I looove seaweed… especially the crispy kind. My current favorite is the kind Lauren brought along our most recent W’menswear road trip to the south of Thailand. They are crispy seaweed sandwiches stuffed with sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, and almond slices, super addictive! Recently, my taste buds have stumbled upon another unique find, and good food is all the sweeter when shared. Today, I’d like to introduce you to a savory riverweed called ‘Kai Pen’, harvested from the freshwater of Mekong river in Northern Lao.
From afar, long strands of green algae called ’Kai’ can be seen swaying to the rhythm of the flowing river. During dry season from December to May, many Laotian villagers rely on these greens as their livelihood. They wade cautiously into the chilly water to avoid stepping on it. With one hand holding onto a basket, another reaching down, plucking the weed above the holdfast, giving it the ability to regrow.
The riverweed blooms briefly as they are extremely sensitive to sunlight, oxygen, and the water level. Over the years, Laotians have seen less of them due to the development of a seven-dam cascade construction by China's Belt and Road Initiative. It has choked up of the main channel. This forces many to wade into other Mekong tributaries and small mountain streams where riverweed is still growing and safe to eat.
Back on shore, the weed is washed, pounded, and spread evenly on the spear grass mats. In the kitchen, villagers brew a secret sauce made of tamarind, hog plum, and galangal. After a day in the sun, the dehydrated riverweed readily quenches its thirst by soaking up the juicy dressing. Garlic, tomato and sesame seeds are scattered across, instantly glued to the wet surface. These flavors are infused together by skillful battering using dried coconut leaves and the age old technique of sun drying.
The best way to enjoy this snack is fried! Just swish it across hot oil for 1 second per side to crisp it up and ‘Soen aesb!’ (Buon Appetit in Lao) You’ll realize that it tastes nothing like regular seaweed as ‘Kai Pen’ has a distinct salty and nutty taste. Paired with its partner in crime, ‘Jeow Bong’ a sweet yet spicy chili for the perfect bite packed with a busload of flavors. No words could describe this complex umami other than 2 thumbs up.
Photos and words by Buranee Soh