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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.
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.
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.
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.