Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Lunch with Indavone

Here’s my pal Indavone who even though she’s in her 60’s still makes the “V” sign like all Lao girls do when they have their picture taken.  I don’t know if it’s a peace sign or a victory sign or something that has to do with Thai pop singers.

I met Indavone through a mutual friend.  She wanted to practice her English and I wanted to learn some Lao so we made a pact to have lunch on Wednesday of each week to work on same.

Indavone comes from a prominent Lao family.  Her father was in the old royalist government and she was educated at the French Lycee in Vientiane after which she was sent to France on a scholarship and studied economics.  Before she left for France she was married and she and her husband returned to Laos after university.  One year later the government fell and they decided to return to France although they didn’t absolutely have to since her husband was a nephew of the new Lao communist prime minister.  But not seeing eye to eye on politics they didn’t want to stay.

So they lived in France for 40 years, had two sons and Indavone worked for the French government in the tax department.  She’s a French citizen and needless to say completely fluent in French.  After her husband died she decided to divide her time between France & Laos.  So she’s in France with her kids and grandchildren in the summer avoiding the rainy season and in Laos during the French winter.  Sounds pretty good don’t you think?

We started having lunch at the French Cultural centre which has a very nice restaurant in the center of Vientiane.  Her English is way better than my Lao but when we get stuck we revert to my high school French and if that doesn’t work she always brings along the English/French dictionary.

A digression about lunch or more to the point the lunch hour.  To me having lived in New York and Italy, lunch is at 1 p.m.  Here in Laos everyone eats lunch at noon.  I always end up thinking, really, lunch already?  And how does this decided upon lunch time come about?  In Mexico it’s not lunchtime until 2 p.m. but that’s because the Mexicans slip in a hearty snack/meal about 11 a.m. called desayuno which allows them to hold out til 2 p.m.  I didn’t really figure this out until we walked into a restaurant in Mexico City at 1 p.m. and all the staff looked at us funny.  By the time we left the place was packed.

But Indavone thought it would be better if we had lunch at home.  And the first time she picked me up we stopped at the market and she got take out.  That’s when I had a lightbulb moment.  I’ve figured out pretty much what all the produce section of my market has to offer but there’s also a huge “to go” area serving up what looks like delicious food if you had any idea what it is.  Indavone could help me decipher all this.

There are some things I’ve already figured out because they’re pretty obvious.  This lady spends the entire day cooking up banana fritters and banana chips.  You can see her entire operation in this shot including a large bag of charcoal on the right and her boiling oil filled wok on the brazier.

This woman is putting together something slightly more unusual.  She wraps a kind of slightly sweet paste made from fried, pounded sticky rice in a lettuce leaf along with some lemon grass, starfruit, raw eggplant and peanuts.  You get six in a pack for less than 40 cents with fried chili peppers on the side.  It’s the perfect pre-dinner snack.

But what would you make of this line up?  This is where I needed Indavone’s vital input.

O.K. this is pretty obvious too – they’re snails.  I, who adore snails, don’t eat them in Laos because I did a lot of research on the life cycle of liver flukes which cause liver cancer.  The fluke has a complex existence that includes spending part of its time in a river snail before emerging and lodging itself in a river fish.  This is why I also don’t eat padek because the liver fluke can survive the fermentation process which creates this Lao fish sauce.  Fish sauce from other countries is o.k. because it’s made from sea fish.

But look again, what, I’ve always wondered, is that big pot of green stuff?  Indavone and I bought some and then she tried to explain what it was.  It’s some kind of leaf that gets soaked overnight and then pounded up with other seasonings.  It tasted a bit like spinach or, more aptly, reheated spinach which to me always has a kind of metallic flavor.

This isn’t hard to figure out but I put it in because I think it looks so beautiful.

We actually bought fried fish and shrimp fritters – teeny, tiny river shrimp thrown into a batter and fried - which you can see in this shot in the middle stainless steel sheet.

