Husband and wife Bianca Fong and Aiden Xindavong were feeling homesick for Laos during the pandemic so Chef Aiden began recreating favourite dishes from his childhood at home. Pretty soon, the couple realised they wanted to showcase Laotian culture to their new home of Canberra.
The result was Champi, a Laotian restaurant in Kingston, honouring Aiden’s family recipes and exposing Canberrans to a new cuisine.
“We really wanted to bring those traditional Laos flavours, using the modern ingredients available in Australia,” said Bianca Fong.
“Customers found it so fascinating that we use such different methods of cooking. We always use a mortar and pestle for the marinades and the flavours really come through. Everything is made fresh.”
Over time their customers have become curious to try a wide variety of different Laos dishes, so Bianca and Aiden started to put together seasonal menus that would showcase different elements of Laos cooking and culture.
Bianca explains that a defining feature of Laos cuisine is the prevalence of grilling rather than stir-frying, which you would see more often in Thai cooking.
The flavour profile is also quite distinct: “We tend to be a bit more savoury, rather than those sweet sugar and fish sauce flavours you get in Thailand. We use shrimp paste and anchovies and traditional flavours like roasted rice.”
I visited to try out their Autumn specials. We started with crab cakes made with puffed sticky rice, blue swimmer crab, and a green apple slaw. It’s a lovely little canapé-style starter.
Bianca tells us that sticky rice is a staple of Laos cooking, and the crackers are a classic snack. They wanted to utilise Australian seafood for a modern version of an old classic. The crab and slaw are fresh and zingy, while the cracker offers a textural base and satisfying crunch.
We also tried a dish simply called Homesick – a shared platter for two people with grilled Laos sausage, beef jerky, steamed vegetables and jiew tomato salsa. Bianca compares it to Grandma’s lasagna. It’s a comfort food that reminds you of childhood and the thing you always want to eat when you go back home.
The tomatoes for the salsa have been grilled to release more flavour and the juicy sausage has perfect char markings as well. The pork is mixed with lots of herbs and aromatics like lemongrass, making it incredibly fragrant and flavourful. The warm beef jerky has a great rich flavour and – like many Laos dishes – this is designed to eat with your hands. We enjoy taking a ball of sticky rice, pairing it with the beef and veggies and dipping it into the salsa. The steamed vegetables are a little less refined than the other elements of the dish, but as it’s supposed to be a home-style dish, we don’t mind.
The standout dish for us that evening was a Laos version of the classic French dish duck à l’orange. Laos was a French colony, so there’s a shared language for cooking that continues throughout modern Laos cuisine. Crispy roasted duck is a classic Laos street food, and here Aiden has paired it with French technique and an orange glaze.
The duck is perfectly crisped with a nice layer of melt-in-your-mouth fat and tender meat underneath. It’s topped with an Asian-style slaw with fresh herbs and vegetables that just lift the dish to a new level. It’s a perfectly executed piece of old and new Laos on a plate.
Because we’d come especially to try the seasonal dishes we didn’t order from the main menu, but for first-time customers, Bianca would usually recommend trying Grandma’s grilled chicken larb and tum mak hoong papaya salad. They’re classic Laos dishes that show off this underrated cuisine’s traditional cooking techniques and flavours.
Original Article published by Lucy Ridge on Riotact.