Pa Fouk – Lao Catfish “Quenelles”

These are not really quennelles, although if you don’t have a bamboo steamer you could make them that way (see note at bottom). They’re sort of a Lao gefilte fish. The use of dill (phak si) seems very Lao to me, as several of the recipes I was taught contain it. This is yet another way that Lao cooking is different from Thai. According to “Traditional Recipes of Laos,” which is collection of the recipes of the late Pia Sing, cook to the former royal household, dill is used widely in fish dishes.

1 whole large catfish, head off, skinned, about 18″ long from gills to tip of tail

1 stalk fresh lemon grass
3/4 cup raw glutinous rice (kao neow), soaked for 4 hours
1 1/2 tsp. ground white pepper
1T. (scant) seeded, chopped, fresh red chilies
2 small onions, sliced
2 large cloves garlic
1 1/2 tsp. salt
2 1/2 T. fish sauce
4 extra large eggs
1 cup cocnut milk (combined thick and thin parts)


1/2 c. equal parts scallions, coriander leaves, and dill, all minced and mixed together
4 red chilies, seeded and cut into strips

8 to 10 strips aluminum foil, 6″ wide.

Side condiments:

More scallions, coriander and dill, chopped together and put in a bowl.
Fish sauceStrip the hard outer leaves from the lemon grass and thinly slice about 1″ or so. Minced the slices to get 1 1/2 T. lemon grass and set aside until needed. Save the rest for fish stock.

Cut the meat from the catfish and coarsely chop. You should have 2 1/2 cups of fish meat. Chop up the carcass and put to simmer with the left-over lemon grass stalk.

Thoroughly drain the 3/4 c. kao neow. Pulverize it in a food processor, scraping often to get the wet stuff out of the bottom and off of the sides. Add the minced lemon grass, the ground white pepper, and chopped red chilies, and process until the chilies are reduced to specks. Add the onions, garlic, salt and fish sauce and process until thoroughly mixed. Add the fish meat and process until you have a pasty mass. You may at this point have to take half out and do the next step in two batches. Add the eggs and process until well mixed. Remove all the fish mixture to a large bowl and add the coconut milk. Stir to mix thoroughly. It should have the consistancy of a thick batter.

At this point you can test the seasoning of the mix by dropping a tablespoon of it into the simmering fish stock. It will rise to the top when it’s cooked. Taste, and correct the seasoning of the batter, if necessary.

Take a strip of aluminum foil and fold it in half to make a square. Fold up and crimp the sides to form a container that’s about 3″ wide and 1 1/2″ tall. Continue to make the rest of the containers, enough of them so that they fit comfortably in the top of your steamer without being too tightly crowded. Leaving space around them lets the steam through more efficiently. My 10 1/2″ steamer fits 8 containers nicely.

Fill each foil container to the top with batter. Strew a little of the topping mix over each, then decorate each with red chili strips. To save any left over batter, drop it in spoonfulls into the simmering fish stock to make quenelles (good for lunch the next day).

Set the steamer over a pot filled with a few inches of water, and steam for about 30 minutes, or until set.

Serve two containers of Pa Fok per person, along with steamed kao neow, the bowl of chopped scallions, coriander, and dill, a bottle of fish sauce, and a dipping sauce (nam jeow) if you have one (you could use the one from my Laab Kai recipe). Diners can add more of the herb mix and fish sauce to taste.

Note: If you don’t have a steamer, you could do them all in the French manner, though this isn’t a traditional method. Strain the fish stock and return to the stove. Once it’s simmering, use a large serving spoon and drop in rounded spoonfulls of batter. They are done when they float to the top (about 5 minutes, depending on size). Serve in individual bowls with the toppings strewn over the top.

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Pan Gai Yoh (Crispy Spring Rolls)

There are very few special occasions in the Lao community that don’t include a big platter of Pan Gai Yoh.