We’re laughing because it’s the only dish that I can recognize and pronounce – pork lahp – lahp moo.  One of the differences between Lao and English is that the adjectives and quantifiers come after the noun.  Beautiful very, for example or beers two.

And our final purchase was bamboo soup – in the upper far left metal container - and some sticky rice from that gigantic basket in the background.

We took our food haul back to my place and my Lao lesson continued.  The hardest thing about Lao is that it’s all about the tones.  So a word like sau can mean morning or daughter or twenty depending on how you pronounce it.  I spend most of my lessons saying to Indavone – “o.k. say it again” and then “o.k. now say it again” in my desperate attempt to hear the difference.

O.K., I know I’ll never  really learn Lao but by having lunch with Indavone I can get perhaps a smidgeon better and she serves as a bridge for me to learn things about the Lao way of life that I will never get from spending time with ex-pats.  If you click the button you can hear me saying the only word that after two years in Lao Indavone thinks I pronounce correctly.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Pasta Lesson

Months in the planning, our first big event on our return from the U.S. in September was to be a pasta making lesson as a fund raiser for the Women’s International Group.  I was approached in the spring about this project but I explained there was no way I could do this solo.  Bruce is the pasta maestro in our house, I'm in charge of sauces, fillings and plating.  So a double act it was to be.

First hurdle: where to get hold of a pasta machine.  Yes, it’s correct, a true contadina would only accept hand rolled pasta but after almost eighteen years in Italy, Bruce hasn’t mastered that technique yet.  Turns out that a fellow WIG member had a pasta machine she’d never used.  She got it as a present but being Japanese didn’t know how it worked.  Unfortunately, it was a Chinese made pasta maker and when we did a test using it we found it didn’t quite roll out the dough thin enough.  Acceptable, but not quite the gossamer sheets we were used to using our Italian machine which remains in Italy.

I was bemoaning this to another friend who thereupon reached into her kitchen cupboard and “ecco” revealed a pasta maker made in Italy!  We were in business.

Our first plan was to make two kinds of ravioli.  One stuffed with pumpkin – readily available here - and the other from our favorite trattoria “dal Pallazzacio” in Umbria.  “Ravioli Letizia” is filled with eggplant - also readily available here – and topped with a sauce of black and green olives, capers and fresh tomatoes topped with shavings of parmesan.

We emailed Letizia, the daughter in the family trattoria for whom this pasta is named, and asked for their recipe.  She sent it back with detailed instructions and we made it just for ourselves on Easter Sunday.  Here it is.

We then tried the pumpkin ravioli but the filling didn’t have much pizazz.  I remembered a recipe of Marcella Hazan’s that substituted sweet potato for pumpkin in cappellaci, and so I emailed our pal, Mikey Tucker, to ask him to send that to me.  Mikey and I tossed around ideas about solutions to the blandness and both felt that a combo of pumpkin and sweet potato could be the answer.  Which it was.  By the way, Michael Tucker writes a great blog which I highly recommend called “Notes from a Culinary Wasteland”.  Here’s the link. http://notesfromaculinarywasteland.com

But Bruce was decidedly not happy with the Lao (actually Thai) flour.  It didn’t have enough gluten in it to withstand the kneading and rolling process and kept shredding and falling apart.  We were saved by discovering a very expensive but very rugged Australian flour at the ex-pat market.  $10 per bag - but it worked.  Here it is. 

So now we were all set.  We decided that after our summer holiday in the states we’d teach the class how to make pumpkin/sweet potato ravioli in a butter and thyme sauce with parmesan and then fettucine with a blended fresh tomato sauce which includes carrots, onions, rosemary and lashings of olive oil.  We chose not to do the “ravioli Letizia” – yummy though it is – because the cost of ingredients like olives and capers and shavings of parmesan here in Vientiane was a bit prohibitive for a crowd.  But you should definitely try it.  Here’s the recipe:

Ravioli Letizia

    •    500 grams of flour
    •    pinch of salt
    •    4 eggs

    •    500 grams of eggplant cut into small cubes – no need to peel eggplant
    •    1 clove of garlic
    •    extra-virgin olive oil
    •    finely chopped parsley
    •    parmesan cheese

    1.    Cube the eggplant and place in a saute pan with olive oil, garlic and parsley.
    2.    Cook five minutes and let cool. 
    3.    Add 2 T grated parmesan.

