Until the early eighties, I was raised in Vientiane, the capital city of Laos. I was just about ten then, but I still vividly remember so much about my childhood and my favorite things to do and eat. Meals were/are a sacred bonding time. We were asked to sit around the traditional ‘pah khow’ (ພາເຂົ້າ or low round woven rattan table) with our legs to one side on a mat spread over the wooden floor. It was an unwritten rule that we never get scolded during dinner, as it was a time to truly enjoy the meal, to feed, and to replenish our body and mind. My parents believed that it was more important we received the nourishment that we needed to grow, than to be lectured about something and not finish eating. Our ‘pah khow’ was really big, enough to fit 10-12 people around it. As far in time as I can remember, our household had always comprised of extended family members: cousins who moved in to pursue higher education from far away villages and districts, relatives from as far as the southernmost province of Attapeu who came and stayed for work and/or do businesses, etc. There were people coming and going, and we were receiving guests all the time. So there was always something interesting going on in the kitchen: it was a full day worth of activities, filled with chopping, slicing, grilling, and pounding sound, and the aroma that emerged from there always made my mouth water. Feeding the big family was a serious affair.
Growing up, my grandparents were the supreme authority, but the management of the household was placed in my mother’s hands. She was a working woman with a career at the Development Bank (ທະນາຄານພັດທະນາ), situated next to Vat Mixay (ວັດມີໄຊ or Mixay Temple) and she was running the house with ease and caring for its inhabitants with great tender love. She was quite progressive for her generation if you ask me! She was really busy, usually getting home only in the early evening. We were expected to have had snacks, finished homework, and showered by the time she got home and before dinner. One of my cousins, a daughter of my father’s sister, came from Banh Geun (ບ້ານເກິນ) to live with us and to pursue an education: she later attended medical school and became a doctor. Euay Vanh automatically became my parents’ eldest daughter, and my mother’s right hand woman. She also became my second mom, taking care of my needs after school, always letting me off the hook when I was in trouble, and consoling me when I felt my younger brother was getting preferential treatments for being the only and youngest son of my father, who is also an only son. She also held many other roles, such as student, weaving apprentice, but to me, her coolest role was as my co-conspirator and partner in crime.
My 2 older sisters, my younger brother, and I grew up with guidelines and regulations strictly enforced, even forbidden activities, such as swimming in the Mekong unsupervised, and eating spicy ‘Tum Maak Houng’ (ຕຳໝາກຫຸ່ງ or green papaya salad) from street vendors. Once I had a serious case of diarrhea after having it: my stomach was turning and twisting, hurting me for a week. I also developed a chronic eye infection, undiagnosed or not given a scientific name, but suspected to be caused by food allergies (‘padaek’ was believed to be one of the culprits) triggering me to rub and scratch my eyes, adding the infamous red dust from unpaved streets, and my eyes took turn getting swollen shut and produced a thick white discharge. I had to wear an eye patch and miss school, which gave me time to hang out in the kitchen and be spoiled with treats. Back in the days, the ‘padaek’ (ປາແດກ or fermented fish sauce) was not always the cleanest, and the dust raised from the roads added to the questionable sanitation of this favorite dish by my favorite vendor. I guess those were valuable enough of reasons why I should not be allowed to eat this all times favorite Lao snack. It was OK though for me to eat it, if it was prepared at home. Unfortunately, it seldom made it as part of our daily meal. To me, something was fishy about the whole thing…
As serious as dinners were, snack times were more flexible, an adventure for me, free and unsupervised by the higher up authorities. I would often have a big ball of freshly steamed sticky rice sprinkled with salt while I roamed and reigned over our big garden, fenced in by mature trees producing year round fruits and flowers: star fruits, fragrant plumeria and champi flowers, mangoes, rose apples, jack fruits, guavas, coconuts, ‘milk fruits’ (ໝາກນໍ້ານົມ), bananas, climbing betel leaves, kaffir limes, and all sorts of herbs. On special days, Euay Vanh would give in to my begging and craving for ‘tum maak houng’: those remain some of the most thrilling moments of my life. After I promised not to tell and get rid of the smell of garlic and padaek in my breath and on my fingers by thoroughly washing, we would walk over to the banks of the Mekong and ask the vendor to make her spiciest batch. When chili peppers were in short supply, out of season, and expensive, the vendor would try to cheat me by not putting enough. I would always insist that she added more. “How can such a small person eat so spicy?” she would cry out. The finished product would be put in a clear plastic bag along with some fresh vegetables as accompaniments, tied up with a rubber band. I knew exactly how much time I had to enjoy the snack before my mother got home.
