Tom and Gaeng - soups, There are tom and there are gaeng, both are ‘soups’ in English whereby gaeng is misleadingly translated into ‘curry’.
Tom - “to boil” or “boiled” - are clear soups without vegetables mostly made of fish or chicken with some celery or coriander and a few thin slice of ginger added. It is seasoned with pepper & salt only and ‘crowned’ with thinly sliced spring onion when served. Boil chicken bones the longer the better, while fish bones will take no more than twenty minutes before they start producing glue.
Tom kadouk (bones). The heigth of simplicity? You have any chicken or fish bones left over, that’s all you need; proceed as per above! This bare-boned soup is hard to beat in sophistication; perfection in simplicity.
Som I - sour taste add some lime, lime leaves, lemongrass or tamarind and you’ve got the sour version. The ‘sour’ touch is very much part of Lao cooking.
Som II- anything fermented by means of sticky rice produces a sour taste hence som (see nomai som next page.) Som as in ‘fermented’ plays such an integral role in Lao cooking that a future article will be dedicated to it.
Tom gai - boiled chicken, insides and all. This is the dish to eat picnic-style on the morning after tahk baat (alms giving to the monks) during the festival of Boun Taht Louang which is celebrated every November around Viangchan’s Great Stupa, symbol of the nation. It’s real, come and partake in this happy congregation of the Lao peoples.
Gaeng are rich vegetable soups made of many ingredients boiled together for a short period of time. Add ginger or galangal and meat of your choice. In Laos these soups do not consist of heavy coconut cream-plus-something-else (with the exception of Luang Prabang cuisine which does at times apply a touch of coconut cream). And they are not made with curry powder, either, so nostalgically remembered by the uninitiated from British ‘Raj’ colonial days.
Gaeng Nomai - boiled bamboo shoots, yellow gourd and mushrooms thickened with pounded soaked sticky rice, flavoured with fermented fish and coloured green with the extract of a jungle leaf called bai yanang.
Gaeng ‘nomai som’ with chicken - fermented bamboo shoot soup which is prepared in about as many ways as there are people in Laos and, of course, My Mother’s is The Best! The high art of preparing this dish lies in the preparation of the nomai som; not bitter, not too sour.
Gaeng ‘joed’ (as in ‘bland’, no chilli in sight), are clear soups made of pork stock typically featuring glass noodles, mushrooms, minced pork, tofu and leafy vegetables spiced to taste with black pepper. Take this dish international by adding sea algae of Japanese fame. I have yet to encounter the clear and fiery hot gaeng ‘pa’ - ‘jungle’ variety here in Laos.
And there is leuat paeng, nothing other than duck blood soup, raw like ‘steak tartar’.