Laos for beginners
The country in a nutshell
Tam mak hoong: Spicy Lao papaya salad
Of the many dishes Laos has to offer, few epitomize Lao cuisine better than tam mak hoong, or papaya salad; it’d be difficult to avoid tasting this delicious dish at least once while travelling in the country.
The best place to get it, we reckon, is at a roadside stall, where you can watch the vendor pound all the ingredients in a large mortar and pestle, and tell them exactly how you like it. They’ll usually give you a sample when they’ve finished so that you can adjust the flavours even more to your liking. Roadside stalls are the cheapest, too, starting at 5,000 kip for a serving; restaurants can perhaps charge up to 25,000 kip. In Vientiane, the stalls near the riverfront tend to be more expensive than those further out of town or at markets.
Papaya salad is made with green (unripe) papaya, which is distinctly tangy and crunchy and completely different to the ripe, softer orange fruit. While many stores sell graters, many will argue that the best texture is achieved by using a large knife to hack and thinly slice tiny slivers into the whole peeled fruit, often with admirably careless precision.
The base is usually salt, sugar, chilli and small limes. The vendor will usually ask how many chillies you want, and for beginner Western palates, one should have plenty of bite and two will likely get pretty hot. If you ask for it Lao style, you’re looking at winding up with seven or eight chillies. Good luck eating that without crying and developing a purple facial hue!
MSG may be added, so if you wish to avoid it, request bor sai bpeng ngooa before they start making it. Many places add garlic, which is thrown in whole with skins on but the enthusiastic pounding means nary a trace of skin is noticeable in the final texture of the salad.
Tomatoes are tossed in too, and another level of flavour is added with shrimp paste and pah deck, the pungent fermented grey fish paste that is Laos’ favourite condiment. Be warned that tourists may not enjoy the flavours of these final two ingredients so much, so you can request it without; instead ask for the fish sauce, probably in a glass bottle with the squid on it.
Some places add peanuts and some also mix the salad with rice noodles, on request, to make it a little more filling. The salad is usually served with a side of raw cabbage and sometimes coupled with pork crackling.
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