Laos

Laos

By
Luke Nguyen
Contains
13 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742705125
Photographer
Stuart Scott

Lao People’s Democratic Republic, or PDR, is a landlocked country in South-East Asia, bordered by Myanmar and China to the north-west, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south and Thailand to the west. When I arrived in Laos, the locals told me PDR stands for ‘Please Don’t Rush!’ Lao people take time to enjoy the important things in life: when it’s time for breakfast, lunch and dinner, everything stops and attention is turned to eating and relaxing.

So I settled back with the locals to take in and enjoy the simpler things in life. Through their food, I began to understand the rustic nature of the country. Lao cuisine is pungent, extremely spicy and ingredient-focused, showing a real respect for food in its raw form, and using available produce in so many interesting ways.

I’ve been eating Lao food since I was a kid. Growing up in the Sydney suburbs of Cabramatta and Fairfield, I was spoilt for choice. My family would visit a Lao restaurant every time we craved bursts of €flavour and spice. My mother loved dishes such as fermented soft-shell crab and green papaya salad. When the order was taken, the waitress would always ask, ‘You want medium spicy or Lao spicy?’ We would respond in unison, ‘Medium spicy’. In Lao terms, ‘medium spicy’ is extremely spicy, and ‘Lao spicy’ means your whole upper body goes numb and you feel like submerging your head in an ice bath.

I would always order the chargrilled ox tongue; my younger brother, Leroy, loved the Lao pork sausage with sticky rice; and my father was always busy in the kitchen trying to convince the owner to serve us steamed duck embryo egg with Lao beer.

Now that I was actually in the country, I wanted to explore regional Lao cuisine and discover all the weird and wonderful dishes from small towns and ethnic minority villages.

I began my Lao culinary discovery in the nation’s capital, Vientiane, where I met Kampoo, a laidback local who showed me secret foodie locations and introduced me to the most unusual ingredients at the wet market. I also tried out their national game, pétanque.

The sleepy country town vibe I experienced in Vientiane continued wherever I went. I quickly made my way to charming Luang Prabang, as I didn’t want to miss out on the Lao New Year celebration known as ‘Pi Mai’. I’d heard it was basically a week-long water ƒfight that involves the entire town. And indeed it was: I spent most of the daytime soaking wet with water and paint. At night I would escape to the markets and restaurants to discover barbecue dishes, street food, sweet treats and traditional delicacies.

I then made my way down to 4000 Islands, where the Mekong River changes from its usual rich brown to an expanse of soft turquoise water. Here I learnt traditional ƒfishing techniques and how to prepare exciting, authentic local dishes unlike anything I had experienced before.

From what I’ve seen here, I think this area of the country will be the ‘next big thing’ in Lao food and travel.

Vientiane

Vientiane is the laidback capital of Laos, situated along the Mekong River, right on the Thai border. In Vientiane, the people are genuine and down to earth, and the city feels like a small country town. Life here revolves around work, religion and, of course, really good food. But it seems that things are on the move, with the economy and tourism growing rapidly. High-rise buildings and big fancy hotels are springing up, and luxury cars cruise the streets.

However, it wasn’t the town’s modernity that attracted me. What did catch my eye was a French-looking monument known as Patuxai — Vientiane’s very own Arc de Triomphe, a victory gate symbolising Laos’ independence from France. In 1956, the United States donated millions of dollars to Vientiane to build an airstrip; instead the Lao people used the money to build Patuxai — a lovely example of the local attitude.

Not far from Patuxai is Thong Khan Kham market, where I was told I could Žfind many weird and wonderful foods. I’ve been to many markets, but this one topped it for me. Ladies were walking around with trays on their headsŽ filled with crispy grasshoppers, other vendors sold buckets of bee larvae, chicken heads, innards, live frogs, pig heads, fermented ‘century’ eggs and, strangest of all, bu’ffalo hides still covered in hair. Kampoo, who liked to be called ‘Poo’, said bu’ffalo skin was one of his favourite drinking foods.

