In a tropical country like Laos, the last thing you think you want is piping-hot soup. Especially if that soup cooks right at your table over red-hot coals, and you have to lean over it as you grill thin slices of meat. And yet, as I watch a piece of fat sizzle on the grill in front of me, grease sliding down into bubbling soup, I forget all about the temperature and the sweat on my brow. It tastes that good.
Usually called siin dat (or, somewhat confusingly, “Lao fondue”), this love child of Korean barbecue and Chinese hot pot is cooked on a domed grill with a ring-shaped bowl at its base. Meat, seafood or tofu cooks on the top as vegetables, noodles and egg simmer in a broth below. The longer it cooks, the better it tastes — the soup absorbs the drippings from above.
Sitting on the deck of a restaurant with a view of the Nam Khan river in Luang Prabang, my friend and I take turns arranging meat on the grill and plunking vegetables in the onion-and-beef soup, which arrives preheated in a teapot. The broth alone, with its rich umami flavor, is incredibly satisfying — I’d drink a bowl of it on its own — but loaded up with an egg, vegetables and freshly grilled meat? It’s sort of the best thing ever, especially with the accompanying dipping sauce adding a spicy kick.
This is a dish you don’t want to make and eat by yourself.
Penn Hongthong, Laotian cookbook author and cooking show host
Technically, siin dat refers to grilled meats that are thinly sliced and cooked one piece at a time, then eaten wrapped in lettuce with fresh herbs and peanut sauce. Siin lork, often referred to as Lao hot pot, is similar, with bite-size pieces of meat cooked one at a time in broth, then folded into lettuce. With sukiyaki, a Japanese-inspired dish, vegetables and noodles are added to the broth and then eaten from a bowl. What many restaurants now call siin dat is a fusion with sukiyaki, perhaps inspired by siin lork, and it’s become more popular in recent years, explains Penn Hongthong, who’s authored books like Simple Laotian Cooking and Healthy Lao Cuisine and who hosts a cooking show called Simple Lao Cuisine.
This is in part because of the inevitable evolution of cuisine, Hongthong says, and because meat has become more affordable and accessible over the past few decades. “This is a dish you don’t want to make and eat by yourself,” she says. It requires a lot of meat, making it very expensive compared to other Lao dishes, which are typically vegetable-based. She remembers eating sukiyaki only twice during her childhood in Laos, and though these dishes aren’t holiday foods, she says they’re usually enjoyed only during “very special events, when you get together with a large group of immediate family,” which is often infrequent.
While it still remains an extravagant meal in Laos, siin dat is fairly budget-friendly for visitors. My $14 meal of buffalo, tofu and accompanying vegetables, shared with a friend, leaves us stuffed. Because of the unique grill setup and the amount of meat needed, you aren’t likely to find this specialty dish at a majority of restaurants, especially in more provincial areas. Your best bet for tracking it down is by googling “Lao fondue,” “siin dat” or “sukiyaki” — it’s a dish that travelers tend to gush about.
A great interactive intro to the flavors of Lao cuisine, siin dat also offers a totally undeserved (but fun) sense of accomplishment for cooking your own meal. Sure, the restaurant preps everything, but as you stir noodles and vegetables into that amazing soup and arrange meat on the grill, you just can’t help but feel a bit proud.
Explore the world
This year, OZY is going Around the World, bringing you untold stories from every single country on the map, one day at a time, to introduce you to new people, new trends and new places.