The record-breaking heat of the last weeks left us with no desire to cook while our thoughts turned in the direction of sun-baked Laos. Laotians, like other nations we visited during our Asian trip, seemed to be unfazed by the temperatures, even standing by the barbecue in 35 degrees Celsius. Luckily, there are also many local dishes that demand minimal or no time spent over fire. Various salads, for example.
Laotian dishes can be a great solution for hot days in any climate. We decided to go for the delicious, classic cucumber salad (tam mak taeng). It is the twin sister of a more popular papaya salad (tam mak hoong). All other ingredients are the same, so the taste of both salads is very similar. Instead of imported papaya, I went for the Polish cucumbers in season.
Cucumber salad may sound innocent and bland but the Laotian edition is anything but that. The explosive aromas of fish sauce, lime juice and hellishly hot chilies burst through the apathy and sun-faded colors, twisting the nostrils, bringing out drops of sweat onto face and successfully cooling the body.
In Laos, tam mak hoong or tam mak taeng don’t exist without the addition of unfiltered and unpasteurized, extremely aromatic or even fetid, fish sauce called padaek. This product probably never crosses any borders, so we will recreate the taste using standard fish sauce and shrimp paste. A little nasty in flavor, yet very exciting, these seafood preserves give the dishes amazing depth. Slightly more delicate than padaek, the aroma can still be a challenge for uninitiated.
Shrimp paste is ubiquitous in the cuisines of all Southeast Asian countries and like fish sauce and tiny chilies you can find it in the Asian stores in your country. I have brought mine from Malaysia (where it is called belacan) in a dry and flattened form. In the Asian stores, as well as in Laos, you can usually get it in the form of an actual paste in a glass or plastic jar.
The name of the salad is simply “pounded papaya/cucumber” and to prepare it you need a large mortar, like the one they use in Laos. If you don’t have it, try to pound the smaller ingredients in your mortar and then move them to a larger bowl. I managed by using an old stoneware container that fitted all of the ingredients.
Spicy Laotian cucumber salad – Tam Mak Taeng
- 4 cucumbers
- 3 good quality ripe tomatoes
- 1 lemon or lime
- 4 cloves of garlic
- 1-3 small Asian chili peppers
- one teaspoon of shrimp paste
- fish sauce
- 2-3 tablespoons of white or brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons of salt
1. Peel the cucumbers and cut them into slim ribbons. Start with a few shallow cuts lengthwise and then change the angle and slice off fine slivers with a knife. When the scoring is no longer visible repeat the process. Move around the cucumber this way until it starts to fall apart. The soft flesh can be used for other purposes or you can cut it thinly and add to the salad. Laotians don’t really bother with perfect stripes and the salad contains ribbons of different lengths and thickness.
2. Put salt, sugar, garlic (you can use the press first), chili and shrimp paste and pound them for about 2 minutes.
3. Add tomatoes cut into big chunks without the excess juice and pound for a while. If the tomatoes have thick skin, you can first put them in boiling water for a minute and peel it.
4. Add a few splashes of fish sauce, 4 tablespoons of lime juice and the cucumbers. Mix all the ingredients lightly pounding them so that the flavors release.
5. Try and season to taste. Eat using chopsticks.
In Laos, you can taste the salad straight out of the mortar, before it is put on a plate. The four flavors: sweet, sour, salty and spicy should be perfectly balanced and you can adjust the condiments to achieve your personal equilibrium. I like it sour, so I add a little bit less sugar and more lime juice. Laotian dishes are very spicy – for beginners I recommend using only one chili pepper. I use two and see the sweat on everybody’s foreheads (don’t worry, Laotians react likewise!). Three and more peppers are recommended only for the maniacs. Usually you get some raw veggies with the salad, like a piece of cabbage. Crunching them in between bites helps to deal with the spiciness. The perfect addition to the salad is Beerlao (a girl can dream…) or if not available, any other light lager. Yum, the real taste of Laos!