Or lam is a soupy stew incorporating a range of vegetables — string beans and bamboo are common — and any of a variety of sun-dried (in Laos, anyway) or grilled meats or fish in a broth thickened with puréed eggplants and, if you like, a ping-pong ball-size scoop of grilled glutinous rice. The dish’s trademark is that of many northern Laos dishes: complexity. In or lam, this is achieved with the addition of a riot of fresh herbs (lemongrass, galangal, cilantro, dill, culantro, spring onions and basil), and a tingly heat derived not only from chilies and black pepper, but also from sakhan, the woody stem of a wild vine.
Preparation of this typical “village food” exemplifies a “basic approach … that can make use of any and all available resources,” says Penny Van Esterick, author of “Food Culture in Southeast Asia.” As a professor of nutritional anthropology at York University, she has been conducting research in Laos since 1968. In spite of its simplicity, or lam was served in Luang Prabang’s royal palace. Two recipes for the dish, one made with water buffalo and the other with quail, appear in the notebooks of former royal palace chef and master of ceremonies Phia Sing, which British food scholar Alan Davidson edited and published several decades ago as “Traditional Recipes of Laos.”
Or lam’s origins are difficult to pin down, but Van Esterick thinks that the use of sakhan for spiciness suggest the dish pre-dates the 1600s, when European colonizers brought chilies from the New World to Asia. She also points out that true Luang Prabang-style or lam (a weaker, less spicy version is eaten in southern Laos) may be an endangered species, thanks to rampant deforestation in northern Laos that threatens the supply of sakhan.
The average Luang Prabangian eats or lam several times a week at home (the city traditionally hasn’t had much of a dining out culture and even now most restaurants cater to tourists). Because it takes a while to make, or lam is an evening dish says Morn Ngueamboupha, a Luang Prabang native who cooks at Luang Prabang’s popular Tamarind Restaurant, which is owned by her brother Joy and his wife, Australian Caroline Gaylard.
A classic or lam requires labor and time. At Tamarind, herbs and shallots are pounded with garlic into a paste which is then boiled with globe eggplants, lemongrass and the sakhan. When the eggplants are soft, they’re removed and pureed, than added back to the soup. More vegetables and meat are added and everything is then boiled together.
When it comes to which protein makes the best or lam, there’s little agreement. The Royal Palace’s Phia Sing wrote, “There is no one definite recipe for or lam because there are no fixed rules about how to make it.”
“Everyone likes it with water buffalo, and the skin should be in there, too,” asserts Ngueamboupha before enthusiastically describing a version served in her own home in which blackened buffalo meat contrasts with a broth green from eggplants. Her brother, Joy, who leads classes at Tamarind’s cooking school, prefers his or lam made with chicken and banana flower. Van Esterick, who doesn’t like fish, fancies versions made with pork.
But the desired overall flavor profile is rarely disputed. As Gaylard puts it, “You want the peppery and anise seed flavors from the chilies, sakhan, and herbs like Thai basil.” Smokiness from grilled glutinous rice and/or sun-dried or barbecued meat takes the dish up a notch.