Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Fast Food

Laotians and Italians have at least one thing in common. When an Italian gets up in the morning he doesn’t wonder whether he’ll have a bowl of pasta or not that day. It goes without saying – at some point - either lunch or dinner - he will indeed have a bowl of pasta. Laotians, likewise, from my observation, appear to have the same relationship to their noodle soup called pho. It seems they are always eating it. Either for breakfast or lunch or in between. They eat it at roadside stands or they get it to go or they, like these folks, eat it at a stall in the market. This is my favorite pho place in my favorite food market - Thong Khan Kham. Please note the crowd. When it comes to third world eating turnover is your friend.

Pho is actually a north Vietnamese invention.
The Vietnamese brought it with them when they themselves were brought here to run the bureaucracy of Laotian French Indochina. But it has a couple of Laotian twists. First there’s the plethora of condiments. Vietnamese pho, at least in my experience, is a much more pristine affair. Chili flavored fish sauce; fresh mint, basil, and coriander, perhaps a few more fresh chiles, a handful of bean sprouts, a squeeze of lime and some shrimp paste if you’re feeling brave. That’s about it. Here we have all that plus scallions; long beans; soy sauce; vinegar; chiles - whole pickled, crushed dried and crushed dried in oil; pickled ginger; peanut sauce and a real shocker – sugar. I originally thought it was MSG but it’s not. People actually dump soup spoons full of it into their broth!

And although you can easily get a pure beef pho, Laotians are big fans of innards. You pick out three or four bits you like with the tongs provided which are then chopped up by the proprietor. These and the fresh noodles become the foundation of your soup. Brit that I am, I adore this. I tend to go for a tongue, kidney, spleen combo.

But is this the future? Here’s the food court at the brand new mall in downtown Vientiane. I must admit it does have its advantages. It’s bright and air conditioned (kind of). There’s a series of sinks with soap, water and paper towels for washing your hands before eating. There are a half dozen TV’s all playing different Thai channels so you can keep up with soccer matches or new music videos. And then there’s the food.

Of course there’s plenty of pho - even one actually made by a cook from Vietnam. But then there’s a lot more. This is a Chinese noodle soup. Note the wontons and the pork tinged that weird color. You can also buy kimchee soup; fresh and deep fried spring rolls; pot roasted ham hock on rice, the list goes on and on. There’s even an Indian halall food stand for our visiting Muslim friends from Malaysia and Indonesia.

Payment is made with these coupons which you buy once you’ve decided what you want and how much it’s going to cost. I couldn’t figure out why the coupons but I think it might be a hygiene thing. Paper money is one of the most common spreaders of disease. It really is filthy lucre.

If you want to eat here every day the management suggests you buy a refillable mall food card the how to’s of which are explained in two languages. Lao and English. Each food stand has a debit machine for the card, skipping the need for coupons. Here’s the bus boy’s advertisement for same.

But, alas, could this truly be the future? This construction site is Vientiane Mall – Phase Two. The edifice going up - surrounded by the charming buildings which remain of the original Morning Market - will be finished next year. The billboard announcing its amenities includes the following:

1st Level consists of:
Units for Fast Foods of sizes: 100 m2; 192 m2; 368 m2; 504 m2 Expected to house Fast Food like - Pizza, Ice cream, Grill/Burger, Fried Chicken

Sunday, December 20, 2009


Northern Laos is craggy, forested, mountainous country.  There’s very little arable land and what there is is given over to sticky rice production.  Water buffalo are highly prized and everyone seems to have some chickens and a couple of little black pigs running around the yard but other than that – plus kitchen gardens – you’re out in the forest looking for free food.

There’s a wonderful restaurant in Luang Prabhang run by an Australian (Caroline Gaylard) and her partner a Laotian (Joy Ngeuamboupha) called “Tamarind”.  Joy does the cooking, Caroline’s front of house and they’re both dedicated to serving food that – although tailored for tourists – retains the flavors and spirit of Laotian cuisine.

But, for a really authentic Lao experience, you can order in advance and they’ll make you a dinner described as “Adventurous Lao Gourmet” a rare opportunity to try all sorts of foraged food.  After a phone consultation a couple of days before in which I allowed that rodents made me a bit squeamish but everything else would be dandy we arrived for what turned out to be an unforgettable evening.  Here’s what we had:

Sample Plate One – All to be eaten with loads of sticky rice.