This is the filling.

    1.    In a saute pan place 6 T of olive oil, 150 grams of green olives and 100 grams of black olives.  Add I clove of garlic and 10 grams of capers.
    2.    Saute for three minutes and then add 600 grams fresh tomato sauce.
    3.    Simmer for a further twelve to fifteen minutes.


    1.    Roll the pasta out very thinly and stuff with the filling. 
    2.    Seal edges well using a beaten egg wash. 
    3.    Cook in abundant salted water.  A minute or so should be enough. 
    4.    Dress with the sauce and top with shavings of parmesan cheese.
While staying in Santa Barbara we bought a ravioli cutter – ours being, yet again, in Italy - and just before getting on the plane back to Laos we swung by Whole Foods in New York and bought fresh rosemary and bay leaves.  This had now morphed into a multi-continental operation.

At last the day arrived.  I had made the ravioli filling and sauce for the fettucine in advance because the idea was to focus on the pasta making and we didn’t want to be there all day.  Bruce made a CD of Neapolitan music to play while we worked. 
Here’s the “maestro” explaining how to take the flour; make a well in the center of it; break in an egg and gradually gather in the flour making sure not to break the ring of flour until the egg is incorporated otherwise the egg runs right off the table.

I don’t think I was ever more aware of what an international group WIG is until that day.  Here’s part of the gang that showed up.  We had women from America, Belgium, Japan, Mongolia, Nepal, Papua New Guinea and Russia all wanting to learn how to make Italian pasta.  Pretty wild.

We decided to use the Italian pasta maker for the ravioli and the Chinese pasta maker for the sturdier fettucine.  But there were still more acolytes than machines so here’s Bolo from Mongolia who took things into her own hands and started rolling her own.  She realized the dough was similar to what Mongolians use to make their dumplings.  She gets the “Golden Contandina” award.

Here’s Seema from Nepal (well, actually, just her hands) making the ravioli.  Scroll down to the end for the filling recipe.

And here’s Alison from Papua New Guinea slicing the pasta sheets into fettucine.  Scroll down to the end for the sauce recipe.

And so we lunched on fettucine in fresh tomato sauce with rosemary; pumpkin/sweet potato ravioli with thyme leaf, butter and parmesan; salad and a glass of wine.

As the old Ronzoni pasta ads used to say.  “Close your eyes and you’re eating in Italy”. 

Tomato Sauce (from Marcella Hazan)

•    1 medium onion
•    1 carrot
•    1 stalk of celery
•    1 can (about 425 ml) peeled tomatoes
•    salt
•    pepper
•    fresh herbs (I’d suggest either rosemary or oregano or marjoram)
•    ¼ C extra virgin olive oil

1.    Put the tomatoes in a sauce pot
2.    Chop the onion and the carrot and the celery (medium/fine) and add them to the pot
3.    Add the salt, pepper and fresh herbs
4.    Simmer slowly for 30 minutes – without a lid
5.    Remove the fresh herbs from the pot
6.    Pour the remaining contents into a cuisinart or blender and blend until it’s as smooth as you want it to be.
7.    Pour this mixture back into the sauce pan and add about ¼ cup of extra virgin olive oil – if you want to add a bit more – go ahead.
8.    Stir the pot slowly until the oil is incorporated into the sauce and then let it all simmer for another 15 minutes.

