Spicy, Sour, Salty Pork Burger with Fresh Herbs
Laos is one of those countries about which travel writers love to write. I read so many beautiful articles about Laos and Laotian food, that I was tempted to hop on a plane and take a trip. Then my husband reminded me that traveling half way around the world with an 8 year old with Autism and a 4 year old that is…well…4, might not be fun. On top of that, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are few and far between in that part of the world, so our oldest would probably starve. But I digress. Needless to say, we’re staying put.
So, about Laos. Laos is a landlocked Southeast Asian country that borders Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma and China. Unlike its neighbors’, Laotian food hasn’t really caught on. According to Zagat, New York City got its first Laotian restaurant in 2013 (although if you do a Yelp search, there are several Laotian/Thai restaurants). At any rate, you certainly aren’t seeing any jeow bong, laap phet or khao niaw stands opening up in your local mall food court. Part of this is because Laos was, until 1986, a one party communist state. Since then, the government has been gradually decentralizing and encouraging privatization. For the most part this has worked well and Laos has enjoyed fairly steady growth in their economy.
Unfortunately, that growth is off of a very low base, so much of the country is still pretty primitive in terms of infrastructure. Also unfortunate is that as the country opened up, someone, or probably some ones, brought MSG to Laos. “Modern” Laotian food is chock full of MSG. Luckily, you don’t have to search too hard for “old fashioned” food minus the MSG. Travel/Food writers have done this for us – there’s a particularly good article written by Emily Kaiser for Food and Wine that really brings the countryside to life and inspired many of the flavors I used to create this recipe.
So let’s get to it – what the heck does Laotian food taste like? Much like Thai food, the food in Laos is about balance – balance of salty, sour, spicy, umami (earthy) and bitter. Unlike some of their neighbors, sweet is not as important and doesn’t show up in savory cooking very much (or at least not in quantities that are noticeable). According to a couple of the sources I discovered, the food of Laos often leans into the bitter and sour categories more than many other cuisines. Since these are taste sensations that we don’t exploit much in the US, I thought we’d try them out and see how they suit. The coconut lime sauce that I created is this odd combination of bitter, umami and salty, and on it’s own is overpowering (it could be the heavy use of fish sauce driving this), but, when you combine it with the fresh herbs and the spicy jeow bong sauce, then balance with some starchy stick rice and the light sweetness of pork…well, we were in heaven.
Sticky rice is critical for making this dish, and you may have to go to an Asian market to find it. Don’t believe anything you read about making sticky rice with sushi rice or jasmine rice – you can’t create sticky rice with anything but sticky rice!
Also known as glutinous rice, it is a different creature entirely from the rice that we eat regularly. Unlike sushi rice, you don’t add anything to glutinous rice to make it sticky, it’s sticky because it has more gluten in it than other kinds of rice. You also prepare it by steaming rather than cooking in water. When made correctly, you should be able to grab a handful and form it into a ball, then dip that ball in sauce and enjoy (that’s how they do it in Laos)!
One side note, Laotians don’t typically use chopsticks, they traditionally eat with their hands, using spoons for soup. I just thought that was an interesting point of trivial knowledge and could find no elegant way to weave it into the story
Laotian food is not for the feint at heart when it comes to spice/heat. Like Thai food, Laotian cuisine involves those scary hot Thai peppers, and lots of them. Yes, you can use a milder pepper if you are not spice tolerant, but the flavors will change depending on the pepper. I used a combination of peppers I could find locally – I was lucky enough to find fresh Thai peppers and combined those with Serrano and jalapeño. If you can’t find fresh peppers, you can usually find dry Thai chilies, just start with a few and add more to taste – it’s easy to blow out your taste buds with this hot little suckers!
I find this burger difficult to describe because it is very different than food I’m used to eating. The umami earthiness of the pork and the coconut lime sauce is at the center of the taste. But the salty sourness of lime and fish sauce combination pulls your taste buds in a totally different direction. Add the bitterness of the dandelion leaves and the fresh zing of herbs and this burger takes you to the brink of “oh man, that’s just too much going on”…but only to the brink. You are saved from falling over the edge by the simple clean flavor of the sticky rice. My husband (not for the first time, he’s a bit fickle in this respect) declared it “the best burger yet”. And I even ate the burger I made for the picture the next day (plus made an extra one that Paul heated up and ate left-over and still declared amazing). I would say that if you’ve been reading these recipes for a while, but haven’t made one, this is a great one to try – it really epitomizes what I’m trying to do here. It’s as exotic as it gets, but still a burger, and man, I love burgers!
If you like this burger, I have no idea what other recipes you’ll like. This one kind of stands alone. Bhutan is another spicy hot burger, so you could try that or you could check out Bahrain for another burger that celebrates herbs in all their glory. Neither one is really very similar to this one, but they are both excellent and memorable (IMHO).
1 pound ground pork
Sticky rice (recipe below)
2 cups chopped dandelion greens (or other bitter greens)
Coconut Lime Sauce (recipe below)
Jeow Bong Sauce (recipe below)
Fresh Herbs (recipe below)
Separate ground pork into four portions. Form patties and fry until cooked through. Form four balls from the sticky rice then flatten into discs. To serve, place the sticky rice discs on each plate, then layer a generous portion of bitter greens (I used dandelion, but you could use beet, collard or chard). Top the greens with a generous scoop of Coconut Lime Sauce, add the cooked patties, a tablespoon (or more if you like it hot) of Jeow Bong Sauce. Finish it off with Fresh Herbs.
Note – I didn’t season the pork because the Coconut Lime Sauce is quite salty, you really don’t need to directly season the meat.
2 cups glutinous rice
Place the rice in a glass bowl and completely cover with cold water. Soak the rice for at least 10 hours. Drain the water off the rice, place rice in cheese cloth then steam the rice for 20 minutes. Let the rice cool to luke warm before using.
Coconut Lime Sauce
¼ cup fish sauce
Juice of 3 limes
5” of lemon grass grated
12 ounces coconut milk
½ teaspoon dry Thai basil
¼ cup glutinous rice
Combine first 5 ingredients in a small saucepan. In a dry pan, toast the rice over medium heat until just beginning to color. Grind the rice into a find powder. Cook the sauce over medium heat for 5 minutes then whisk in 2 Tablespoons of the rice powder. Cook until thick.
Jeow Bong Sauce
13 fresh Thai chilies chopped
2 Serrano chilies chopped
2 Tablespoons chopped jalapenos
4 large garlic cloves sliced
2 large shallots chopped
¼ teaspoon ground galangal
1“ piece of fresh ginger chopped
Toast the chilies in a non-stick pan over medium heat until just beginning to color. Fry the garlic and shallots in a small amount of oil until soft and lightly browned.
Put all the ingredients in a food processor and pulse until it forms a paste. Return the mixture to the dry pan and cook over medium low until it’s a rich brown color.
½ cup fresh dill
½ cup fresh mint
¼ cup fresh cilantro
¼ cup fresh watercress
Chop all of the herbs and toss them together. You can adjust the herbs if you have strong preferences for a particular herb.
©Copyright 2014 Linda Monach