Laos – delicious ramblings from a very special place

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.

Rice – the Culinary Staple of S.E Asia

They say “The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grow, and the Laotians listen to it grow.”

This may just be a reflection on the work ethics of the different cultures (the Laos’ are known to be relaxed) but the point is, rice is paramount in all cultures. The demand in SE Asia is so great that the Lao people simple can’t grow enough. And it is easy to see why.

Here is Laos, the villagers get up at 4.30 in the morning to start steaming their rice (which has been soaking over night.) Sticky / glutinous rice is king here and people roll it into balls with their hands and pick of bits to eat as if it was a bread roll. The rice takes about an hour to steam and it is then taken and offered to the monks ‘amin’ at 5.30 every morning – a ritual I am off to see tomorrow.

They then come home and tuck into steamed rice with grilled meat / fish, before the men head out to the paddy fields (a packed lunch – including rice) in hand. Rice is now taking over from teak as the primary source of income –  there are 2 harvests a year and it grows well in the hilly landscape. Huge leaved, slow growing trees are visibly being cleared to make way for more paddy fields.

The woman dry the rice in its husks on large mats in the sun. They then pound the grains for up to 3 hours in wooden basins carved out of logs. A quick rustle in flat bamboo baskets and the husks fly away leaving the white (or red) grains.

In Laos, nearly all dishes come with rice and are designed to be eaten with it – noodles definitely play second fiddle. The rice comes in little bamboo baskets and balls of the stuff are used to dip in sauce which is made thicker than the coconut driven Thai sauces to avoid mess. (NB the rice is designed to be eaten with a fingers, spoons and forks being given for the rest. No chopsticks in sight.)

Last night we treated ourselves to a ‘posh’ restaurant – at a cost of 10 pounds – and I had red glutinous rice with a delicious fish stew, grandly written up at ‘Bouillabaisse Lao style.’ It was delicate with so many delicious fragrant herbs it is hard to know what they were. Pudding was also rice – we had a rosella (hibiscus) and cinnamon creme brulee with rice glued to the bottom on the small bowl with cane sugar. (French colonial influence is still huge here and you can find the best patisserie around.)

The night was washed down with Laos whisky in Sprite – another rice product which is not nearly as refined as Sake – my god it is powerful. I think it would drive a tuk tuk to one of the many temples and back. However, faced with the dire option of yet another fizzy drink, we decided the home-brew was a great addition and would help to keep the mozzies at bay.