Sometimes when we travel we get so caught up in sightseeing that we forget to take a moment to enjoy the simple pleasures of the day. And what's simpler or more pleasurable than food?
Laos is a country that has stuck in my mind. I enjoyed how the Mekong River dominates life in the south. Its waters lend a lush fragrance to everything around it, rustic and fresh. And it's this freshness that comes across whenever I eat laap, the national dish.
Laap (often seen as larb on Thai menus) is a warm salad that can be made with any variety of protein--chicken, pork, raw beef, water fowl, freshwater fish, or even water buffalo (I make mine with tofu, seitan, or a combination of the two). The key is that the meat must be minced. To achieve this effect with tofu, it's best to freeze it first, which results in a grainier, crumbly texture when thawed.
Of all the ingredients, I'd say the glutinous rice powder gives laap its most distinctive flavor. This is made by toasting uncooked grains of sticky rice (usually available at Asian markets) until they turn golden brown, then grinding them in a coffee/spice grinder. It may smell like stale popcorn, but it really makes the dish.
The clear, light freshness of laap comes from the use of fresh herb leaves--mint and cilantro--chopped green onions, and fresh lime juice. A liberal dousing of fish sauce enhances the flavors. And of course, it wouldn't be a Southeast Asian dish without some heat. Diced serrano peppers do the trick for me, but an Asian chili would be more authentic. Heap it all on a bed of lettuce and you're good to go.
If you need something to accompany the dish, hand-rolled balls of sticky rice are a must, and some people like a mixture of freshly chopped tomato, cucumber, and basil as well. For specific measurements and instructions for all this, the recipe I follow (more or less) is here.
Even with snow on the ground outside, when those bright flavors touch my palate, it's easy to imagine myself resting cross-legged on a cushion in front of a low wooden table, watching the Mekong's swift current rush off into the sunset. And that's about as good as travel gets.