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.
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.
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.
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.