 Pumpkin Ravioli

•    1 ¾  pounds sweet potatoes and pumpkin about equal weight (not yams)
•    1 ¼  cups grated parmigiano or grana padana
•    3 Tb chopped parsley
•    2 Tb chopped mortadella, prosciutto or ham
•    1 egg yolk
•    ½  tsp nutmeg grated
•    1/2 tsp salt

1. Preheat oven to 450
2. Put potatoes and pumpkin in middle level of oven. 
3. After 20 minutes turn down to 400.
4. Cook for another 35-40  minutes or until potatoes are tender.
5. Peel potatoes and puree them through a food mill into a bowl. 
6. Add all other ingredients and mix thoroughly with a fork until the mixture is smooth and evenly blended. 
7. Taste and correct for salt.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Can I get you something to drink with that?

The monsoon has begun. Each morning Bruce and I say to each other “Do you think it’s going to rain today” which cracks us up because it is definitely going to rain today and every single day for months.

But despite the refreshing rains it is still wicked hot. Here’s a few examples of some of the beverages with which we can slake our thirst.

The national drink and an internationally recognized fabulous beer. Recipient of many awards - most recently 2010 Gold Medal winner at the Monde competition held in Weissbaden, Germany. And the Germans ought to know. It’s a jointly held company with 50% owned by the Lao government and the other half by Carlsberg. As such its sales (23 liters per person per annum) last year contributed 51.2 million dollars U.S. to Lao’s national coffers. Oh, and it’s made from rice, millet and hops making it a gluten free beer. Perhaps they should start an ad campaign in the west promoting it that way. Here people drink their beer on ice which we’ve really gotten into otherwise you wind up drinking warm beer in about three minutes flat. Beer Lao - 90 cents a quart and worth every penny.

Here’s a pack of our favorite Lao coffee. Organic Sinouk Pure Arabica French Roast. I actually met Mr. Sinouk, a sophisticated Lao who’s spent much of his life in France and is now the head of the Lao Coffee Growers Association. He started a plantation in the south of Laos on the Bolaven plateau which is ideal land for coffee growing. Laos has been so poor for so long it’s never had enough money to buy chemical fertilizers or insecticides to mess up the soil. So Mr. Sinouk’s coffee and other organic agricultural products are being recognized as an ideal niche market for the country. Mr. Sinouk’s time in France has taught him the value of the “appellation controlee” a status he is bent on creating for Lao coffee having already received organic certification from the European Union.

If you really want to get hammered this is your solution. Lao Lao, which if you pronounce it correctly and get your tones right, translates as “alcohol Lao”. It’s Lao white lightning, a spirit distilled from rice (what else?). This is a brand version – although I can’t read what brand - but in village markets you will see home-brewed stuff for sale both straight and with herbs or animal parts macerating in it. 750 ml of 40% alcohol for 75 cents. Yikesarama!

Lao Lao is mandatory at the Lao animist blessing ceremony called a baci. It’s held to celebrate just about everything – a wedding, a baby naming, a new house, a long trip, etc. There’s always a boiled chicken (with head) and a flower bedecked banana leaf pyramid with long white strings attached. Candles are lit, a shaman makes an incantation, rice is thrown and the participants tie the white strings around each other’s wrists while wishing each other good luck, good health and long life. Then everybody downs a shot and snacks on the chicken. You’re supposed to keep the strings on your wrist for at least three days but you must never, ever cut them off . If your string has been tied properly, it has a slip knot and will just slide right off. I have been to several baci ceremonies and the genuine goodwill and kindness behind it all is extremely touching. Just the thought of it brings a tear to the eye.

The country’s second most popular drink after beer. There are Pepsi bottling plants in Laos but not Coca Cola, that’s imported from Thailand. I have a theory about this that goes back to the cold war when the Russians granted licenses to manufacture Pepsi over Coke in the Soviet Union since they wanted cola drinks but not that great symbol of evil American imperialism - Coca Cola. This was a huge coup for Joan Crawford who took over as Chairman of Pepsi after her husband died – as we all remember from that great scene in “Mommy Dearest”. Laos which had thrown in its lot with the Soviets over the Chinese communists during the Southeast Asian wars followed suit – hence the ubiquitous Pepsi.