A: Pak Goot which means curly vegetable. A kind of fern simply stir fried with oyster sauce.

B:  Pounded river crab (mortar & pestle working hard here) with garlic and lashings of chilies.  Absolutely scrumptious and one of our favorite tastes of the evening.

C:  Soop pak. A Luang Prabhang style salad.   Eggplant, sesame, and a vegetable that looks somewhat like okra (but isn’t) along with its bitter yellow flower, both called maak buap.

D:  For those of you paying attention from earlier posts – here we have maak kok again – one of the secret ingredients in the papaya salad – only this time its been grilled on a barbecue and mashed.  Bruce and I saw it “in situ” growing on a tree while trekking near the Chinese border.  Yes, that’s right, JoJo actually went trekking!

E:   Another big hit. Het bot.  A kind of dried mushroom that seemed slightly sweet.  Sautéed with kaffir lime leaves.  I’ll try and bring some back to Italy since Caroline said you can buy it already dried in the market. 

F: This is also a pre-prepared condiment. Pak Gat.  A dried vegetable pounded with salt.  Looks like pepper but it’s not.  Great dabbed on your sticky rice.

G:  River moss, dried in sheets with garlic and chilies and then flash fried is a very popular Luang Prabhang dish which you can also bring home.  This is the same moss but not dried and, instead, mixed with fried garlic.

H:  River moss again but this time steamed and mixed with dill, spring onion and wood from a kind of vine botanically related to the pepper family – sa khan.  You can eat the piece of vine but I just sucked on the wood which has a spicy and, well, kind of woody taste. 

Moving on to Sample Plate Two in which things start to get a bit stranger.

A:  Here’s a relatively straightforward item.  Ua no mai.  Bamboo shoots stuffed with a mixture of pork, shallots, eggs and scallions and then batter fried.  Delicious.

B:  Next up, nor mai som. Pickled bamboo shoots with ginger.  It seems that along with sustaining the nation on a daily basis sticky rice can also be used as a pickling agent.  I haven’t a clue how.  I’ll try and check that out.

C:  Cured fish in sticky rice.  The fish was tilapia not a native Lao fish but increasingly used all over the world because it’s so easy to farm.  Originally from the Nile, I believe.  This was pretty fishy – somewhere between the sour of a pickled herring and the salty of a kipper.

D:  Here’s where it got a bit too weird, even for us.  Fish guts - lower intestine fish guts with contents - if you get what I mean.  Salty, intense.  Makes sea urchin roe taste bland.  A little dab on your sticky rice is all you need to get the idea.  A teaspoon could flavor risotto for eight.

E:  Moo foi.  Pork marinated with turmeric, dried and then fluffed up.  A nice break from the fish guts.

F:  Sin dot.  Laotian water buffalo jerky cured with ginger, galangal and sesame seeds.   I’d bring some of that home, too.

G:  Som Moo. Pork fermented using the ubiquitous sticky rice and then grilled in a banana leaf.  Very tasty.  A bit odd but the kind of odd you can get into.

H:  In our phone conversation I’d asked Caroline if they could serve anything that was seasonal.  So we got this smashing mushroom dish. Het bot – same as the dried ones – but fresh and stir fried with garlic and spring onion. 

And last, but definitely not least, Sample Plate Three.

A:  Steamed wasp larvae.  You pick out the larvae from the comb and dip them in salt.  If one of them is black you can still eat it but it’s more mature so you have to pick off the stinger before swallowing.  This didn’t really taste like much of anything. It felt like the kind of thing you’d be grateful to have if your plane was downed in the jungle and you’d happened to survive and a friendly ethnic group was trying to feed you.

B:  This was my Waterloo.  It’s a waterbug, grilled.  You crack it open and eat the insides.  Maybe it was just too similar (if not exactly the same as) waterbugs that come out of tenement basements in New York's Lower East side when it rains, but to me it tasted like chicken livers gone bad.

C:  Now here’s a bug you could learn to love.  Bamboo caterpillar (Omphisa fuscidentalis) flash fried.  It’s so popular here and in northern Thailand that the Thais are trying to farm it, but for now it can only be found in the wild.  Tasty, tasty.

