Lao Tomato Chilli Jaew


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Jaew is pounded sauce or rough paste, the main ingredient of which is chilli: it is essential to a Lao meal.  My favourite is Jaew Bong, a specialty of Luang Prabang made with buffalo skin (don’t be put off, it’s delicious).The varieties are endless, ranging from simple blends of chilli, salt and fresh herb leaves to unctuous condiments whose recipes are handed down through families. The secret of a really good one is to sear one or more of the ingredients on a charcoal fire.  It is served in a separate bowl and everyone dips food into the communal dish rather than scoop a personal portion onto their plate.


In the North of Laos, jaews are so hot that when I first tried one it felt like someone had sneaked up behind me and slapped me on the back with a frying pan. I almost lost my breath, not to mention the roof of my mouth and my tongue.  I soon got used to it and my chilli tolerance has gone up a thousand fold forever.  Lao people believe chillies are beneficial in many ways. They stimulate the production of mucus in the stomach lining which protects it against irritation; they’re antiseptic, good for the circulation and excellent at clearing the respiratory system of excess phlegm.  Try eating jaew next time you have a heavy cold, it works wonders.


DSCF3159Ingredients for Tomato jaew


Between 4 and 20 (depends on how hot you like it) fresh birds eye chillies, stalks removed.


3 cm piece       galangal root, peeled then seared,blackened.


1/2 tsp             rough sea salt


1                      salted anchovy (Paa-dek is the authentic condiment to use here, in the UK we use salted anchovies (not oily ones) as a replacement, fish sauce is just about acceptable if you have none. Shrimp paste would be used in Thailand but the flavour tone is quite different.)


1 head            garlic, seared blackened.


3                      shallots, seared blackened.


500g/1lb          small, flavourful tomatoes, chopped roughly.


1                      the juice of one lime


1 handful         coriander leaves or Thai basil leaves


A pinch            sugar (optional)


Spear the chillies, garlic, galangal and shallot on a skewer. Then sear them over a open flame (gas ring or even a candle if desperate) until well they begin to blacken.


Rub off the worst of the soot and discard the onion and garlic skins. Slice up the vegetables separately.DSCF3313


Transfer the vegetables to a pestle and mortar in the order below and pound until they turn to rough paste.


First pound the chillies, salt, and galangal, pound to a paste then add the garlic and anchovy and keep pounding. Next add the shallots and when they have reached paste form add the tomatoes a few at a time and pound them down.  You may need a spoon to scrape the mixture around as you pound it.


Add the herbs.


Now add the lime juice and taste.  You may want to add a pinch of sugar.


Serve with sticky rice or kaipen (see below)  if you can get them.DSCF3324


Chillies, of course, are not native to Laos but come from Mexico and the Americas. The Portuguese brought chillies to Southeast Asia when they arrived in Siam in 1511. Over the centuries, they replaced peppercorns (a native of Malabar, India) as the preferred spice of heat, starting as a subtler flavouring which built up over the years.  My friend Khamtoune, believes that Lao food has become hotter, even in her lifetime. She came back from Laos recently and was shocked by the new strength of chilli use in her native Luang Prabang cuisine.  She believes this to be the influence of Northern Thai cuisine brought in by the many Thai tourists in Laos.


Spicy Jaew Bong with kaipen (crisp river weed)

Jaew bong (Lao: ແຈ່ວບອງ) is a sweet and spicy ...

Lao River Weed snacks served with Jaew Bong, a specialty of Luang Prabang, made with buffalo skin.


Steamed Lao Sticky (glutinous) Rice

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The Lao verb “to eat” is directly translated as “to eat rice” and one food that unites all Laos is ‘sticky’ rice, kao neaw

DSCF3324How To Cook Sticky Rice in a traditional steamer

The name ‘glutinous’ rice is misleading as the grain contains no gluten.  The stickiness of the cooked rice is due to the combination of the carbohydrates in the starchy interior and this rice is steamed rather than boiled. Buy a packet of glutinous rice from an Asian store, it should be labelled clearly.  Pour out as much as you would like to serve because it DOES NOT EXPAND when cooked like fluffy rice.  Then put into a bowl with plenty of water and soak overnight, changing the water a couple of times.  If you forgot to soak it overnight then you can soak it for a minimum of two hours but longer is better.  Give the rice a final rinse and drain it. If you do not have a traditional bamboo steamer you can wrap the rice in fine muslin and steam it in a regular steamer.