This is M-150 an absolutely vile, very popular, southeast Asian “energy” drink. I took one sip and chucked the rest. It’s basically a vanilla flavored syrup packed, and I mean packed, with caffeine. The only thing I like about it is the cute little amber glass bottle. During the “red shirt” uprising in Thailand last year it made a very handy vessel for Molotov cocktails. I don’t know if that distinction can be attributed to the glass container or the motto which you can read here embedded in what looks like Wyatt Earp’s badge – “Devotion; Courage; Sacrifice.

In the late spring people set up shop by the side of the road and make sugar cane drink. Which is very delicious over ice with a squeeze of lime. A drink “to go”, it’s handed to you in classic third world takeaway style. A plastic bag is filled with crushed ice and the drink is poured over it. The plastic bag is then put into a second plastic bag, a straw is inserted and a rubber band is used to seal your drink inside the bags. And, hey, off you go. Click here to see how sugar cane juice is made. Sugar Cane Drink

Here’s Bruce demonstrating how to drink lao hai which translates into "alcohol jar". It is much less potent than lao lao and is the preferred tipple of the Khmu, Hmong and Tai ethnic groups. A mash of sticky rice and rice husks combined with a powdered starter made from milled sticky rice and galangal juice it ferments until it’s ready to be drunk communal fashion. The jar is passed from person to person and sipped through a bamboo straw - water being added from time to time to top it up. We bought this one at an ethnic market in Vientiane and tried to ferment our own brew but the ants got to it before we did – so this photo is actually a fake. Still it’s a lovely object.

Despite our affection for Beer Lao, we are winos at heart. A beer is great on a hot day or with a sandwich for lunch but not something we want to have with our pasta al pesto or grilled New Zealand lamb chops. All our years of living in Italy have spoiled us with the availability of excellent, cheap plonk in bottles and demi-johns. In Laos all wine is imported and any bottle of red or white from whatever region in the world goes for over $10 – somewhat ruinous for the old budget. But here we have discovered a reasonable alternative we’d never seen before; what we call “box’o vino” and our Australian friends call “Chateau Cardboard”. This is five litres of drinkable Italian white for $20. I could be way out of touch and find this is available globally but the first time I saw it was in Laos. So, “salute” or as they say in Lao seun duhm.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Can Eat

The other day I heard voices in the garden. I went out to see who was there and found a group of Lao Americans exploring the land that used to belong to their aunt. She later sold it to our landlady, who pulled down her house and built our place instead.

Even though they’d been in America for decades they’d retained the Lao sensibility when it came to “private” property. The Lao don’t seem to have the kind of boundaries we have when it comes to the land. Which is fine with me because I have two Lao neighbors who steward our garden.

For instance, when Lithang, the guard from the house next door, decides it’s time for the coconuts in our yard to be culled he takes charge of arranging guys who come, scale the trees and carefully slide the coconuts down on a piece of rope.

Here’s Lithang with the vegetable garden he’s planted on the banks of the Mekong. Nobody seems to care who actually owns the land, as soon as the waters recede after the rainy season this rich soil is planted by anyone who has access to the riverbank. The marigolds are to bring to the Buddha.

And this is Mai who lives in the house next door standing next to her papaya tree. Which has grown this tall in just six months. She explains to me all the things that are edible or useful in the garden. Like the property we moved into in Italy everything seems to have a use. No ornamentals, please. Here’s some of what we’ve got.

Lithang calls this mak antelope – at least that’s how it sounded - and told us it would be ready to eat in a few days. Sure enough after four days it became soft and turned out to be very similar to a custard apple which I wrote about in “Strange Fruit”. I’m not a huge fan of custard apples but a friend told me the texture, which I find slightly gritty, improves if you keep it in the fridge

Bananas. You can also eat the flower which is shredded into the famous Lao cold meat salad known as laap. You peel off the tough outer petals and then shred it finely into acidulated water so it won’t turn brown. Interestingly, although the Lao don’t cook it, when I did, it tasted very similar to artichoke. The leaves are used as wraps to steam food or even as disposable plates!