D:  River eel threaded on bamboo sticks and grilled.  You can eat the whole thing, bones and all.  Bruce thought it would be a great thing to take on a picnic.  Very, very nice.

E:  Frog cooked in bamboo leaves.  Also very good but unfortunately we were running out of steam, perhaps from an over indulgence in sticky rice with the first plates, which was a shame.  It was a lovely dish.

F:  Elephant ear leaves, pounded and steamed then grilled in banana leaf.  Nice flavor.  On our trek we learned that you can take the root of the elephant ear plant, dry it for a couple of days and then make it into a tea.  If the tea tastes sweet – you’ve got malaria.  If it tastes bitter - you don’t.  Amazing what you can learn as you’re desperately scrambling down the side of a mountain in flip flops!

This is the one dish I had especially ordered and it was fantastic.  Or lam.  A specialty of Luang Prabhang with bits of buffalo skin and that pepper vine (sa khan) in a stew of buffalo meat, local greens, saw tooth coriander, cloud ear mushrooms, chilies and tiny little eggplants the size of a pea.  We were so full we could only sample a taste of this incredible dish.  I really want to go back to the wonderful “Tamarind”, trimming our gastronomical sails a bit next time, and order this again.

Monday, November 16, 2009

So, what makes it Lao food?

You can read books and download recipes, but when it comes to cooking it really helps to actually see someone make something.  Television is clearer but since I don't expect to see "Cooking the Lao Way" on the Food Network anytime soon, Bruce and I decided to get some hands on experience by taking a cooking class here in Ventiane.  Here's a bit of what we learned. 

Green papaya salad is popular all over S.E. Asia but the Lao version is a bit different.  And, by the way, green papayas are not even in the same family as yellow papayas.  Which is why, until we took the class, I could never find them in the market.  I  don’t think they look the same at all - more like a huge cucumber.

When it comes to making Lao food if you don’t have one of these you’re sunk.  Laotians with their kok (mortar) and sak (pestle) rival the Mexicans with their molcajete when it comes to pounding stuff together.  In this case you start with a mixture of lime, chili, and garlic all smashed to a paste.

Then you put in the green papaya which you’ve peeled and shredded.  You make hash marks in it and then cut it into strips.  Be sure to keep turning the papaya around while you’re doing it.  If you don’t it’s bad luck.  And don’t get any of the seeds in the middle mixed in – they’re bitter.

Now you put that in your mortar along with sliced cherry tomatoes and the mystery fruit.

They call this maak ko  - English translation: plum.  But it ain’t like any plum I’ve ever seen.  Smells like grapes and has a very large pit.  Anybody know what it really is?

Or this?  Maak Khua, translated as yellow eggplant.  Anyway, it all goes into the mortar and gets smushed about.

This is what makes it Lao.  Paa dek is the fish sauce of Laos.  Pretty grim looking stuff, I know.  Since Laos is landlocked they make this mixture from fresh water fish from the Mekong mixed with other stuff that then sits around for a year or two.  Yes, that’s right - a year or two - before it goes into pretty much every dish in the land.  It tastes kind of like liquid anchovy paste.

So you add a spoonful or two of that and, finally, chuck in a bit of sugar and you’re ready to eat green papaya salad (tam maak hung) with the other definitive Laotian food – sticky rice.

If you’re Laotian you eat sticky rice every day.  That habit is even used as a definition of Lao ethnicity by anthropologists.  To make it you have to soak it for at least a few hours or overnight.  Then you rinse and drain it and put it in this lovely woven basket.  It looks like a lot, but sticky rice doesn’t swell when it cooks so what you see is what you get.

This is a Laotian stove.  And, no, we didn’t take this photo out in the wilds, this is what everyone, even in downtown Vientiane, cooks everything on.  Charcoal in the bottom; grills and pots on top.  You steam your sticky rice over hot water over this brazier for thirty minutes.

Then you stand in awe as your cooking instructor, La, flips the whole thing over in the basket. Three more minutes on the fire and you’re done. To see La in action, click here:

It’s always served in these adorable baskets with lids on.  You make a small ball of rice which, naturally, sticks together and use it to scoop up your food.  It’s especially useful for  finishing up the last of the sauce.  And don’t forget to put the little lid back on.  Failure to do so is bad luck too.