Make the dipping sauce first:

1 cup dry roasted peanuts
7 serrano chilies, trimmed (seeded if you wish)
3 large cloves garlic, peeled
1/2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. sugar
1/4 cup fish sauce
juice of one lime
1 cup boiling water

Crush the peanuts to a fine meal in a mortar. Remove them, then mash the chilies, garlic, salt and sugar together in the mortar, until they’re reduced to a fine paste (adding the granular ingredients helps mash the garlic and chilies). Add the ground peanuts back to the mortar, along with the fish sauce and lime juice. Add the cup of boiling water, mix well, and set aside until ready to serve.

Prepare a typical Lao vegetable platter, using lettuce and some or all of the other items listed:

Leaf lettuce
scallions (trimmed snd slivered)
fresh coriander (leaves and tender stems)
mint leaves
2 tomatoes, cut in thin wedges
bean sprouts
1/2 recipe Kaopuhn noodles (see recipe for Kaopuhn)

Cover the vegetable platter in plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Make the spring rolls:

2 oz sen mee (saifun cellophane noodles)
1 cup bean sprouts
1/2 lb. lean ground pork
1 small onion, sliced very thinly
2 medium eggs
1 T. fish sauce
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. sugar
5 colves garlic, minced fine
1 pkg. frozen spring roll wrappers (defrosted)
vegetable oil for deep frying

Put the cellophane noodles to soak in warm water for 20 minutes. Bring 2 qts. water to a boil and drop in the bean sprouts, count to 10, then drain and rinse under cold water until cool. Let drain. Combine the pork, onion, bean sprouts, eggs, fish sauce, salt, sugar and garlic and mix well. Drain the cellophane noodles and pat them dry with paper towels. Cut them into 2″ lengths and add them to the pork mixture. Mix well.

Separate a spring roll wrapper by peeling back one corner, then pull carefully to separate, always keeping ahold of the wrapper where it is attached to the others, so that it doesn’t tear. Separate them all, then cut each one in two diagonally, from corner to corner. Keep them under a cloth towel while you assemble each roll.

Place a half-wrapper with the apex of the triangle pointing away from you. At the base, put a heaping tablespoon of the filling, and pat it into an oblong shape. Fold the two side points over then roll up from the base. Moisten the tip with a little water to make it stick.

When all the Pan Gai Yoh are assembled, heat 1/2″ of oil in a heavy skillet to about 350 degrees. Fry the Pan Gai Yoh, turning frequently, until they are a rich brown all over. Drain on a plate lined with paper towels. Cut each roll into 4 pieces. Pile the pieces on a platter and serve with the vegetable platter and the dipping sauce.

Diners take a piece of lettuce leaf and place on it a piece of Pan Gai Yoh, whatever they want from the vegetable platter, and some Kaopuhn noodles, then fold the lettuce leaf up, dip it in the sauce and eat in one or two bites.

Pan Gai Yoh keep well in the refrigerator for several days, though they do get soggy. Reheat, wrapped in aluminum foil, in a 350 degree oven for 15 minutes.

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Laab Kai (Chopped Chicken Salad)

Here’s my recipe for Laab Kai, taught to me by some Lao refugees we sponsored years ago. I have no idea whether the use of bean sprouts is usual or not, but that how they cooked it, so that’s how I make it, and I think it adds a nice textural contrast. If you can’t get really fresh, crisp bean sprouts, simply omit them.

Utensils: To make the Kao Neow (sweet, or glutinous, rice) that is a staple of Lao cuisine, you need a rice steamer. This is a two part item – the bottom is a tall aluminum pot with an hour-glass figure, the top is woven bamboo. They should be available from any Thai grocery.  As a substitute, use a colander lined with cheesecloth, set over a deep stockpot (no water must touch the rice!). A heavy stone mortar and pestle is also essential. You might also want a Lao rice basket to serve the rice in, so that residual steam doesn’t condense and make it wet. These are available at Thai groceries. If you can’t get one, substitute a bamboo mat,

Before you make Laab, you have to make Kao Khua, the ground roasted rice that acts as a flavoring and absorbs juices that might otherwise make the dish soggy.