Taro. The starchy root is edible as are the young shoots and leaves but older plants have chemicals in them that create an allergic reaction causing burning and itching in the throat. Another friend explained that taro is a fallback plant grown in case there’s a rice crop failure and there’s nothing to eat. I’ve had taro as potato-like chips but they were pretty tasteless.

I’m told it’s very good luck to have a tamarind tree growing in the garden. Unfortunately, our tree is so old and tall the fruit is unreachable so we just end up with a lot of brown squishy pods on the ground. This is the kind of tamarind used in cooking; there’s another variety that’s sweeter and eaten as a fruit.

We have the same problem with our guava trees. Too high to pick which is a shame because their perfume is heavenly. I’m hoping that the new shoots closer to the ground will eventually bear some fruit. Traveler’s note: young guava leaves are a natural cure for diarrhea.

This is jackfruit similar to durian but not as pungent. Believe it or not these enormous babies are not yet ready to eat - jackfruit grows to be the largest fruit in the world. I guess this is why the fruit grows on the trunk, otherwise the weight would cause all the boughs to break. I have no idea what we’re going to do with all of these when they’re ripe. I guess give them to Lithang and Mai.

Here’s a mystery fruit, the Lao call it mak gnum. Very, very sour. Even more sour than a cranberry. But, as Mai says “can eat” so I’m going to try and make a jam or conserve with them to serve with pork.

This you can’t eat but it’s very useful. Inside these pods is kapok for stuffing into pillows and mattresses. It’s naturally flame retardant and a great organic alternative to plastic foam. Right now the garden looks as though we’ve had a slight dusting of snow as all the pods crack open and the kapok drifts down.

And here’s a close-up of the habaneros flourishing in our very own vegetable plot. We’re growing tomatoes, Italian basil, some broccoli and a whole lot of Mexican peppers – jalapenos, serranos as well as the habaneros. Plus tomatillos. Salsa verde growing along the banks of the Mekong! It could be a first.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Talat Kok Pho

There it was in black and white in the “Vientiane Times”, Lao’s English language newspaper, the city’s largest market “Thong Khan Kham” was to be torn down and relocated into what is currently a swamp outside of town. This seemed pretty nuts given that most first world cities are trying their damndest to re-open fresh markets in their centres.

Last year the towns second biggest market, “That Luang” accidentally burned down and is now the construction site of a proposed low rise tower of luxury condos being built by the Vietnamese. Those market stands have now also been relocated to the outskirts of town.

The really crazy part about all this is that there isn’t any alternative to local market shopping. It’s not like you can go to Wal-Mart or Tesco to get your fresh veggies, meat and noodles. They just don’t exist here with no indication that they’ll be built in the foreseeable future.

Going to my market, Talat Kok Pho Tavisup, which is just steps away from the “treehouse”, is one of the highlights of my day but with all this dire news trickling in I thought it was time to document the people and the place. So I resolved to interview the women and men of my market. I called my friend Pa – who speaks English – and asked her to come and help me translate. Here they are.

This is Joy. Her stall has local vegetables but also Thai imports like asparagus and sugar snap peas. Actually, her name isn’t Joy, that’s her nickname. The Lao believe that when a baby is born you have to wait at least a month before you give the kid a name because mischievous spirits known as “phi” can enter the child through their name. So everyone gets a nickname which is what everyone ends up being called for life. Joy means skinny and can be used for a boy or a girl.

Joy is 43 years old and has two children. She’s originally from a town about four hours drive from here. Vang Vien. I asked her if she was happy with her job and she said she was indeed very happy and loved her job. Because I’m a preferred customer, a purchaser of asparagus and sugar snap peas, Joy always throws extra goodies in my bag, like a couple of limes or a bunch of scallions.

