Two chefs get ready to take diners on a journey to exotic Laos through their flavourful Laotian cuisine, discovers Zuliantie Dzul.
“STICKY rice!” I exclaimed in delight as my eyes clap on the menu at a Thai restaurant in Pattaya.
I had the opportunity to visit this resort city of Thailand for an assignment last year. And one simply can’t go to Thailand and not eat their famous sticky rice.
Pair it with thick slices of sweet and succulent mangoes and voila!, you’re all set for that authentic Thai experience!
Little did I know however, that sticky rice doesn’t actually originate from the Land of Smiles.
This well-known Asian dish, which has travelled the world over to find its familiar spot on Thai restaurant menus everywhere, is actually Laotian in origin.
Laos — the mountainous, landlocked Southeast Asian country traversed by the Mekong River — has a relatively low profile when it comes to cuisine. It has yet to make it onto the world stage. But that’s about to change.
Come March 31, you can experience modern Lao cuisine at Copper restaurant in Menara Shell, KL.
Chef and restaurateur Chai Chun Boon of Copper, in collaboration with New Zealand-Lao fusion chef Mark Arunsaphai, promises to deliver an unforgettable eight-course degustation menu for a two-day “Laos: Beyond Borders” culinary event.
The dinner is endorsed and supported by the Lao P.D.R ambassador to Malaysia, Houndaophone Soukhaseum.
MODERN LAO CUISINE
Author William Warren in his book, Bangkok, wrote that despite there being a big Lao community living in Thailand and Lao cuisine playing a pivotal role in making Thai food popular internationally, very little to no mention of the word “Lao” is found.
This is due to official attempts in promoting national unity and “Thainess”, where any mention of “Lao” and other non-Thai descriptors are removed and replaced with north-eastern Thai or Isan.
“There’s no real outlet for Lao food. We have Thai, Cambodian and Vietnamese restaurants. Everybody knows about them. But not Lao,” begins Arunsaphai when we meet at Copper.
Chai who’s sitting across him, concurs: “That’s why we’re hosting this dinner so people can experience Lao cuisine. I’ve seen some shows about Lao food and I was intrigued.
“So when I got the opportunity to work with Mark whose background is in fusion cuisine, I couldn’t resist. We’re the first restaurant in Asia to promote Lao cuisine. On top of that, guests will enjoy it in a fine-dining atmosphere.”
The spread planned for this special dinner, adds Chai, will use ingredients that are commonly found in Laos, such as Lao chilli and basil, to name a few.
“The ingredients were brought by Mark all the way from Laos. We want to show that Southeast Asian food can shine as well.”
With his extensive background as a fusion chef, Arunsaphai will be infusing different elements from other cultures as well while at the same time retaining the flavours that Lao cuisine is known for.
The menu has been meticulously planned. The showcase will begin with an amuse-bouche (single, bite-sized appetiser selected by the chef) of prawns and garnishing, followed by smoked coconut curried noodles with crab meat, native larb herb medley infused salmon, and New Zealand green lipped mussels with tom yum hollandaise.
After a palate cleanser of lychee, butterfly pea and mint granita, patrons will be able to savour the flavourful Australian short rib orh lam, golden snapper with citrus beurre blanc (a creamy sauce made with butter, onions or shallots, and vinegar or lemon juice, usually served with seafood dishes) and Luang Prabang chicken roulade served with jeow muk kherr.
The finale will be an exquisite medley of coconut and vanilla mousse along with a coconut tapioca, sorbet, salsa and pandan composite.
“Hollandaise is obviously not Lao. In Laos, we have larb, or meat salad with beef, pork or chicken. For this dinner, I’ll use salmon and it’s going to taste a bit different,” shares Arunsaphai.
I had the opportunity to taste some of the offerings and although it was just a canape, it was an unforgettable Lao experience nonetheless.
