Fusing Lao tastes into stir-fried rice cooks up a win
Chef Sitthasone Phommachanh has an easy smile and a humble demeanor. Almost two weeks after winning the ‘Pick, Peel, Heal’ plant-based cooking competition at the One Health Fair at Crowne Plaza hotel in Vientiane, he still cannot believe it.
“I was quite nervous during the competition and very aware that several experienced chefs from popular restaurants were my fellow participants. I honestly didn’t think my simple dish had a shot at winning,” he tells me when we meet on a bright, sunny morning at his restaurant, Kheg Suan Sim.
The dish in question takes typical stir-fried rice and gives it a healthy and flavorful twist. The usual white rice is replaced with brown rice which is less processed and has more fiber and lower glycemic index than its counterpart. Since the dish is meat-free the vegetables and herbs really get to shine.
Chef Sitthasone’s dish has the usual suspects in fried rice like long beans and bell peppers, but the dish takes an unusual turn by combining ingredients typically used in laap (minced meat salad) like galangal, lemongrass, Kaffir lime leaf, and toasted rice powder. The dish even utilizes the surprise ingredient of the competition, turmeric, which is anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant.
It blends in perfectly, making the dish more colorful and giving it a more earthy taste.
Laap is the national dish of Laos, but the word has a double meaning – luck or fortune – so Chef Sitthasone gave this dish the playful name: Fortune Fried Rice.
“A person first consumes food with their eyes, so I want to make it look as attractive as possible. I also add vegetables like bell peppers for color, string beans, and winged beans to add some crunch, more texture,” he added.
The One Health philosophy of eating and promoting organic, healthy, locally grown, and seasonal food is something Chef Sitthasone has been advocating through his cooking even before he participated in this competition. He informs that most ingredients, especially the herbs used in Lao cuisine are medicinal, and he constantly tries to highlight them in his food.
“I don’t even add MSG [monosodium glutamate] unless customers ask for it,” he says as I notice that the seasoning in fried rice is all but three ingredients: salt, unrefined sugar (because it is healthier than white sugar), and soy sauce.
At the competition, between the boiling and frying, the thwack of knives, and sautéing of vegetables by participants unfazed by curious onlookers, I remember observing the precision with which Chef Sitthasone worked at his station in an almost meditative state. Even though he blames his nerves for it, I was amazed at how he kept working unperturbed by the rain and wind, making next to no eye contact with those around him.
The participants were judged on markers like hygiene, presentation, taste, creativity, cooking method, and nutritional value of the dish, and Chef Sitthasone took extreme care to ensure his simple creation was both affordable and healthy. From just looking at him chopping his vegetables and lining them up on a chopping board like a painter arranging colors on his palette, one understands how much importance and respect he gives the ingredients and produce he works with. He also plates this dish with fresh greens and a wedge of lime, which not only elevates the flavor, but helps absorb iron in plant-based foods.
“I like making people happy with my food. I am grateful to win such a prestigious competition, but even more delighted that some of the judges and the EU Delegation Office in Vientiane will come to dine at my restaurant soon, I can’t wait to host them,” he exclaimed.
This publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the responsibility of the implementing partners and do no necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.
FOR MORE INFO
Kheg Suan Sim restaurant is located in Nong Bone Village, Vientiane fb.com/khegsuansim
Learn more about One Health principles at fb.com/onehealthlaos
Text by: Amrita Paul
Photographs by: Phoonsab Thevongsa