The Khmu, amongst the first settlers in Laos, are today one of the country’s largest ethnic groups. Originally animist swidden farmers from the forest, many of their villages have been relocated to roadsides, ostensibly for better access to healthcare and education.
However, the forest and fields still provide many wild foods that form the core of Khmu diet and hunter-gathering a valued activity.When guests arrive, it’s the men that traditionally do the upfront cooking, though everybody helps out.
Most dishes will incorporate hunted, gathered or locally grown foodstuffs such as squirrel and other wild life, bamboo shoots, banana flowers, fern fronds, forest leaves and berries, rattan, sticky rice and pounded raw rice (used as a thickening), home-grown galangal, ginger (leaves are often used) lemongrass and other herbs. Chicken, pigs and other animals are also kept and eaten. Increased trading and tourism plus better education are bringing greater wealth and mobility to Khmu families, so more market-sourced foodstuffs are now available, particularly farmed tilapia fish, meat, eggs and msg.
In Ban Chalensouk, a Khmu village 20 km south of Luang Namtha town in Northern Laos, on Route 3 to Bokeo, we attended a celebration where the men bought farmed tilapia from the market but cooked it Khmu style. Fish were coated on one side with a pounded mixture of lemongrass, green chilli, galangal, lemon (hairy), basil (pak i tou Lao), finely chopped spring onions, salt and msg. After seasoning, each fish was folded to enclose the filling and secured between two pieces of split bamboo (mai heep neep) then grilled over a wood fire. The men served a sour fish soup and mak ken (prickly ash berries) flavoured fish-innards stew (or) as accompanying dishes. One bowl of fish, with home-grown sticky rice, served 20 plus people generously. In all three dishes, msg and salt were the flavour-enhancers rather than fish sauce or Knorr stock powder, which are more recent influences. The food was delicious - the best grilled fish I’ve ever tasted!
At another celebration, the bamboo shoot and pork soup was made by the men who had also dispatched, sliced and diced the pigs early in the morning. The bamboo shoots were harvested from the forest by the women who also prepared two other dishes.
A soop pak (steamed vegetable salad), was made from local vine shoots, flowers, berries, leaves and gadawm gourd (mak gadawm or mak noi). Pounded galangal, roasted chilli, salt and msg and pounded roasted sesame seeds were mixed in for flavour. Locally sourced ingredients also featured in the pork sa (spicy pork salad) - fried and pounded minced pork mixed with an equal amount of shaved banana flower, sliced chilli, rice vermicelli, finely shredded spring onions and small coriander leaves (cilantro). In typical Luang Namtha style, no roasted rice or lime juice was added but salt and msg were. Overall, Khmu blend local traditions and improved market access to create delicious ceremonial food.
- By Dorothy Culloty -