My Thai: Lao Stuffed Lemongrass (Ua Si Khai)

Leela Punyaratabandhu

This week, we're moving away from Central Thai modern home cooking, which has been the unofficial theme of My Thai, and going into Thailand's neighbor on the other side of the Mekhong: Laos, a beautiful country with an exquisite cuisine.

Ua Si Khai means "stuffed lemongrass" which is what this is. Seasoned ground pork is carefully positioned into the bulbous part of a lemongrass stalk which has been split to create a "cage" or a net that holds the pork in place. The stuffed lemongrass is then steamed, dipped in beaten eggs, and deep-fried until golden brown. The essential oil in the fresh lemongrass stalks, most concentrated in the area where the pork gets stuffed, is what makes this dish more special than its simple appearance might suggest.

You can serve these as an appetizer or a main course. I've found that the pork is already flavorful enough, and a dipping sauce isn't necessary. In fact, a spicy dipping sauce can distract you from the gentle, citrus-like scent of fresh lemongrass which is kind of the whole idea behind the dish.

However, if you would like to serve Ua Si Khai with a dipping sauce, I recommend Jaew, spicy dried chili dipping sauce. And if you're going to serve it as a main course, perhaps a batch of steamed sticky rice would be good with this.

To eat Ua Si Khai, you can pry the pork out of the lemongrass bulb with a fork. Or you can do what I do: holding the stuffed lemongrass horizontally, grabbing both ends of the stalk and bending the stalk away from you to form a wide U shape thereby forcing the pork to spill out of the cage a little bit, then using your front teeth to "break and enter" into the lemongrass cage to set your pork free.

Admittedly, it may gross you and your dining companions out. But, oh, the beautiful herbal scent that gets released into your mouth as your teeth bruise the lemongrass stalk in the process ...

You can find the recipe for Ua Si Khai here. It is my simplified version based on the original in Phia Sing's Traditional Recipes of Laos.