The plant known as mai sakahn doesn’t stand out among the lush, wild foliage of Northern Laos. But add a small piece of its vine to your meal and you’re setting yourself up for a fiery, tongue-numbing experience.
Also known as chili wood, mai sakahn is a species of black pepper plant that grows across Southeast Asia. Instead of collecting its peppercorns, harvesters focus on the bark of the vine itself. When cut into fine splinters (usually no longer than an inch and a half) and added to soups or stews, the vine imparts a hot, peppery flavor with sharp chili hints.
Its lingering aftertaste can leave one’s tongue and lips pleasantly numb. A single splinter of chili wood is so spicy and unique in flavor that replacing it would require a whole spice-rack’s worth of dried chilis and Szechuan peppercorns (another tongue-numbing spice that’s still nowhere near as spicy as mai sakahn).
Chili wood is an incredibly useful vine to have around the kitchen. It is the most important ingredient in Laos’s famous or lam, a humble stew of buffalo or beef, lemongrass, eggplant, and other riverside ingredients. The vine is even used medicinally as an antiseptic, diuretic, and appetite stimulant.
In many ways, this simple ingredient is sure to get your fires burning.
Need to Know
Before you head to market to pick up a stick of chili wood as a souvenir, know that it must be stored tightly-wrapped in a cool place, or else it will blacken and dry out too quickly to be of any use.