This is Noy. Noy means little. She is 35 years old and single. In Laos it is not considered strange to ask people how old they are. In fact it’s important information to have about a person because it impacts on how they should be addressed both in tone and grammar. She is a Vientiane native and gets her produce from a wholesale market downtown which I didn’t even know existed. Have to check that out.

This is Nang Kham. She is 28 and moved from Xieng Khuan in the north ten years ago. She has one daughter. Her stall sells salt, sauces, canned goods, dried beans, and other odd items like cigarette lighters. When I gave her a copy of this photo she made a seriously deep bow (known as a “nop”).

This is Song Pon. She is 40 and has two sons and one daughter. The absolutely very first question you get asked by a Lao is “How many children do you have?” It’s the Lao equivalent of “So, what do you do?”. She is originally from the northern state of Xainabouli. I like her stall because she tends to have different - often foraged - items for sale. She told me she pays 26,000 kip rent per day for her indoor stall. That’s just over three dollars. I know it sounds cheap but when a bunch of coriander goes for 10 cents and a couple of cucumbers cost a quarter it doesn’t sound like such a bargain.

Here’s Sia. He’s 24 and speaks very good English -- showing that an education doesn’t necessarily get you a job in a suit. He grills tilapia to go. The fish come from a fish farm about 30 kilometres up the Mekong river and are brought in each day and kept alive in tanks. Then they’re caked in salt and grilled to perfection. You take it home, remove the salty skin, and eat the flesh wrapped up in lettuce leaves with other goodies, like lemongrass and chili. He’ll sell you a packet of these add ons all sliced up as well.
This is Kwai. It means buffalo which is what we call him. Here he is with his daughter, Panda. He is our local pharmacist and speaks excellent English. We love Lao pharmacies because you can get whatever you want over the counter - no prescription necessary. When Bruce and I had dengue fever recently we survived on paracetemol with the kick of ample codeine purchased from Buffalo.

On a Friday night both Buffalo and the women of the market let their hair down with a few bottles of Beer Lao. I always demur when they offer me a glass but Bruce knocks a couple back with Buffalo and the boys. You have to be polite after all.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


Before I left for Italy this summer, a small band of Women’s International Group (WIG) ladies had a meeting with the United Nation’s Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) about a pilot project to help the women of Somsanga, Laos’s largest drug rehab center situated a few miles outside of Vientiane.  UNODC already had vocational training programs in place for the men – t-shirt printing, carpentry shops, etc. but nothing for the  women.

Stefan, the German coordinator, explained that the most successful programs were ones where the women could learn some skill that might translate into a job when they got out plus generate income for them while inside.  We resolved to put our heads together and come up with a plan.

By the time I got back from Italy the plan was in high gear.  Tomato and Onion Relish was going to be made at Somsanga, bottled and the sold at the annual WIG Bazaar in November.  A gang of eight WIG women had signed up and had already narrowed down the recipe to two choices.  One of the first things I did on getting back to Vientiane was to go to a dinner where we ate hot dogs and hamburgers with both relishes to decide which one we wanted to make.

Here’s the winning recipe:

Tomato Onion Relish

  • 4 kilos ripe tomatoes
  • 1.5 kilos brown onions
  • ½ cup of salt
  • 1 litre of white vinegar
  • ¾ cup of sugar
  • 3 Tablespoons of curry powder
  • ¾ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 4 ½ teaspoons mustard powder
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch (optional)

  • Method:
  • Place tomatoes in boiling water briefly and then remove skins
  • Remove core and chop into small chunks
  • Peel and dice onions
  • Place together in a bowl and sprinkle with salt
  • Leave overnight in a cool place
  • The following day, drain off liquid and discard.
  • Place tomatoes and onions in a large saucepan.
  • Add vinegar
  • Slowly bring to a boil and then lower heat and simmer for ½ hour stirring occasionally
  • Add sugar, curry powder, mustard powder, and cayenne.
  • Add black pepper to taste
  • Simmer for approximately 30 more minutes
  • If the relish seems too watery, thicken with cornstarch mixed with cold water.  Add slowly while stirring continuously
  • Place relish in warm sterilised jars
  • Cover and seal

    Seems pretty straightforward, right?  Oh, no, no, no dear reader, not at all.

