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The Chef in Charlotte: Lao Khao Poon

My sister signed me up for a monthly spice delivery service, Spice Madam, for my Christmas gift, and I have thoroughly enjoyed getting my shipments of spice packets from various countries over the past few months. They have included spices from Northern India, Tunisia, and, most recently, Laos.



Lao food is having a moment in some sectors of the U.S., most notably the northeast (or at least it was before the pandemic!). DC in particular has a few Lao places that are getting a lot of attention in the culinary world. A neighbor to Thailand, yes, but with a very unique culinary scene, Laos has a lot to offer to the adventurous eater who adores the food of southeast Asia.


Spice Madam includes with their monthly box a series of recipe cards, with the goal of being able to create an entire meal with those recipes and the spices they send. They even include a complete grocery list. However, for just one person, the full meal isn't feasible, so I decided to try my hand at just one of these dishes––khao poon, a traditional Lao soup.


There are a lot of steps to this dish, but the overall time and effort isn't bad. As with many dishes with traditional roots, there are thousands of variations on the recipe, so the recipe card that Spice Madam sent is only one interpretation, and I even made a few tweaks to make it my own.



The first step, of course, is to prep your mise en place. Julienne two small carrots, shred about an eighth of a head of cabbage, thinly slice about an inch of ginger root, and coarsely chop three or four garlic cloves, depending on how much you love garlic!


Afterward, you'll need to prepare some chicken. You can also sub with tofu and veggie broth if you're veg or vegan. The recipe recommends bone-in chicken so you can make a more flavorful stock for the soup, but the only organic and free range chicken I could find at the store was boneless. No big––I cooked in the Instant Pot about six cups of water with five chicken thighs and the ginger root, pressure cooking for ten minutes and letting the pressure release naturally for a while. I then took the chicken out, strained and saved the broth, and shredded the chicken with two forks. It was remarkably tender––gotta love the Instant Pot!



You'll also want to cook some rice noodles in boiling water, strain, and set aside for your soup, but you can also omit these if you want to avoid anything carb-y. As a profound lover of carbs, I of course included them.


Khao poon is traditionally made with curry paste. Spice Madam gives you a recipe for a Laotian spice paste that resembles curry paste, but uses a blender (and hence water to make it blendable, seriously diluting the flavor) instead of a mortar and pestle. In the future I'd definitely find a Lao curry paste for this dish, but the Spice Madam recipe for the paste was also tasty. While preparing the chicken, I put in the blender chilis, Laotian spice mix (coriander and cumin, primarily), lemongrass powder, a shallot, seven (!) cloves of garlic, lime juice from one lime, some lime zest, dash of salt, and water to make the blades spin.



Once the paste, chicken/broth, noodles, and veggies are ready, you've got pretty much everything ready to finish it off. Heat a bit of olive oil in your soup-finishing pot and cook the garlic until fragrant. Then, add the paste and stir, adding the shredded chicken shortly after, letting it absorb the sauce. Don't cook it too hard, however, lest it get tough, and add a can of coconut milk and four to six cups of your newly made chicken broth. Finding the resulting soup to be tasty but a shade under-seasoned, I added a couple tablespoons of Thai fish sauce for umami, which was the magic bullet. I don't really love raw veggies, so I added the carrots and cabbage a couple minutes before serving to cook them just a bit, though the recipe called for adding them when serving.



To plate, I spooned the soup (with plenty of solids) into a bowl with the rice noodles, and shredded some fresh mint leaves and squeezed half a lime over the bowl. I wish I added even more mint, because it was such a delicious component! I had a ton of soup left over, too, and some rice noodles to cook whenever I wanted more. So tasty, and so healthy!


I cannot recommend trying new cuisines more highly, particularly when you can come up with something healthy and delicious that affords plenty of leftovers! I am excited to try a few more Lao dishes this week, as well as some other wonderful things I got from Fair Share this week! Food is so wonderful, especially in springtime!

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