The traditional steamer, a conical bamboo basket with matching aluminium pot, (available cheaply in Thai supermarkets) adds a certain perfume to the rice and is worth seeking out. First, fill the aluminium pot with about a litre of water, the water should not touch the bamboo basket.  Place the bamboo basket on top of the pot, fill with a pound of drained rice and bring the water to the boil. Once boining, steam the rice for approximately twenty-five minutes without a lid (varieties differ a little) turning it over in one lump, halfway through.  To do this take it off the heat and toss it.  The rice should lift from the bottom and turn over in one lump.

DSCF3326When ready, the rice should look opaque and firm.  If it is gooey you’ve cooked it too long, if it’s crunchy, not enough. Laotians cook it perfectly every time, I however, sometimes get a little gooey bit at the bottom of the conical basket.  I’ve learnt to live with it. Take the rice out of the steamer and roll it around on the work surface to release a bit of steam, then put it in a basket and serve.  To eat, roll it into a ball in your hand and use to to soak up food juices as you would bread.

N.B. Once cooked do not store it in the fridge, it goes hard.

Some information about Lao sticky rice.

Rice is the single most important crop in Laos and takes up 72% of the cultivated area, 85% of which is ‘sticky rice’. It tends to have a shorter growing season (90-110 days as opposed to 100-200) than non-sticky varieties, grows better in poorer soils with erratic rainfall; and once cooked, keeps longer and is easily transportable.  Nearly all Lao sticky rice is consumed locally.

The differences between plain and sticky rice the proportion of two starches, amylose (linear glucose molecules) and amylopectin (branched glucose molecules), within the grain.  Dry and fluffy rice varieties have a high amylose starch content of 10–25 percent, while sticky rice contains only 0.8 to 1.3 percent.  It has been suggested that the variety came about by the selection of man but the evidence has been lost in time.

Man working in a ricefield.

Man working in a ricefield. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Farmers tend to grow a small area of prized native varieties for their own needs, spreading them through the growing season, and it is not uncommon for one family to have been growing their own special strain for centuries. They grow and distinguish between early (Kau do), medium (Kau kang/theung) and late growing rice (Kau pee). This enables farmers to stagger the workload and hedge against natural disasters that might affect the entire harvest

The rice can be cultivated wet or dry.  In the lowlands, the wet method is preferred and the crop is grown in irrigated flooded paddy fields.  In this method they plant a ‘nursery field’ and allow the rice to grow to about 12 inches high while the main fields are plowed and flooded.  The young plants are then transplanted manually (twelve to fifty days worth of an individuals labour) and tended by hand until they are harvested after the rains and the fields are drained.

In the mountains the dry method is preferred for topographical reasons.  The fields are prepared using the slash and burn technique prior to the rains in late April.  The seeds are  hand planted with a dribble stick in rows of holes and they begin to sprout in the rains at the beginning of May.  The fields then have to be weeded every day until the harvest at the end of the rainy season in late September/ October, (though I saw rice harvested as late as December and January). It is extremely labour intensive, and a  farmer will typically spend one hundred and sixty-five days of the year on his rice crop.

At harvest time, many families build a small hut in the fields and move into it to save time and guard against pests.  They fence off an area to grow vegetables and keep animals such as chickens and pigs who live off the discarded rice bran and kitchen scraps.

The mature plants, with their droopy seed heads, are usually harvested with a sickle and gathered into sheaths or hung on a scaffold to dry. The rice has to be threshed to separate the grain from the stem. This can be done by simply thrashing the sheaths against the inside of a large basket, on a log or alternatively laying the sheaths down on a mat and beating them with a stick.  I have even seen people riding over them on a bicycle.  Alternatively some ethnic groups strip the grain by hand directly in the fields by holding the stem and pulling off the grain into the hand.

The grains are then winnowed to remove the chaff using a large flat tray.  The grains are thrown in the air and back onto the tray so that the breeze carries away the chaff.

Finally, the rice has to be pounded to remove the bran.  Village women  typically spend half an hour each morning pounding the family’s rice which they put by to soak overnight. Yesterdays hulled, soaked rice would then be steamed in a bamboo basket for thirty to forty minutes for the family’s consumption.  The cooked rice is placed in a ‘lunch basket’ to be eaten in the fields.

