Rattan Shoots and Buffalo Skin: Eating Laos

At night along Vientiane's main drag, Thanon Fa Ngum, and down by the riverbank, there are heaps of places serving up tasty barbecue. Here I had a rack of fat shortribs and nam khao, rice and meat wrapped in a crispy breadcrumb ball

Few fields of online “literature” are saturated with as unfecund a manure as that of travel writing; and yet even within these shoddily-fenced boundaries there exists a specially cordoned-off allotment lavished with dung of a calibre that the bowels of even the most malnourished bovine would be hard pressed to shit forth. The lopsided sign dangling from the chicken-wire: “food blogging.”  

No naming names here, but there is some woefully insipid, uninspiring and uninformed dross projectile chundered across the spread of wonderful cuisine this fair isle has to offer. While I realise the SEO considerations of monetised blogging (no jealousy here whatsoever, you understand) are sometimes at work, and that – in other instances – people are quite happy with just the bald facts, I myself am looking, as I am with any kind of writing, for something more than a say-what-you-see menu rundown or a weird food laundry list from a forriner who reckons nightmarket xiansuji (鹹酥雞 ) is living dangerously.  

An angler friend reliably informs me that these are bighead and common carp. That's what was being grilled at most bbq stands in Vientiane.

Fish on the grill

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What I find so cringeworthy is the incredible obvliousness some of this stuff betrays. In some cases, the person has been here for years, yet marvels at something with the giddy greenness of a day tripper. It’s as if the individual has been walking around with their eyes closed the whole time.  

I’d like to give some leeway and say it’s because the person speaks no Mandarin (mine is hardly great) and is therefore unable to delve beneath the surface but I know people who get by just fine with no discernible language skills, the reason being they have a bit of daring about them. No. It is, I’m afraid, that Socratic bête noire: a life (abroad) unexamined.  

What do I do when I write about food? It’s quite simple, really. I don’t write about food. At least not much. If I like a place or a dish, I’ll make it clear, and the rest of the piece will be some tangential background wittering that will hopefully raise a smile. If I fail in this limited goal more often than not, at least my scribblings can’t fairly be called flavourless. Consider this masterpiece, for example. Can you believe that it was flatly rejected for inclusion in this two-bob anthology?   What? Oh.  

Precursory rant out of the way, this post concerns my gourmanderie on a recent trip to Laos with my son Herbie. I had wanted to write a more general piece but realised I would have no chance of preventing it from spiralling out of control. So it was food or my attempt to locate the KMT vets in Luang Prabang. As I failed in this latter venture, food it was.  

Haven't the foggiest what this was. Cheap as hell, tofu-textured and pretty bland. Herb noted an eggy taste to the cubes.

Aside from being a ridiculously convoluted and smartarsed drop-intro, there was a reason for my opening gambit, which was that, despite some excellent blogs and books championing Laotian food, it seems to get a pretty bad press.“Let’s face it,” says Joe Foley, the owner of the peerless May Lyn Guesthouse in Vang Vieng.  “Laotian food is fucking crap.”

Joe, who is described on Travelfish as “amiably eccentric” (“I think by that they mean I say ‘fuck’ a lot”) has lived in Laos for a decade. I don’t agree with him, and perhaps that’s because I haven’t, though his implication that those who extol the virtues of Laotian fare see everything through white sun-shaped specs, is a trifle unfair.  

Like other people I came across, Joe made unfavourable comparisons with Thailand. This, again, I felt wasn’t really fair. Thai food is excellent, so not reaching those lofty heights is hardly an embarrassment. Still his observations on a wider malaise were interesting.  

Part of the problem, he said, was that Thailand didn’t need to work on creating a hospitality culture – it was already in place before the first tourists even stepped foot in the country. The Laotians, he contended, had no idea about providing decent well-cooked food in comfortable surroundings.  

Nam - raw meat fermented with rice and wrapped in banana leaves - sausage and jerky in Vientiane

Having chowed down on barely a morsel’s worth of what the country has to offer, I make no claims that what follows constitutes an in-depth treatment of the subject. Instead it’s a quick look at some of my more interesting eating experiences, contradicting everything I’ve just said about ignorant foreigners and formulaic lists.    

As ever, a lot of the best stuff came from my intruding on locals as they ate their home cooked off-menu meals. Most people were more than happy to let a foreign stranger sup from their table. The best example of this was at Mixay Paradise (cool, friendly, helpful staff and decent reasonably-priced rooms) where I pilfered the leftovers of the staff dinner one evening.  

The friendly staff of Mixay Paradise with my son Herbie

The Laotians I met seemed to call almost every meat ‘n’ veg dish Larb, though, from what I could establish, it usually refers to minced or sliced meat served with leaf veg and herbs (particularly mint) as a kind of salad. Here are some of the goodies I got into me.   

Chewy buffalo skin with stewed veg and chillis. Not half bad - the skin has a distinctive, fairly pungent aftertaste

Pork larb with mint. Good shizzle.

