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Laotian Mok Pa’s on the menu

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An aromatic mix of onions, garlic, herbs and chili enveloping slices of fresh fish fillet may be the ingredients for Mok Pa, but the banana leaves are the secret. In the northern Laos city of Luang Prabang, known for its cooking classes, Tamarind Cafe offers unique full day experiences starting with a shopping expedition to the Ban Phousy morning market. Set in a traditional French-Laotian house overlooking the Nam Kahn River, Tamarind Cafe is one of Luang Prabang’s acknowledged culinary destinations.

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Once the royal and spiritual capital of several southeast Asian kingdoms, the UNESCO World Heritage City of Luang Prabang epitomizes tropical post-colonial romanticism. The historic core rests high on a peninsula at the confluence of two great rivers, the Mekong and the Nam Kahn. Many hotels, guesthouses and restaurants take advantage of the spectacular mountain scenery of northern Laos.

Mok Pa is a Laotian national dish available in both fine restaurants and from street vendors. Banana leaves have been used as a food wrapper for centuries across the equatorial world. Their wide thick waxy leaves are ideal for enclosing both firm and moist ingredients. Set in a bamboo steamer, or other steaming device, gentle water vapors heat the packet allowing its contents to cook infused with its own flavors.

Fish sauce, sticky rice, kaffir lime and banana leaves are all available at Asian grocery stores. Banana leaves may also be found at Hispanic grocers. Do not allow preconceptions to color your opinion of fish sauce. Long a salt substitute, fish sauce actually enhances natural flavors and imparts a sweet after taste.

Mok Pa - 2 to 4 servings

Ingredients:

  • 3 tablespoons sticky rice, soaked at least 4 hours.
  • 5 shallots chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic chopped
  • 1 chili (or to taste)
  • 3 kaffir lime leaves
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
  • 3 green onions (scallions) chopped
  • 4 tablespoons water
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce
  • 12 oz firm white fish fillets cubed
  • 8 banana leaf rectangles approx. 8” X 10”

Preparation:

  1. Drain the soaked sticky rice and wash well. Set the rice aside to dry. Using a mortar and pestle, or a blender/food processor, pound the rice to a fine powder. The longer it soaks the softer the rice kernels which will make a finer powder.
  2. To the powder, add the shallots, garlic, chili, kaffir lime leaves and salt. Pound to a paste.
  3. Add the dill, basil and scallions. Pound further to incorporate.
  4. Stir in water and fish sauce.
  5. Stir in the cubed fish.
  6. Over a charcoal fire or gas burner, run each banana leaf over the flame to soften. As they soften they will become a little shiny. Do not let them burn.
  7. Take two banana leaf rectangles and place at right angles (crossways).
  8. Arrange a quarter of the fish mixture in the center of the leaf. Fold each side up, adding a little more sauce but not so much that it leaks, before closing the rectangle. Wrap the folded package with bakers twine.
  9. Place in a bamboo, or other steamer, on top of simmering water and cook for 20 to 30 minutes.

Place the packages of Mok Pa on dinner plates and have each diner open their own portion. As the diner unwraps the banana leaf packet, herb infused steam rises to please the nose. Serve with sticky rice.

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