The Laotian ladies tried to warn me. So did the brothers who own the New Orient Market, I had ordered beef laab to go, and the cook asked me whether I wanted it cooked or raw. Laab is considered the national dish of Laos, and though it can be made from chicken, pork or even tofu, I had the idea that the raw beef version is the most traditional. It’s usually made from chopped meat mixed with mint, lime juice and chilis, and served with fresh lettuce.
New Orient Market 28th St. & 1st Av. S. 612-871-7946
I wasn’t sure I understood, so I asked the brothers for an opinion. “Get it cooked,” one of the brothers told me – or words to that effect. Several customers, women from Laos, agreed. “For you, cooked is better. Raw is too bitter. The raw has bile in it. “
Well, of course, I had to take that as a challenge. I hate it when waiters in ethnic restaurants size me up, and try to steer me away from the tripe soup or the duck feet or the beef tendon stew -“Americans no like. You like sesame chicken?”
I figure that if you enjoy every movie you see, or every book you read, or every dish you order, it’s a sure sign that you aren’t taking enough risks.
Besides, I had enjoyed all the other prepared foods I had taken out from New Orient in the past. The market, at one block east of Nicollet at 28th St. and First Ave. S. is one of my favorite Asian markets to explore/ Tucked away in the back of the store is a small kitchen, where you can order sticky rice and tam mak houn, ($3-$5) the Laotian cousin of som tam, the pungent and fiery fresh papaya salad made with lime, hot pepper fish sauce and garlic.
Under a heat lamp, you can usually find a variety of very tasty grilled meats, including chicken, skewers of grilled marinated pork ($1.79), pork sausages, roast duck and whole fried tilapia ($5.95). And near the cash register, there’s a selection of fresh spring rolls (three for $2.99), savory rice noodles with fried egg and ground pork ($2.99), red chicken curry ($3.99) and assorted sweets. Except for the papaya salad, everything is pretty mild, and quite tasty. They also have a nice selection of Asian groceries, fresh produce and fruit, ranging from tiny sweet bananas to cherimoyas and longans.
So I decided to take a chance, and ordered the laab raw, with beef bile.
I raced home and tore open the package, scooping a spoonful of the raw beef, mixed with sliced tripe, onto a leaf of romaine and took a bite.
It tasted terrible. If you have ever had acid reflux, you can get a sense of the flavor. Okay, not quite that bad, but very bitter. One of the Laotian ladies did explain that raw laab is traditionally consumed with Laotian homemade rice wine. I’m sure the custom is to wash down the bitter flavor of the laab with the homebrew, but if I ever try laab with bile again, I will want to drink a lot of homebrew first.