Something was exciting and exhilarating about breaking rules. Was I borderline delinquent? If cravings for the sweet, sour, salty, and spicy taste were a crime, I was willing to take the risks of being caught. I still get a rush from telling the story. One day, as I was savoring every bite of the tum maak houng using my fingers as chopsticks, wiping my tears, sweats, and nose on my sleeve because it was so humid and so spicy. I was the only one left to finish it up: everyone else took a couple of bites and gave up. Suddenly I heard euay Vanh running towards me, and telling me in one breath that my mother was home early and was about to walk through the front gate. Panicked we both looked at each other, not knowing what to do and where to run. With an unspoken understanding, she walked swiftly to greet my mother and possibly delay her from catching me red handed. I ran towards the back of the house, as fast as my short legs could allow, with the plastic bag swinging on the rubber band hanging from my left hand, and holding in my right a small bare branch of the morning glory (ຜັກບົ້ງ): its leaves have been used to wrap the papaya salad and eaten earlier. I glanced over and realized that there was some sauce left in the bag, and this batch was yet one of the tastiest I’ve had. I turned a corner and when out of sight, I stopped running. Out of breath, I found my favorite hiding spot, squeezed myself behind the huge jars of homemade ‘padaek’, my back against the wall, right underneath the kitchen. I bit off both ends of the knotty parts on the morning glory branch, and what remained was a long green straw. I stuck it inside the bag, and with all the will and breath I had left, sucked up the remaining sauce. In the hurry and fear to get caught, I sucked too hard and too fast. I coughed uncontrollably. The very spicy sauce went down the wrong pipe and straight up to my brain, and I almost choked!
To this day, tum maak houng remains one of my favorite dishes and all times snacks, except that I don’t have to make it a secret obsession, and hide from my mother to enjoy it. I invited one of my adopted younger sisters, Phonetip, who co-founded “Kinnaly – Lao Traditional Music and Dance Troupe” with me and 4 other amazing young women, to make it. Because it is such a loved and uniquely Lao dish, making good tum maak houng is a sought after skill. A woman who makes a good batch is believed to have mastered the secret of Lao cooking. I often tease Phonetip that she is still single because she does not know how to make good tum maak houng. So I gave her my recipe to test out 😉 The result was pretty good. I like mine a little on the sweet side. She almost broke my mortar though… 😉
Tum Maak Houng – ຕຳໝາກຫຸ່ງ or Green Papaya Salad Recipe:
There are many ways to make this dish and ingredients vary. Sometimes I add slices of small eggplants, noodles, and/or dry shrimps. The combinations are endless. This is my most basic version. I do not use garlic as it tends to turn the salad bland if it sits out for too long. I also find that its smell overpowers the rest of the ingredients. But if you like it in yours, please use one clove. You can add a generous sprinkle of MSG. You can also substitute dried chilies with fresh ones, and adjust the amount according to your level of spicy preference. This is pretty fire-y!
- 6 Dry Chilies
- ½ tbs of kapi or Shrimp Paste
- 1 tbs of Sugar
- 1 tbs of Tamarind Paste
- 1 tbs of Padaek or Fermented Fish Sauce
- 1 tbs of Fish Sauce
- 10 Cherry Tomatoes
- 2 cups of Shredded Green Papaya
- 1 cup of long beans, cut 1.5 inch long
- 2 Wedges of Lime
- Need a Mortar and Pestle to mix it in
How to Make Tum Maak Houng:
In recent years, there is an overwhelming innovation in the tum industry! In the Luang Prabang region, I have found the papaya shredded wide and flat, some of my friends have dubbed this the “fettuccine” of shredded papayas: they don’t soak in as much of the liquids, hence leaving the papaya with more texture and are crunchier.
To let you know how passionate I am about this tum tradition, I have made it with unripe fruits as well! Here I used kiwi, blueberries, grapefruits, strawberries, and mangoes. Instead of following the steps in the recipe, I mixed all the ingredients to make the sauce first, then I added the fruits last and just tossed them as you would in a dressing. Guava, green apples, pineapple are also good candidates. Just remember to choose them firm. I topped it off with peanut. The result is rather refreshing with differing texture!
The latest craze is tum mua (ຕຳມົ້ວ or loosely ‘tum mix’) in which you add anything and everything into the mortar, from noodles, all kinds of vegetables, to even meat and seafood. If you are a true fan of the tum flavors like myself, I guarantee that you will still love (almost) every combination and every bite of it! So go out and find your best combination, and have fun ‘tum-ing’!