    First of all we never should have picked a recipe that begins “The day before...” because we were only at Somsanga one day a week.  So we were either chopping everything as you see here at the center or we were chopping at a WIG member’s house and hauling it up there.  Even going two days in a row was problematic since “Leave overnight in a cool place” was initially impossible because Somsanga had no fridge.  (Later a fridge was available).  So we had to schlepp it back to Vientiane and store it in someone’s fridge overnight.  And we weren’t just making the amount in the recipe, we were tripling or quadrupling it.

    Other trip-ups were the fact that Somsanga doesn’t really have a proper kitchen.  No running water inside and just two gas burners to cook and sterilize jars on.

    The WIG ladies did all the purchasing of supplies but not as a donation, part of the project was to explain how a small cottage business works.  Here’s our presentation explaining the costs of ingredients, jars and labels per jar and how much profit we hoped they would make after they paid us back IF we could bottle and sell 200 jars.  No, none of us could actually write this by ourselves, the center gave us two interpreters to translate and they wrote this up.  Capitalism at work.

    Because there wasn’t enough work for everyone when we were cooking and bottling the relish, we brought art supplies up and had the women and girls design the label.  This was done in the “recreation” room which is basically an empty space with a ceiling mounted television and a great big Buddha.  We put all the designs up on the wall and then they voted for their favorite.  Democracy at work.

    One week we left a lot of shiny foil paper behind and when we came back they’d transformed them into amazingly intricate mobiles that they decorated their rooms with.  Lao women’s small motor skills are phenomenal which is why they’re such great weavers.

    In the middle of all this I got my monthly e-mail from George Soros’s Open Society Institute pillorying the governments of Thailand, Cambodia and Laos for their drug rehab programs as illegal forced incarceration without trial.   This gave me pause.  Yes, it’s true the rehab center is really a prison, in fact the building was originally a “re-education camp” after the revolution.  It had been run by the military but was now under the auspices of the Mayor of Vientiane – a definite improvement.  Women end up in Somsanga most of the time because either their families or their village chief drop them off.  They remain there until someone in charge decides they can be let go – minimum stay six months.

    Most of the drug abuse in Laos is methamphetamines.  An ethnic group in northern Myanmar (Burma), the Shan, manufacture it to finance their war with the military junta.  They want their own state.  Much of the product is headed for more populated countries like Thailand and Vietnam but it gets couriered through Laos.  The sad part is that often times women end up hooked without having a clue what they’re taking.  They think of it as an energy pill enabling them to work extra shifts at a garment factory or stay up all night studying.  But Red Bull it ain’t.

    In the end,  I decided that going to Somsanga and, hopefully, making a tiny difference and bearing witness to what the place was like was better than staying atop my high horse and rejecting it.  What do you think?

    This is Nongnut Foppes, originally from Thailand she married a Dutch man and lived in Holland for a few years.  When they moved to Vientiane she missed yoghurt so much she started a small business supplying us “falang” with what I have to say is the best yoghurt I’ve ever eaten.  Her passion fruit yoghurt is sublime.  She sold us the jars and when they were filled we brought them back to her and she showed us how to seal them with a hot gun. 

    Here at last is the finished product with label and seal.

    And here is the Somsanga booth at the WIG Bazaar.  The guy is a German volunteer and the women in the picture are from the center and were allowed to come down for the day to sell it.  I had pushed for the woman standing to be allowed to do this since she was one the hardest working women on the project.

    We’ve not yet sold all 200 jars but we made back our costs with money to spare and I believe in the end we’ll sell the whole lot.  We asked Stefan how the profit would be divided.  He said in the past they’ve given the participants a choice.  The money can be held for when they get out.  Or they can use it to improve their diet while inside.  Or they can pay to have a party.  And naturally, being Lao, they always pick a party.  Maybe that’s why I’m here.