From the people behind Rosa’s Thai Café, a som tam by any other name would be as spicy
Names, labels and categorisations are funny things. No matter how arbitrary, ambiguous or artificial they may be, some people will hold them inviolable and sacrosanct. Cuisines, and the cultures that created them, can be a case in point. They may have been generations and centuries in the making, but they can find themselves split and defined by the borders of Westphalian-style nation-states created as wars end and empires fall.
Laotian cuisine is, by many accounts at least, a prime example of this. Despite sharing many core ingredients, techniques and dishes with the cooking of what is now northern Thailand, the colonial and post-colonial intrigues of Southeast Asia not only left some chefs of this cooking continuum stuck on either side of a new border. It led to some Lao dishes becoming better known internationally as Thai ones.
With this in mind it should therefore come as no surprise that Laotian food isn’t as unfamiliar as you might initially think, as long as you’ve been exposed to a wider breadth of Thai cooking as practised by restaurants such as Singburi and Farang.
Som tam green papaya salad, for example, is best known to most Londoners as a Thai dish but is arguably more accurately described as Lao. Available at Covent Garden’s Lao Café in several different versions, one variant had pickled baby crab nestled amidst the crisp, crunchy and refreshing sheaves of papaya. The crab bits added a lip-puckering salty tang and sourness to the tear-inducing chilli-based heat of the fish sauce-based brine. Even though we followed our server’s advice and had less chillies than usual, this som tam was still so potently flavourful and fiery that Crispy Rendang, the Duchess of Wales and I were able to see and touch the psychedelic curves of the space-time continuum.
The takeaway ‘Lao-style’ som tam was very similar to the sit-in pickled crab variant, but had more filler vegetables – cabbage, carrots and onions – bulking out the green papaya. Despite this corner-cutting, it was still a moreish, crisp and bristlingly spicy salad.
Larb or laab is another dish typically thought of as exclusively Thai, but with Lao origins. One version here is based around grilled pork neck. But aside from the tenderness of the swine collar, this laab had surprisingly little to say for itself. A non-laab version of the pork neck was much the same.
If you’re desperate for grilled meat, the poussin is a better bet than the pork neck. Although no big shakes in the flavour department despite the seemingly turmeric-stained skin, it was nonetheless juicy and evenly tender throughout.
Even so, you’d be much better off with the array of sausages available at Lao Café. The fermented sausage was consistently coarse, meaty and tangy – almost like a black pudding in its mix of ground meat and carbs bound together in the same casing. The herbal sausages were similar, but less tangy and with a more mustardy taste probably courtesy of turmeric.
Although billed as spicy, the salad of bamboo shoots was no one-trick pony. Alongside a cumulative sour-spicy warmth, it was earthy and tangy too – almost rivalling the som tam papaya salads for my affections.
While billed as a curry, the mixed mushroom affair here was more of a soup or stew for the lack of a better Western cognate. If you’re expecting something akin to Thai curries as they’re served in the UK, which tend to lean heavily on coconut milk, you’ll be disappointed. If you’re an open-minded sort, like Crispy Rendang and the Duchess, then you’ll be rewarded with gently chewy mushrooms (probably oyster and eryngi), wrinkly cloud ear fungus and bittersweet greens all languidly buoyant in a thin and light yet peppery broth. You can add ant’s eggs, but these largely tasteless white morsels are more for bragging rights or for meat dodgers needing a source of protein.
For something less genteel and more strident, there’s the pork rib hotpot – although such a sedate name hardly does this gregarious dish justice. The fiery, skin-shrinkingly sour soup shimmered with the flavours of lemongrass, bird’s eye chillies, Thai basil and galangal. The rib meat was served on the bone, but chopped into easily graspable pieces. Using one’s tongue and lips to grapple and suckle the tender, fleshy swine meat and gelatinous connective tissue off the bone isn’t a design flaw, but a feature that makes you appreciate the mouthfeel of the pork riblets all the more.
Whole fish, probably sea bass, was salted and grilled to decent effect. Although it verged on being a bit too dry in places, the salted crust of the skin and the generally meaty flakes of fish largely made up for that and the milquetoast sweet chilli sauce. Cooling pods of vermicelli provided a bit of ballast.
A side of vermicelli wasn’t at all the wallflower dish I was expecting. The thin and narrow stir-fried rice noodles were blessed with a subtle umami, possible courtesy of pork fat or a shellfish-based stock (or at least that’s the way I’d do it). These noodles were just as notable for what wasn’t present – there was thankfully little in the way of cheap, tatty filler vegetables.
For teetotallers that need liquid refreshment, there’s only one real choice worth choosing at Lao Café given the spine-straightening spicy heat in many of the dishes. The milk iced tea can be a bit inconsistent, but at its best it’s milky sweet and malty with a tannic undercurrent. Soothing and utterly gluggable, it’s reminiscent of both Thai and Vietnamese iced beverages.
Lao Café is a sibling to/spin-off from the Rosa’s Thai Café chain of Thai restaurants. It’s therefore hard not to see Lao Café as their answer to the Singburis and Farangs of London, a quiet affirmation that they too can cook beyond the hotel buffet staples of green and red curries that taste largely of coconut milk.
While Lao Café isn’t perfect with one or two wobbles here and there, its small delegation of dishes from Laos (and northeastern Thailand) nonetheless rewards and satisfies time after time. Such deliciousness, no matter which appellation its chefs give it, deserves far more recognition and respect than it has gotten.
What to order: Pork rib hotpot; mixed mushroom curry; sausages; green papaya salads; bamboo salad
What to skip: Pork neck
Name: Lao Cafe
Address: 60 Chandos Place, London WC2N 4HG
Phone: 020 3740 4748
Opening Hours: seven days a week noon-22.00.
Reservations? highly recommended.
Average cost for one person when split between three: £30-35 approx.