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.