I was introduced to orh larm (mildly spicy and thick stew in Laos but serves as marinate for the short ribs on the dinner menu, which makes for flavourful and juicy meat) and sticky rice with jeow muk kherr (eggplant chutney) and jeow muk lin (tomato chutney).
I particularly enjoyed the sweet and crispy bamboo shoot and cured oyster mushroom chips, which tastes similar to our kerepek pisang (banana chips).
Sticky rice is the staple of Laos. “We have about 15 to 20 varieties of sticky rice in Laos,” explains Arunsaphai.
“It depends on the season, when it’s harvested and how long the farmers keep the rice. You can have yellow, green, even purple sticky rice.”
“And they’re all natural colours,” Chai chips in.
“Lao food is basically simple food with simple flavours,” smiles Arunsaphai before continuing: “Laos is a third world country. Therefore, we have many farmers and they simply use the resources they have to create a meal.”
One ingredient that is unique to Laos is padek, a traditional Lao condiment made from pickled or fermented fish that’s been cured. It’s responsible for the dominant umami (a strong savoury taste) flavour present in Lao food.
“It’s quite pungent and is an acquired taste. It can be added to most dishes like papaya salad, soups and stews,” says Arunsaphai. “Ah, the papaya salad. Again, it’s not Thai. It’s Lao!” chuckles the fusion chef.
Lao food differs according to region similar to how our food differs in every state.
For example, we have nasi kerabu, which is exclusive to Kelantan and nasi dagang which is exclusive to Terengganu.
In western Laos, the Paksan community cooks mostly with fish and shellfish. The capital Vientiane is heavily influenced by years of French colonialism, which left behind in its wake some staples in the Lao cuisine including the baguette or khao jii, as well as omelette and croissant. Luang Prabang in the north is famous for its sausage and orh larm.
“Are you familiar with seaweed?” Chai asks me before continuing: “In Laos, they have riverweed. It’s on the menu for the dinner.”
Born into a Laotian family in Wellington, New Zealand, Arunsaphai offers a unique gastronomic insight where his fusion reinvention, contemporary techniques and traditional methods push culinary art boundaries.
He has worked in numerous establishments under Peter Gordon, dubbed as the “Godfather of Fusion”, who’s the chef ambassador for New Zealand and its national airline.
Three years ago however, Arunsaphai decided to move back to Laos to reconnect with his Laotian roots and enter the monkhood as a mark of respect to his parents.
“It’s a sort of coming-of-age and part of being a man in Lao culture. I served in the monkhood for two weeks. My plan was to stay in Laos for only three months but I’ve been there for nearly three years now,” the 37-year-old confesses, smiling.
Arunsaphai didn’t just fall in love with the flavours and tradition of Lao culinary heritage.
“It’s also the preparation, how you serve and how you eat as a family. Everything is shared. You eat rice from a shared basket. There’s always talking at the dinner table, sharing stories. It’s very communal,” says Arunsaphai in his thick Kiwi accent. “We also eat using our hands.”
I ask him if the guests are expected to use their hands at the upcoming dinner. “No,” Arunsaphai replies chuckling, before continuing with a wink: “But you can try.”
Meanwhile, the 32-year-old Chai who graduated from DCT Swiss Hotel Management School has worked for renowned three-Michelin-star restaurants in Europe.
On his return to Asia, Chai continued his career in Jason Atherton’s Esquina Tapas Bar, Juame Santamaria’s Santi Santamaria, Graze by Chris Donnellan before finally returning to Malaysia to open Copper in 2015.
His forte is primarily French, Mediterranean, Spanish and Italian modern cuisine. It’s this shared passion and background in modern cuisine which have brought these two chefs together.
“I believe my collaboration with Chai is the best starting point for this culinary tour,” says Arunsaphai.
Concluding, Chai says: “We hope that we can reach a wider audience and enable them to be a part of this culinary journey in discovering the beauty and wonder of Laos.”
Laos: Beyond Borders
Where: Copper, Level 5, Menara Shell, Jalan Tun Sambanthan, KL
When: March 31 - April 1