Sticky rice is also used in many other ways: fermented to make spirit or beer; ground into flour to make noodles, cakes and sweets or ground and roasted to add flavour to other foods.

English: Khao lam (ข้าวหลาม), sticky rice with...

English: Khao lam (ข้าวหลาม), sticky rice with sugar and coconut cream cooked in a specially-prepared bamboo section (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Venison cooked in a Stone (age) Oven

Chloe by the oven

We were invited to a birthday party last night by our friend Chloe.  She is a member of ACE ARCHAEOLOGY CLUB which based in Mid Devon and dedicated to investigating and protecting Devon’s Archæological Heritage.  The club is an active local group of people of all ages devoted to the promotion, use and investigation of all the many different types of archaeology, from surveying, experimental archæology, field walking, participation in excavations to archive research, from palaeolithic to more recent times.  Recently, they’ve been investigating the damage done by bracken rhizomes on the ancient round house sites on Dartmoor.

In honour of one of the member’s birthday, Mac Howard, they build an oven from granite stone slabs with, as Chloe called it, “mud pie glue”.  First, they dug a shallow pit, then placed in granite stones in a box shape and held it together with mud.  They built a fire inside,  and outside (to heat the door) and let it burn for about 5 hours.  The fire was then cleared away and a  seven kilo leg of venison on the bone, was placed inside. Two and a half hours later it was ready to eat.

Earth ovens are one of the earliest pieces of cooking ‘equipment’ and took our culinary experience beyond holding meat on a stick over a fire to preparing it in a more sophisticated and communal manner. 

We can attest to the high quality of the oven. The venison was tender and delicious and it didn’t take long for a field of archeologists to eat it all up to the bone. Did we notice the rain? Of course not. Thank you Mac, Chloe and Spyder, we had a great time.

Fresh Strawberry Chocolates made in an ice-cube tray

Everyone seems to dip strawberries in chocolate fondues these days but it’s much more fun to hide the fresh strawberry inside the chocolate itself.  All you need is good quality dark chocolate, fresh strawberries and an ice-cube tray or chocolate mould.  I happen to have a silicone mould for heart shaped ice which works rather well.

1. Remove green leaves from the strawberries and leave whole or cut to size depending in the tray you need to fit them in.

2.  Melt your dark, high cocoa chocolate over a pan of hot water. (I used 180g for my chocs).

3. When the chocolate has become liquid pour 1/3 into your mould, add strawberries and cover over with more chocolate using a spatula.

4. Carefully place the mould in the fridge or if like me you cannot wait that long, whack them in the freezer for about 20 minutes.

5. Remove when set, and enjoy.  The only problem is that everyone eats them so fast you have to make another tray almost immediately so make a few at a time.  Mmm, the surprise of finding soft, fresh fruit within the crunch of dark chocolate lifts that strawberry flavour to new heights.

“Strawberries are the angels of the earth, innocent and sweet with green leafy wings reaching heavenward”
–  but so much better still, encased in chocolate.

Aubergine and Fresh Tomato Pasta

The aubergine (Solanum melongena) is not a vegetable but a berry? A big, glossy berry, and that little morsel of biological detail makes me love them even more.

This is a quick version of a River Café pasta recipe, as I needed to get food on the table pretty fast for the ravenous beasts after a hard day.

You start by frying garlic, chilli and flat leaf parsley in oil for five minutes. Then add tomatoes which I DO NOT drop into hot water and peel because it takes too long. I only cook the tomatoes for 5 minutes instead of the recommended 20 as I like fresh, fresh tomato sauce in the summer. Then I add a bit of sugar because I live in the Northern hemisphere and our tomatoes are just not as sweet. Oh, and I don’t add mozzarella, so is this a River Café recipe at all? Probably not, but it’s still good.
The aubergine needs to be cut into fine slices and fried in a very hot pan to avoid them becoming sponges of oil and I prefer to griddle them for that very reason.  You can pick up a cast iron griddle pan for under ten pounds on Ebay and it will be your friend for life, if you don’t have one, go get one now.

1 medium aubergine

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

olive oil

3 garlic cloves peeled and chopped

5 tablespoons finely chopped flat leaf parsley

2 dried chillies crumbled

600g fresh tomatoes, chopped

Salt to taste1tsp sugar

300g spaghetti or pasta of your choice

120g parmesan freshly grated

Slice the aubergines into really thin slices, sprinkle with salt. Leave for half an hour.  Rinse and dry. In the past, aubergines were far more bitter and this removed the bitter juices, these days they are rarely bitter but the salting will reduce the amount of oil absorbed in cooking.

