Friday, January 15, 2010


I’ve finally found a word I can say and have the Lao understand me.  No struggling with the six tones.  O.K., now, is that a high falling tone or a low falling tone? (The biggest problem being that I can’t actually hear the difference.)  But if I say ping everybody gets it. Ping means barbecue and Laotians are absolutely mad for anything and everything cooked over a fire.

Here’s a relatively mundane selection of chicken (kai) on the right and pork (moo) on the left.

For dessert or a street snack you could try banana or sweet potato both nicely caramelized from the grill.

For an early evening nosh you could have a chicken foot kebab.  The Chinese were incensed when President Obama levied a duty on Chinese tires and threatened to start charging import taxes on chicken.  This seemed very odd to me.  Why would the Chinese ship over American chickens?   Then I learned that what the Asians crave is what we discard.  The demand for odd bits like chicken feet and gizzards exceeds their production.  I’ve tried chicken feet both here and in Italy and quite frankly I don’t get it.  I think it must be a textural thing - perhaps the cartilaginous crunch.

As we head back into adventurous eating, here is, what, a “croak” of frogs?  You can find frogs this size and other tiny itty-bitty ones all done to a turn.  Thus far I have wimped out when it comes to frogs.  Perhaps too many bad memories of having to partake of whole grilled little birds – guts and bones included – which are considered a delicacy in Italy.  Once more it’s just crunch, crunch, crunch.

These vegetables – eggplants, garlic, shallots and chilies – are being grilled prior to being peeled and pounded to make a jaew.  A jaew is a condiment served with a typical Laotian meal - a spicy dip for the sticky rice.  There are endless varieties.  With grilled mushrooms or shrimp paste or minced pork or even grilled water buffalo skin - but the blackened garlic, shallots and chilies always seem to be the foundation of the dish.

So much Lao food being cooked over charcoal it seemed imperative that we purchase our own.  Here’s where we bought our charcoal stove, stand, tongs and grill.  That set us back a whopping great $8.  Some of the stoves are reinforced with tin cans taken from other sources.  We picked one appropriately decorated with roosters and fish from what had originally been a large can of mackerel.  The person who sold us our supplies was a transvestite.  There are quite a few transvestites in Laos called khatoeys.  The Lao are a very tolerant people and see them as a third sex.  The person who sold us the actual charcoal was also a transvestite.  Is this a khatoey niche trade?

Here’s our very own tilapia, pa ning, on the fire.  Yet another use of that miracle plant – bamboo.  I bought pieces at the market that the seller then split down the middle – but not all the way - with her girl machete.  You slide the fish into the split and then tie it on with finer bamboo strings which you’ve soaked to make them pliable.  Brilliant!  The fish is easy to turn; doesn’t stick to the grill.  Our gateman, Dui, showed us that you can even upend the fish onto it’s back so the thicker part gets cooked evenly with the thinner part.

Sindad is the Laotian idea of a great night out.  And it certainly is.  You get a hubcap shaped grill – kha tha - placed over burning coals set in a hole in your table.  Then you choose what kind of very thinly sliced meat or fish you want.  This comes on a plate with a piece of pork fat to grease the hubcap plus a host of fresh veggies, noodles, an egg and a bucket of broth.  The broth goes into the rim of the hubcap to which you gradually add your veggies and noodles. Meat is cooked over the coals and then dipped into side dish sauces.

Click this link to watch our sindad being set up:

Korean friends here told us this is a Lao variation of Korean barbecue.  The hubcap actually started out as a real hubcap.  Koreans came to Southeast Asia and had to improvise with the closest thing they could find to the Korean hibachi-like original.  Now kha tha are made here especially for sindad.

The Laotian version introduced the veggies and the broth.  Your delicious finale is the egg cooked in the incredible broth you get after you’ve finished everything else.  Perfect with a Beer Lao or, perhaps, two.