Kao Khua – Ground roasted sweet rice

Have a bowl ready by the stove. Set a heavy cast iron skillet over high heat for two minutes, then pour in raw sweet rice (kao neow) to cover the bottom in one layer. Reduce heat to medium and toast, stirring constantly until the grains are a rich deep golden brown. Pour at once into the bowl and let it cool completely. Store unused Kao Khua in a jar with a tight-fitting lid. It doesn’t have to be refrigerated, and will keep indefinately. To use in a recipe, grind it in a mortar until it’s the consistancy of fine cornmeal.

Note: You can also put the skillet in a slow oven, stirring the rice occasionally, until it browns.

It wouldn’t be Laab without Nam Jeow to dip the rice in. This is our favorite:

8 serrano chilies
4 medium scallions
2 large pieces of heavy-duty aluminum foil.
1 T. fish sauce (or more, to taste)

Trim the serranos and slice them in two lengthwise. Seed all or half of them, depending on how hot you want your Nam Jeow to be. Lay them on a piece of foil big enough to accomodate them in a single layer with enough left over to fold over them twice. Twist the packet at the ends to seal it. Trim the scallions and cut them lengthwise, and then into 2″ sections. Wrap them in foil as you did the serranos. Set the packages directly over a stove burner set on low. Turn and rotate them every now and then until the contents are limp and most pieces are almost completely charred. Remove them (including all charred bits) to a mortar and mash to a paste. It should be a very dark green, almost black. There won’t be much, but a little goes a long way. Put the paste in a small bowl, add the fish sauce and mix well.

Kao Neow – Steamed sweet rice.

Use a Thai sweet rice – the Japanese variety (mochi) is too short-grained.

Measure out 1/2 cup of raw rice per person, or more. Wash it in a seive under running cold water, then put in as large a pot as possible and fill it with warm water. Let the rice soak for 3 to 4 hours, then drain it. Put two or three inches of water in the bottom of a rice steamer and bring it to a boil over high heat. Place the bamboo top in the steamer and pour the drained rice into it. Steam undisturbed and uncovered, until all the rice has turned translucent (kao neow is opaque when raw, unlike regular rice). At this point, you can shake the top to flip the ball of rice over, to make sure that it steams evenly. When the rice is all cooked and tender, remove the basket and fluff it with a wooden fork or spoon. Transfer to one large or several individual Lao rice baskets and put the tops on to keep the rice until you’re ready to serve it.

While you’re waiting for the rice to cook, you can start the Laab.

1 1/2 cups bean sprouts
2 lbs chicken breasts with skin
2 tsp minced garlic
3 tsp minced seeded green chilies (serrano or jalapena)
2 T. ground kao khua
2 T. fresh lemon juice
2 – 3 T. fish sauce
the bean sprouts
1/2 cup chopped coriander (leaves and smaller stems)
2/3 cup chopped scallions

Vegetable platter (optional, but nice to have)
Leaf lettuce
more coriander
more scallions

Bring 3 qts water to a boil and add the bean sprouts. Leave them in for 15 seconds, then drain them, rinse under cold water, and set aside until needed.

Skin and bone the chicken breasts, reserving the skin and any attached fat. Finely chop the chicken meat with a cleaver.

Set a 12″ wok over medium heat and add the chicken skin. When the pieces stiffen up and become opaque, remove the wok from the heat. Chop the skin into 1/4″ pieces. Return the chopped skin to the wok and stir-fry over medium heat until the fat is all rendered out. Add the garlic and chilies and stir-fry until the garlic is golden brown. Add the chopped chicken meat and sitr-fry, turning the meat and mashing it to break up all the lumps. When the chicken meat is completely cooked, transfer it and all its juices to a large serving bowl. Add the kao khua, lemon juice and fish sauce. Mix well, then add the bean sprouts, chopped coriander and chopped scallions. Mix well again. Serve at room temperature with the kao neow, the nam jeow dipping sauce, and the vegetable platter.

To eat Laab, take a small ball of kao neow and flatten it slightly between your fingers and your thumb. Dab it onto the nam jeow and then use it to pick up a small bit of Laab. Pop it in your mouth, or wrap it in a piece of lettuce leaf with whatever else you want from the vegetable platter.

