My roommate, although she won’t admit it, is a great cook. She understands the complexity of Southeast Asian flavors and the discovery of mixing tart, tang, sweet, and spicy. She makes curry, soups, sauces, and egg rolls with such focus and tenacity that if doesn’t taste good to her, she won’t feel it is complete and will refuse to let me try it. She also doesn’t like to waste a thing, even though she learned how to cook from her mother which translates to: cooking to feed an army of boys but for only the two of us. If there are extras and she doesn’t deem it fit to give to others, she’ll spend the next couple of days trying to eat it herself to prevent wasting the food. Yep, she’s one of my favorite home cooks out there and she can run across campus in a pair of stilettos like no other.
Now, all the credit can’t be given to her. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting her mom who cooked us a fabulous Christmas meal years ago. It involved hundreds of egg rolls, chicken, vegetarian stir fry (It had ground pork. But, according to her dad, that doesn’t count as meat because it’s seasoning), some noodles, and an amazing little spicy dipping sauce. The sauce was a salsa verde of sorts but South East Asian in style. We’ve now lovingly call it Mien Salsa in our household.
I’ve talked about the history of the Lu Mien community before, but never in-depth. Originally they where a tribe of indigenous people who lived in the southern mountains of China. Once political disputes over land heightened to violence, the Lu Mien (also known as Yao People), were forced into Laotian and Thai territories. About a century later, US forces made its way into a war in Laos and convinced the tribe elders to help them fight alongside them. Once Americans pulled out of the country in 1975, the Laotian government began persecuting and exiling this small minority, eventually sending them out of their land again and forcing them to the western side of the US. [Thank you Wikipedia for making me sound smart.]
It’s interesting to see how centuries of war and displacement changes the flavors and dishes of a certain community. I sometimes imagine a fantastic and romantic story of how a family who grew up eating foods in the high landlocked mountains would eventually be forced to a land rich in spice, heat, and flavors. I would imagine the first time that a child tasted the prick of heat from their first pepper after it was tirelessly beaten by a stone mortar and pestle. Or create a memory of when a mother, after months of traveling and escaping battles and wars, gets her first pungent whiff of fermenting fish sauce and the man, who after years of fighting to protect his land, house, and loved ones, will reunite with his family to see a bucket of fried chicken, cole slaw, mashed potatoes, egg rolls, rice, and this Mien salsa. And it was because of this salsa that the father, with a tear rolling down his cheek, felt that it was all worth it and at home. I’ve been watching way to many overly dramatic family coming of age stories on Netflix. I need some help…
I would classify this sauce as more of a chimmichurri or salsa verde than what most Americans think of when they hear “salsa”. It’s full of heat, tang, aroma, and citrus. It is a crisp refreshing sauce with an earthy and full flavor from the crunch and spice of the dried chili peppers and complexity of the fish sauce. The lime juice helps bring out the citrus of the cilantro and the tartness of the fruit helps mellow out the pungent fish sauce. And the chili adds a great earthy flavor to the whole sauce. And add lots of chili pepper because my roommate says, “it should punch you in the mouth.”.
A note on the recipe: the measurements are a rough estimates and, like many of our mother’s cooking, not meant to be followed exactly. This condiment, which is great with spring rolls, grilled meats, and steamed fish, is more of a personal preference with the ingredients. I know when I make it, I tend to add some agave syrup or honey to add a bit of sweetness to it. My roommate’s version is more of a red sauce with it mostly being dried chilies and a sprinkle of bright green cilantro leaves. Any way you do it, be prepared to have your mouth punched.
1 bunch of cilantro, minced
3 whole dried chili pepper, toasted
1 lime, zest and juice
1 tbs fish sauce
1 tsp agave syrup or honey (optional)
place cilantro and chili peppers in a mortar and pestle and combine the ingredients [if you don’t have a mortar and pestle you can break up the chili peppers by hand and place in a bowl]
mix the rest of the ingredients in a bowl and adjust to taste
set aside the sauce for at least 1 hour