 

   

 

 

 

   

      

 

Pieces of smoked pork on rattan rings

  

Edible rattan was news to me. The young shoots were fried with chilli and spices and made a nice light accompaniment to the meat dishes.

  

  

  

  

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of our three stopovers, Vientiane definitely had the most to offer in terms of cheap, local roadside fare. Here’s me quizzing a half Chinese vendor in my atonal Mandarin. Both he and his missus were born in Laos to native mothers and immigrant fathers from Guangdong. Herb is having fun on camera duty.  

This pork and beef meatball and mini-frankfurter dish was 5,000 kip (about NT$18/38p) and proved a winner with Herb. It was served with coriander, chopped nuts, chilli powder on the side and a gooey base made from boiled down bamboo, sugar and some other unestablishables. A bit like lu wei, I suggested, though the boss was having none of this comparison.   

Lao tucker with a distinctly Chinese slant

                                  

Balls

 

                 

  *   

On an enjoyable day out at the Buddha Park, not far from the Friendship Bridge border with Thailand, Herb and I ducked away from the searing heat for a bite to eat at the park’s restaurant. As I trawled through the bog standard tourist fare on the menu, someone shoved a plate of interesting-looking stuff onto the counter from the kitchen pass-through.   

“I want that,” I said. Chuckles of bemusement. “This, no,” said bosslady, running her finger along the menu to indicate the space where it wasn’t. Making it clear that she was not dealing with your average punter, I persisted and ended up with a plate of this beef salad.   

Yam sin neua at the Buddha Park

Not sure what the main greens were but they just called it yam sin neua – sliced beef salad (I’m going with the Thai word for “salad” here, though the way I heard it in Laos sounded more like “nyam”). If the meat had been cooked at all, it was lightly; rather it seemed to have simply been left to stew in its own juices and some kind of vinegary marinade. Interestingly the word for cow/beef (neua) is not a million miles away from its Mandarin counterpart. As with many larb/salad dishes, raw Lao eggplant* also featured.   

In Luang Prabang, the good part of an afternoon was spent traipsing around looking for Chungcheng School. En route I stumbled across stalls selling all sorts of goodness. As I hadn’t withdrawn any cash in town, I wasn’t able to try everything I wanted, though we did have enough for a couple of rattan sticks of delectably salty cured pork.      

This is not from the stall in Luang Prabang but a market in Vang Vieng. Pretty much the same but the LP stuff came tied to a stick.

La Pistoche swimming pool – our El Dorado endgame as far Herb was concerned –  was in the other direction, and a bout of prolonged sulking scuppered my scheme to retrace our steps once I had procured funds. But, on the minibus back down to Vang Vieng the next morning, I spotted an opening as we stopped at a guesthouse for a pickup, and I legged it back to a stall which I had noticed had just what I was after. These lovelies:   

Dangerous breakfast

Later in the day, ring of fire was the inevitable result of so spicy a brekkie, but these were just about the best meatballs I’ve ever tasted. As I dashed back to the van, I noticed I’d been short-changed. The fact that vendor instantly handed over the money with a sheepish grin before I had even opened my mouth showed me he had seen farang-in-a-rush as too good an opportunity to pass up. It was the only such incident during our nine days in the country.   

Any trace of guilt I felt over keeping my fellow passengers waiting quickly subsided when not one of the selfish fuckers would be separated from their companion so I could sit next to my son. Special mention to the loafing Aussie girls who clearly needed to be side by side, uttering – as they didn’t – not a word to each other for the entire 5-hour journey, as Herb contorted in his chair to listen to me reading the recipe for Formula 86 Delayed Action Mouse Maker.   

On the last leg of our trip, back to Vientiane, we stopped at the standard collusion-between-bus-operators-and-owners rip-off roadside restaurant. With said rip-offers preoccupied with ripping-off, I avenged the world’s rip-offees (or so I justified my theft) by swiping a hunk of meat from a smouldering barbecue.   

Anyone seen Rover?

“How’s that dog tasting?” Sardonic cut-eyes accompanied the question. Slouched on some crates in a corner of the hut , a lanky French Canadian was my interrogator. And again. “The dog? Is it good?”

Flabbergasted, I did what all Englishmen worth their salt would and bluffed for all I was worth. It was that or be reduced to a laughing stock in front of all and sundry; and that, to borrow from Orwell, would never do.   “The dog? Yeah, fantastic. Been meaning to try some all holiday”

Sorry Herb

For good measure, I purchased a rack of spindly ribs with an air of utter nonchalance, then – still smarting from my humiliation (the Québécois’ gaze had narrowed to a slit over which no conceivable wool would be pulled) – retreated to the bus and tricked a 7-year-old into eating one.

“How’s that dog tasting?”    

* It has been pointed out to me by an  expat restaurateur Tailor C.P. Slick that, being a Britisher, I should be sticking to the twee vocab that so amuses our cousins across the pond, and calling this Lao Aubergine.   Eggplant, however, seems to be the prevalent appellation even if, as Mr Slick has observed, it doesn’t sit that well alongside the weird spellings and confusing turns of phrase that Brits insist on using and which litter this text.

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