Laab can sit for a few hours at room temperature. It should not be refrigerated before serving, as it will congeal. Leftovers should be refrigerated, though, and can be eaten cold the next day. Leftover kao neow should not be refrigerated. It will harden slightly overnight, but I love to eat it the next morning with whatever nam jeow is left over (assuming there is any, which in my household is doubtful, since it’s addictive). If you want your leftover kao neow to be hot, simply re-steam it.

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Kaopuhn Sai Nam (Chicken and Coconut Milk Soup with Noodles and Cabbage)

Make the Kaopuhn noodles first:

Note: Real kaopuhn (a rice noodle) not being available, somen, a wheat noodle, is used instead.

1 box (5 bundles) Japanese somen
6 qts water
1/2 tsp. salt

Have a plate ready to recieve finished noodles. Separate the somen and lay them on a tray. Add salt to the water. Boil the water and drop the somen in “jackstraws” fashion, while stirring constantly. Let the water return to the boil, then reduce heat and simmer, stirring, for two minutes, Drain the noodles and put them at once in a pot with cold water. Make “skeins” by taking a 3/4″ diameter bunch of noodles between your index finger and thumb. Swish the noodles around to orient them all in the same direction, lift them out of the water and use your other hand to drape the hanging ends over the top. Squeeze the hanging noodles between your hands to squeeze out water, then slip them off your finger onto the plate. Continue like this until all the noodles are made into skeins. You can safely pile them up. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside.


For this soup you should make your own chicken stock (you can use canned, but homemade tastes richer). make the stock by cutting up 4 pounds of chicken backs and thighs and simmering them, partially covered, for 2 hours in 3 qts of water. Don’t add anything else – this is pure chicken stock.

1 3-4 lb. chicken
2 quarts homemade chicken stock
4 pieces kha (galangal root) diameter of a 50 cent piece
8 large kaffir lime leaves
10 to 12 3″ long dried red chilies (de Arbol or Japones), seeded.
1 tsp, salt
14 oz can coconut milk, divided into thick and thin parts.
2 large cloves garlic
1 T. sugar
2 to 3 T. padek (Lao homemade fermented fish – substitute Fillipino bagoong)
8 scallions, chopped fine, including green tops
1/2 head regular cabbage, shredded

To serve on the side (put in small bowls):

1/2 cup fresh coriander leaves, chopped
1/2 cup chopped scallions (yes, more scallions)
2 limes, cut in wedges
Additional sugar
sambal uelek
a bottle of fish sauce

Cut the chicken up and place it in a large stock pot with the chicken stock, galangal and kaffir lime leaves. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and simmer, covered, for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, removing scum periodically.

Meanwhile, Simmer the seeded red chilies and salt in enough water to cover for several minutes, until they’re soft. While they’re simmering, place the thick cocnut milk in a small pan and simmer until thickened and reduced by 1/3rd. Drain the chilies and mash them in a mortar with the garlic until they’re reduced to a paste (be careful doing this – don’t let it splash in your eye. I do it with my eyes closed!). Add the chili paste to the reduced coconut milk and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is thick and the oil has risen to the top. Set aside until needed.

When the chicken is tender, turn off the heat, remove the chicken from the stock and let it cool. Remove the galangal and kaffir lime leaves from the stock. Shred the chicken meat from the bones (you can also cut up the skin if you wish, and add that to the chicken meat). Return the chicken meat to the pot of stock. Add the coconut milk-chili mixture, the thin coconut milk, the sugar and the padek or bagoong. If you don’t have either padek or bagoong, just use fish sauce. Bring to a boil and simmer 5 minutes, add the 8 chopped scallions and remove from the heat.

Serve in large, deep Chinese-style soup bowls. In the bottom of each bowl, place a handfull of shredded cabbage and two or three skeins of noodles. Ladle the soup on top, being sure to get plenty of chicken meat in each bowl. Serve with the 1/2 cup of chopped scallions, the coriander leaves, the lime wedges, the sugar, the sambal uelek and fish sauce on the side. Each person adds these things to taste.

Note: I purposely always make the whole package of somen, so that I have a lot of left-over noodles. Here’s what to do with them: Cold Noodles with Spicy Peanut Sauce

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