While they are draining heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large pan and add the garlic, parsley and chill.

Fry gently for almost 5 minutes.

When the garlic has started to turn a golden light brown, add the tomatoes and cook for ONLY 5 minutes. Then set aside

Heat 3 more tablespoons of the olive oil in a frying pan and add aubergine slices to cover the bottom. Do one batch at a time and do not overcrowd the pan. Or better still place them on a hot griddle over a high gas flame.

Fry on both sides until light brown and crisp.

Drain well on kitchen paper.

Repeat until all the aubergine is cooked.

thoroughly return to the pan. Place the sauce back on the heat, when hot, add the aubergine and finish with the grated cheese.Cook the spaghetti in a generous amount of boiling salted water.Serve immediately with a green salad and garlicy dressing.

Red Peppers Stuffed with Black-eyed Peas

I have to admit that when faced with stuffed peppers I have a tendency to eat the stuffing and discard the pepper. Don’t get me wrong, I like peppers, particularly when roasted with salt and honey and finished with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice or eaten raw and used as a scoop for a generous dollop of hummus; but stuffed, they so often disappoint.   The pepper is over or undercooked, and the stuffing contains gooey rice, too much tomato or, like a tasty mince, just doesn’t need the enhancement of pepper flavouring at all.

So when I got a handful of glossy new season peppers in my veg box this week, I thought I’d look for a stuffing that actually needed the addition of pepper to complete it. Essentially, I’ve made a spiced bean and corn stew and stuffed it into pre-cooked peppers (to avoid that raw thing). I love black-eyed peas, and they are complimented here with the crunch of corn kernels, tinned corn is too soft, don’t use it, and of course peppers.  Serve as a side dish or as a main course with guacamole, sour cream and some flat-bread or tortillas.

4                      long red peppers

1  tsp               salt, divided

A few grinds             ground black pepper

A drizzle            olive oil

1                      medium onion, chopped

2                      cloves of garlic peeled and chopped finely

4                      green chillies (optional) sliced finely

1/2                   cracked black pepper

1/2 tsp             paprika

1/4 tsp             cinnamon

1/2 tsp             whole coriander seeds

1 tsp.               ground cumin

1/2 tsp             dried fragrant oregano

1 tsp                sea salt (level spoon)

1tsp                 caster sugar

15 oz (400g) tin of Black eyed peas – drained and, rinsed (235g drained)

1-2                   cobs of corn, steamed, then cut from the cob

250ml               chicken or vegetable stock

1 tbsp              tomato puree

50g                  cheddar cheese, grated

2 tblsp              coriander, chopped roughly


Start by boiling or steaming the corn cobs for about five minutes. Allow to cool, then cut the kernels from the corn with a sharp knife and set aside.

Slit the peppers along their length, de-seed, then season with salt and black pepper and a drizzle of oil. Roast them in a hot oven for 15 minutes, until the skins start to soften and blister. Remove from the oven and set aside.

Chop the onion, garlic and chilli.

Heat the oil in a large frying pan for a minute or two then add the chopped onion and chillies.

Sauté on a medium heat, stirring gently until lightly golden. (about 3-6 minutes depending on your stove).

Add the chopped garlic and spices, stir for one minute then add the beans and corn kernels.

Add the chicken/veg stock, a tablespoon of tomato puree and stir the mixture to combine.

Continue to cook for 5 minutes, then remove from the heat.

Spoon the bean mixture into each pepper and top with grated cheese.

Return stuffed peppers to the oven for  5-10 minutes to heat through.

Serve with, chopped coriander, sour cream and guacamole.

Coddled mushroom breakfast egg


Verb: Treat in an indulgent or overprotective way: “I was coddled and cosseted”.

1 mushroom, I tablespoon of butter, 1/2 clove garlic crushed, salt and pepper. Top with parsley.

De-stalk the mushroom and spread with garlicy butter. Fit it snugly in a ceramic pot, crack an egg on top and place in a hot oven for about 8 minutes. When ready scoop out onto sour-dough toast, or eat it straight from the pot in its own  buttery juices.  Comfort food for an unseasonably cold and drizzly summer morning.