As a child, when we played the What Would You Eat Or Take To A Deserted Island game, my food of choice was always Lao, specifically caillau (Lao spring rolls). I promise to share that recipe another day. People ask me if Lao food resembles Thai or Vietnamese cooking, and my answer is always the same and accompanied by a shrug—“Sort of.” The Lao use similar ingredients to their neighbours, but their food is unique. Beyond this completely unhelpful explanation, all I can do is offer to cook Lao recipes for friends or refer them to a Lao restaurant masquerading as Thai.
When I travelled to Laos with my mom and brother this January, I ate and ate and ate. I also walked and hiked and laughed and visited with relatives I’d never met. It’s a trip that will leave its imprint on me for years to come, and one I hope to recreate with my husband and children.
Some of the best meals I ate in Laos were from roadside vendors who prepare and serve using rudimentary kitchens and utensils, and meals cooked over an open fire deep in the jungle. Who knew there were so many delicious varieties of pumpkin and squash, and so many ways to prepare them?
Another staple in Laos, and one of my favourites, is mok kai (Lao coconut chicken). Mok kai means cooked—usually in banana leaves—chicken. The ingredient list is simple, as with most dishes from Laos, and the preparation involves throwing it all together and letting the oven do the work. I’ve made mok kai the traditional way, wrapped in banana leaves, but since we don’t always keep a stock of leaves lying around, using a casserole dish and foil works well, too.
Preheat oven to 425°F.
Put the raw chicken thighs in a casserole dish so that the chicken is touching. Place pinches of uncooked sticky rice in between the chicken throughout the dish.
Add the lemon leaves between the chicken thighs, and flavour with salt and pepper. Sprinkle the chopped onion, lemongrass, and fish sauce over the chicken.
Cover the thighs with the coconut cream. This is a case of getting what you pay for. The better the quality of coconut milk, the more cream there will be. With the brand that I buy, 2/3 of the can is cream. Drink the leftover coconut water or use it to flavour smoothies.
Cover with foil and bake at 425°F for 45 minutes. Uncover and bake another 15 minutes.
Serve the mok kai with jasmine rice and romaine leaves and cucumber, or a vegetable stir-fry.
Make perfect rice every time with this no-fail rice tip.