I am taking a little break from my “giving thanks” series, my reflection posts… about what I am grateful for, thinking of the people who have walked along my side, of the small and significant events that have shaped my life. Not that I can’t think of and write them all, but I want to take time to do them justice, as they have filled my journey with so much joy, laughter, love, losses, and life lessons…
This time of the year is especially busy. Traffics are overwhelming in the rain, and stores are overcrowded anytime of the day, all made extra frantic with endless Christmas jingles from radio stations and loud speakers. I am far from being a Grinch, but I could do without the added stress. So I often times find myself testing cookies and dessert recipes at home to share and/or trade with friends and neighbors… which in itself is a whole new level of pressure, because baking is not my forte. I find that it is more of a science: an ounce off could make things totally different, not giving a whole lot of room to experiment and/or for mistakes. Most the time, I end up making deep fried eggrolls for neighbors in exchange for their homemade goodies! Nonetheless, every year I find renewed determination to face the oven and never give up the aspiration to present a beautiful tray of holiday treats…
However, even my most resolute self falls back into old habits. I find myself dreaming about dishes to share at family parties, especially about this one for which my cousin Dera from New York sent in early request to ensure it makes it on our many family holiday celebratory meals. So I fought traffic, rain, and crowd today to get ingredients and give it a last test run before posting it on this blog… in case one of my readers wants to make it to share with loved ones. This is one of the most requested recipes from my followers. I am happy to oblige as it is one of my favorites as well. I could eat this for several meals in a row, and assumed for a long time that my husband loved it, too. I only found out after many years of marriage, that though he likes it, he could not eat it for a week on out! How is this possible?
ແໝມເຂົ້າ – Nam Khao loosely translated Crispy Rice Salad (khao means ‘rice’) is one of our family’s favorites. My father reminds us every time we gather around it that we used to request it as weekend rewards. Back in our younger days, the best place to have it was in Tha Deua, a small port just outside of Vientiane, where the Friendship Bridge to Nongkhai, Thailand now stands. For the longest time, this 2-step dish was also known as Nam Tha Deua: the first step is to make the rice balls and deep fry them; the second is to break and loosen the rice and toss it in seasonings and som moo (ສົ້ມໝູ literally ‘sour pork’, or pickled/cured pork). Nam is the Vietnamese word for som moo. I could probably speculate on Nam Khao‘s origins based on this local specification, but for lack of knowledge in food history, I’ll just leave it at that. When my father recounts the story, it seemed such a special treat, an adventure leading to this dish. We had to wake up early and get ready, drive out to Tha Deua (which I am sure took a long time then) with the entire clan. It was a family affair, an excursion, a culinary destination. It is now a mere 15-minute car ride from the heart of Vientiane to Tha Deua! But in a lot of ways, the connotation remains. Hands down, this is my oldest sister, Euay Air ’s best Lao dish. There is this unspoken rule in our family of many cooks and food lovers: we know without saying it out loud, who has mastered what dishes. We would automatically assume our sous-chef roles when our specialty is not being prepared.
Like many traditional dishes, there are regional variations and personal preferences. Some use ground pork in the rice balls. Some mix in finely sliced kaffir lime leaves and chopped lemongrass for fragrance. Many like to add chopped peanut during the final tossing. The Thai also make this dish, using red curry paste as one of the seasonings for the rice balls. The one our family makes consists of very simple ingredients, leaving the combination of grated coconut and rice come together and shine through, and making the som moo (ສົ້ມໝູ) the star of the dish. You might have found out already through this blog that my recipes are fairly straightforward and don’t require an endless list of ingredients. That’s really how I like my food: fresh and simple with distinct but balanced flavors. Now, I did not get this recipe directly from Euay Air since we cook by feel, but the ingredients are the same, with slight difference in the proportion. So be creative, taste, and adjust to your liking, especially during the seasoning and tossing of it all! Happy gathering!
Step 1 ~ How to make the rice balls – Ingredients:
- 5 cups of cooked and cooled jasmine rice (cook with a bit less water than you would normally so that the rice isn’t too mushy)
- 1.5 tsp salt
- 2 tsp paprika
- 1 cup grated coconut (in the frozen section at your Asian stores – see Pantry)
- 1 pouch of 1.75 oz of coconut powder (see Pantry)
- 1 egg, lightly beaten
- 5 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
- Vegetable oil for deep frying
Form balls with the palms of your hands, pressing firmly so the rice does not come apart during cooking. I keep a bowl of water nearby through the process and wet my hands between each rice ball to prevent the rice from sticking too much. I keep the rice balls around 3 inches in diameter for faster frying, and a good crunchy to wet rice ratio.
Heat oil in a deep pan on medium high, enough to submerge the rice balls. Once hot, gently drop the rice balls into the oil. If the oil isn’t hot or the rice balls are not firmly pressed, they will soak up the oil and fall apart in the pan. When they turn lightly golden, flip to other side.
When they turn golden brown, remove from oil, and leave to rest on paper towels. Finish cooking all the rice balls. At the end of this process, I usually drop a handful of dried chilies in the pan, and quickly remove from oil: they are the perfect accompaniment for this dish. Let the rice balls cool to room temperature before breaking and mixing them with som moo. At this stage, I usually lose at least a couple of them as my 10 year old would eat them as snack: he has yet to develop a liking for som moo.
Step 2 ~ How to toss the crispy rice salad – Ingredients:
- Rice balls broken up into loose clumps
- 1 cup of chopped cilantro
- 1 cup of chopped green onions
- 3 tbs of fish sauce
- Juice of 1 1/2 lime
- 2 5.2 oz sticks of som moo (ສົ້ມໝູ or Nam)
Add rice and som moo that have been broken up loosely by hand, lime juice, and fish sauce. Give it a quick toss. Taste and adjust the flavors, by adding more lime juice and/or fish sauce to your liking. I like mine on the strong side (‘lod jut’, ລົດຈັດ) because I eat it wrapped in lettuce leaves or puk e leud (ຜັກອີ່/ນາງເລີດ)which bring down the flavors a notch. At parties, people also like to eat it as is, so adjust accordingly.
This feeds 6 to 8 people, depending on what else you are serving. Traditionally, this dish is accompanied by fresh vegetables, lettuce leaves, banana flowers, puk e leud, and herbs such as mint. Wrap a spoonful in a lettuce leaf with mint and topped with a crunchy hot pepper, and you get a mouthful of crispy and soft rice, of freshness and spiciness, and a burst of salty and sour punch. Enjoy in sharing!
For smaller intimate dinner parties, during which I let my usually non Lao guests sample our favorite traditional dishes as multiple courses, I have done single servings that are always received with a lot of “oohhh” and “aaahhh”!