This market stall makes nothing but papaya salad and will customize your order.  You can stipulate more or less chili,  how much paa dek, etc..  Notice how there’s two kinds: one with just liquid; the other with bits of fish in it.  It’s sort of like peanut butter you can have the crunchy or the smooth. Then you pick which of the mystery fruit you want in it or have a change of pace with a whole green banana (peel and all) banged in instead.  I’ll have to try that next time.

Friday, November 6, 2009


Here’s what Laotians eat for breakfast. A noodle soup and fried Chinese doughnuts. Some people slice their doughnut into shreds and add them to the soup. It’s weird but I’m told it’s good.

But let’s face it, breakfast is everyone’s most conservative meal. I mean, if you’re a yoghurt and granola with a mug of green tea person you’re not all of a sudden going to turn into a bagel with a schmear and black coffee (no sugar) person.

Breakfast at Hotel Villa Manoly

So this is my idea of a great Laotian breakfast. A classic “continental” breakfast plus tropical fruit as served at our hotel, Villa Manoly, the morning after we arrived.

French colonialism was a miserable thing for those lands they called “protectorates” but the one decidedly good thing they brought with them was how to make baguette. From Tunisia to Pondicherry to Laos they taught the locals how to make really scrumptious, crusty bread.

Banh Mi

Here’s the Laotian version of the Vietnamese “banh mi” called khao jii pâté. Lunch for two for a mere $2. There’s a lot of Vietnamese influence here because the French also imported – along with the baguette - Vietnamese to run their provincial government for them since they deemed the Laotians hopelessly lazy. We prefer to think of them as more laid back.

We moved into our studio apartment and went shopping for dinner and the next morning’s breakfast. We bought butter and local “fair trade” orange marmalade but there wasn’t a baguette in sight. The woman at the store mimed the arrival of bread to be at 4 p.m. We missed that appointment but the next day Bruce went to pick it up only to be told by someone else who spoke English that they have never sold baguette. Hmm.

The first night in our new digs I made a simple dinner of scrambled eggs with fresh shitakes. But something strange happened when I melted the butter.


Looks like butter, right? Silver foil paper, happy cow face, even butter written in English. But that odd smell, what was that? Coconut! The ‘butter” must be cut with coconut oil. Yuck. Who wants coconut oil in their eggs?

So now I didn’t have baguette and I didn’t have butter either.

Phimphone Market

In every cosmopolitan city from Rome to Saigon you’ll find a store like this. It sells stuff to ex-pats at really high prices. French cheese, salsa in a can, frozen lamb chops, even V-8 juice. This is where we purchased our real New Zealand butter. We’ll probably be back around Thanksgiving for cranberry sauce and maple syrup.

We found another ex-pat place called the Swiss Bakery which sold baguette but it had sugar in it and was spongy and definitely not crusty. Kind of like the Italian version of baguette they sell at the Coop in Spoleto.

There was only one solution to the problem. I went back to Villa Manoly and talked to Goi.


This is the extraordinarily charming manager of the Villa Manoly. His name means banana. That’s his nickname. It seems everyone in Laos has a name but is known by their nickname. He called out to the woman who serves the breakfast and she showed me on the map where to get the bread. Right on the road beside the main market. They offered to go and get some for me but I explained I really needed to know where to go myself. I walked all along the highway by the market in the midday heat and I couldn’t find a single goddamn loaf. And then suddenly, voila!

Bread Stands at the Bus Station
All clumped together at the entrance to the bus station just like the kitchen supply places on the Bowery. I bought five.

Butterfly Net?

Try to guess what this is for. It’s vital to Laotians for their breakfast beverage – Lao coffee. Laos grows some very good coffee on a moutain plain by the border with Vietnam. You put the grounds into this sock-like contraption, pour boiling water over them and press down with a spoon until the liquid runs through it into a jug. This is a colossal pain in the ass and very messy. Fortunately, Bruce spotted a knock off version of a French press coffee maker at a housewares store called Home Ideal and the Laotian sock is now being used to strain chicken stock.

I know, you’re right, you can’t believe my first Laotian food blog is about a “continental breakfast”. But I promise you the next ones will be much more indigenous.