaded small piles of the fish onto banana leaves, sprinkled them with very finely sliced Kaffir lime leaves (the more finely sliced, the more handsome your husband will be, according to our teacher) and placed a chili pepper on top, like a small present. The final step was to wrap up the leaves and put the little fish packets into the steamer.
While the fish was steaming, we shredded cucumber and pounded it with a mortar and pestle with lime juice, fish sauce and halved cherry tomatoes to create a fresh and summery salad. Then we put sticky purple rice — soaked overnight to get the deep, purple color — into the steamer and set up outside for dinner. After dinner, we gathered around the table inside to cut mangoes to go along with the sweet, coconut sticky rice for dessert.
Dessert conversation turned to the current, devastating situation of people in Laos. With all but one province of the country contaminated by active bombs dropped over thirty years ago, most villages live with the daily risk of accidentally setting off a bomb while working in the fields. Each year, there are about 300 new casualties, including amputated limbs and deaths, and 40 percent of the victims are children, who are drawn to the toy-like objects. It was a sobering discussion: while we could all gather around a table in America and enjoy Lao food, which in itself is hard to find at restaurants, the real life in Laos is not nearly as carefree. Laos remains one of the poorest countries in the world, as it is incredibly hard to develop on its dangerous land. When we all packed up, laden down with bamboo baskets filled with leftover sticky rice, we were reminded that food is not as plenty in Laos and that the Lao people take great risks to make enough food for the family.