Like most things in Laos, technology operates in quite a relaxed manner and the idea of paying to sit in a neon-lit corner with only geckos and mozzies for company while waiting for the site to grind into action, was all too much. Hence, my Lao ramblings are coming from Vietnam – a whole other chapter in culinary excitement.
Looking back on Laos, it seems to me that 3 things drive the culinary culture there. Firstly, “peasant” food, by which I mean rusticity born of poverty. This is one of the poorest countries in S E Asia and its people have seen horrific atrocities in their lifetime; more bombs were dropped here than were used in the whole of WW2 – the figure equates to one bombing run every 8 minutes for 9 years. The reason? Trying to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh trail – the artery of Vietnamese Communist communication and supplies to the South during the long and bitter ‘Nam war.
The resultant hunger has led to a huge culture of home cultivation and ‘creativity’ with the little resources they have. Every part of the omni-present squawking chicken is eaten; we saw kebabs with chicken hearts, feet, kidneys and even the crowns from our daily alarm clocks (aka roosters) being sold on the streets. Italy springs to mind.
Vegs’ and delicious herbs are cultivated in abundance by villagers, in some cases on the flooded silty planes on the beautiful Mekong river, between floods – these people are desperate. ‘Morning Glory’ a weed that is on every menu, was perhaps my favorite find and delicious when fried with garlic. Hot on its heals (for the name anyway) was ‘Mekong Mud Weed’ which was fried flat – nigri style – with sesame seeds and dipped in chilli jam. Yum.
Fruits fall into this same category and my mulberry fruit shake in hot and steamy Viang Vien was utterly scrumptious. As always around here, their instinct is to add far too much a to everything so “little sugar” is as common a phrase as “little chilli” when we order at restaurants. I also saw fried Mulberry leaves on one menu – innovative and surely available in abundance when you see how much silk is being created in these parts.
The Lao means of cooking just re-inforce this idea of peasant food. Charcoal is king and is the basis for all heat; they make cooking pots out of clay, light charcoal inside and then BBQ or steam things in banana leaves. Fish, chicken, duck, pork (we have seen lots of piglets snuffling about) and buffalo are the key proteins which are cooked like this, and we had a great evening on the Mekong, eating off a ‘hot pot’ – frying thin strips of buffalo on top of a glowing clay hot pot. An important mention should be made here for one of my favourite Lao dishes: Laaps. I never really found out how they make it but it seemed to be minced meat of fish, steamed with the most spectacular number of fragrant herbs. Totally and utterly delicious.
Because of the poverty, preserving is key and the sun is the way they do it. Rice cakes, chillies, buffalo (their version of jerky was incredible) and fish are all left out in the sun for days to dry out. Weirdly, flies don’t seem to in evidence – good news for us consumers. The photo above was taken at a fish market on the way into Vientiane from Vang Vieng. I can’t begin to describe to you the intensity of the smell (a little tough at 8.30am) but it was an incredible sight. The fish is either re-hydrated in soups or heated up on charcoal and eaten. I tried some heated on an old woman’s charcoals on a street corner in Hanoi a few days later – egged on by a rather drunk local. I felt a little like a dog gnawing on an anchovy flavoured pigs ear. Hmm… I don’t think it will be the next trend in London, especially since it was likely to have been the culprit for putting me out of action for the following 2 days.
The second influence is the French colonials – thanks to their presence there for the first half of the 20th century. The patisserie was as good as any I have seen in Europe and their coffee was a life raft in the sea of nescafe and ridiculously potent – actually completely undrinkable – Lao brew. Italians – you have nothing on these chaps.
The third major influence is, perhaps sadly, the Tourist industry. Like everywhere, western food sells, but finding dignified, beautiful local ladies handing over BLTs and hamburgers in the ramshackled, tourist funded ‘tubing’ bars on the river bank in Vang Vieng was a little sad. All part of the ‘old-meets-(and aspires to)-new-culture’ there.
This was again demonstrated by their annual Lunar festival What I was hoping was going to be incensed filled, gong sounding romance was, in fact, the most kitsch experience of my life. Tack-filled, neon-lighted fun fair games with the extraordinary addition of monks in their beautiful orange wandering through to a temple. We were left wondering which was the main attraction at the wierd event; the largest temple in Laos or the pop concert?
Enough enough, but if anyone goes to the heavenly Luang Prabang, make sure you have the tasting menu at Tamarind restaurant. My favourite and most exciting meal in Laos by far. Stuffed lemon grass stalks with chicken and herbs followed by red sticky rice with coconut and a tamarind sauce – stuff to dream about…
A ‘p.s’ written a long time later..
For some reason, I can’t get Laos out of my head. It was a truelly magical place and one thing stood out: in Laos, it is simply ‘not done’ to raise one’s voice – doing so only reflects badly on the person who has. While this is the case in many Asian countries (apart from the constant shouts of “Massssaaaaaaaaage Lady” to any westerner) in Laos it seemed to be more noticeable. They are humble people – though they shine. Their food reflects this.