After exploring the garden of Jim Laity and Chanla Khanthavongsa in Oxley (Kitchen Garden, July 7), they take me to the Lao temple in Kambah where Chanla feeds the monks on the 26th of each month. We removed our shoes and entered the kitchen where four young women from the Lao Embassy were heating the food which they had brought for the monks.
I was warmly welcomed and there was amusement when one woman, stirring a soup, lifted a whole chicken foot to the surface using a ladle and I exclaimed with surprise. Nothing is wasted in Lao cooking. Jim took me on a walk through the grounds of the temple where they grow vegetables, particularly from spring to autumn, under a high structure for weather protection.
Back in the temple, Chanla and the women from the Lao Embassy were seated on the floor of the dining room while the head monk and three other monks sat at the food laden table. There were prayers and the monks eat first, finishing their meal by midday. There was a sour fish soup (Kang Som Pa) made by Chanla which included lemongrass, galangal, chilli, salt, fish sauce, tamarind powder, choi sum, dill, coriander and rice balls, a large bowl of noodles arrayed in a pattern, salads, and platters of fresh fruit to finish the meal.
In 2003, when Canberran Rosemary Brissenden revised her classic book South East Asian Food (1969) she included a chapter on Laos. Classic and modern recipes are arranged according to style of cooking rather than by main ingredient so authentic menus for whole meals can be constructed.
For Laos, recipes include sour cabbage soup, green bamboo stew, chilli-pawpaw salad, and what the author says is regarded to be the national dish of Laos spicy rice vermicelli in soup (Khao Pun Nam Jio).
Jim Laity has loaned to me a treasured book Traditional Recipes of Laos (Prospect Books, 1981). It reproduces in facsimile and with an English translation the manuscript recipe books of the late Phia Sing, from the Royal Palace at Luang Prabang where he was royal chef and Royal Master of Ceremonies. The drawings by Thao Soun Vannithone are exquisite. All profits from the book were devoted to helping refugees from Laos to start their new life in Britain.
The editors were Alan and Jennifer Davidson. He was British ambassador in Vientiane and is a distinguished author with books including Fish and Fish Dishes of Laos and, in 1999, The Oxford Companion to Food in which he says of the Lao people, "What is certain is that they are among the most beautiful people in the world, that their disposition is of great amiability, and their habits agreeably relaxed".
Readers who google "Clear fish soup of Laos" will find the recipe (Keng Pa Sai) from Phia Sing. There are two recipes in the book which Chanla and Jim highlighted as being close to the chicken soup served to the monks, shredded chicken soup (Keng Jeeg Kai) and the recipe which follows.
Keng Som Kai Pa (Sour wild chicken soup)
1 (wild) chicken, washed and gutted and cut into suitable pieces
1 stalk of lemongrass - wash it, cut off the leaves and crush the main stalk only
3 straight-bulbed spring onions - cut off the roots, wash them and tie them into a loose knot
1 bunch of som pon*
salt and fish sauce
chopped spring onion
Step one: Put one large soup bowl (700ml) of water in a pot on the fire. Put in the knotted spring onions, the crushed stalk of lemongrass, and salt.
Step two: When the water comes to the boil, add the pieces of chicken and sprinkle some fish sauce over them. Cover the pot and leave it cooking until the chicken is well done.
Step three: Next, dip the som pon into the soup, in a padek strainer** and leave it in the soup for a short time (two or three minutes). Then remove the som pon, taste, and check the saltiness and sourness - the dish should be quite sour.
Step four: Transfer the contents of the pot to a (serving) bowl, garnish it with chopped spring onion. It can be served with minced wild chicken Lap Kai (chicken lap) or with young jackfruit, pickled bamboo shoots, fresh tomatoes and cabbage.
*Acacia concinna, known as som pon at Luang Prabang. It leaves a sour taste; it is used in soups and for marinating fish before drying them. The plant, native to Asia, climbs to 10 metres and is frost tender.
** A padek strainer is used for lowering padek (fish sauce with chunks of fermented fish still in it) into something which is cooking, in such a way as to ensure that the padek liquid circulates in the dish which the solids remain in the basket.