So I decided to give it a go. Poo also told me to buy some charcoal and to Žfind a big wooden stick to pound the bu’ffalo skin with. With my skin, charcoal and stick in hand, we made our way to the local pétanque Žfield, where Poo challenged me to a game.

Pétanque is the most popular game in Vientiane, introduced to the locals in the late 1800s by the French. A game played by all ages and sexes, it is the only sport in which Laos has made any real impact on the international stage, and it is now included in the Southeast Asian Games.

But first I lit the charcoal, brought it to very high heat, then placed the buffalo skin on the fire until the skin was blackened. After removing the charred skin from the fire, I placed it on a bench and pounded it with my wooden stick until the blackened parts were smashed away from the skin. It was ready to be eaten. The result was a crispy, chewy and soft-textured buffalo skin to snack on while drinking Lao beer. All the pétanque players absolutely loved it. And after beating Poo on my very first pétanque match, I am seriously thinking about going pro!

Luang Prabang

Picturesque Luang Prabang is nestled in the mountains of central northern Laos, at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, about 425 kilometres north of Vientiane. A world heritage town, Luang Prabang is as beautiful as it is bountiful; its population of around 400,000 swells each year with tourists travelling from all over the globe to experience its food and culture. As you stroll through the pretty streets, there’s a nostalgic old-world charm where old crumbling French villas sit next to golden emerald temples. And while Vientiane may be the nation’s capital, its food capital, without a doubt, is Luang Prabang.

But before I began my food discovery I had some partying to do. It was the Lao New Year, and water plays a big part in the celebrations, known as Pi Mai. Young people respectfully pour water on their elders, then on monks for blessings of long life and peace. They then spend seven days throwing water at everyone in sight. Sometimes the water is scented with flowers or natural perfumes, but these days people also smear or throw shaving cream, whipped cream, or white powder over each other.

One day while I was drying off , I saw a lady with a street food cart cooking little sweet coconut cakes, called khao nom kok. I asked her if she could teach me how to make them, and she happily obliged. Chargrilled foods are also popular street fare: chargrilled marinated chicken, beef, bu‹ffalo, pork, ‘fish and vegetables are found all through the streets and night markets of Luang Prabang. Another dish I particularly enjoyed were small patties made of ‘finely chopped pork, bu‹ffalo, lemongrass, spring onion, coriander and dill. I asked a local vendor if I could cook these at his stall, and of course he smiled and said, “For sure.” The whole family were involved in the business, including Mum, Dad, Auntie, Uncle and young children.

Lao people are just so incredibly friendly and care-free. They are relaxed, smiley, passionate about food — and always willing to teach and share the culture, traditions and cuisine of their proud country.

4000 Islands

Laos is not usually mentioned in the same sentence as ‘island’, as the Mekong is the nation’s only major body of water. However, the area known as Si Phan Don does, in fact, have islands — several thousand of them actually. On its way down to Cambodia, the Mekong spills across and around a giant expanse of rocks, rapids and islands. Like the rest of Laos, this area is quiet, quaint, and a great place to relax. And it has some of the craziest fish and insect dishes in the country!

The drive from Luang Prabang was long and hot, hitting 41 degrees Celsius. We had to stop the bus more than a dozen times to buy ice-blocks to cool us down; everyone was hot and bothered. This all changed when we reached the river and discovered the beauty of this area. There were butterflies everywhere, birds chirping, the trees were tall, lush and plentiful, and clear emerald-green waters fanned out across many small islands. It was the most picturesque part of the Mekong that I had seen so far.

We hopped on a boat to Don Khone island, to Lipi waterfalls, which flow into rough rapids. We spent time with local fishermen, who were catching small river fish to make padek — Lao’s pungent fish sauce. At this time of year, the fish swim upstream to spawn, so the local fishermen attach bamboo traps to the rocks to catch them during mid-flight. Mav, our cameraman, wanted to get a close-up shot of the little fish jumping out of the water against the strong rapids. But he slipped and lost his little Go Pro camera. After an hour of searching, the fishermen retrieved the camera, which was still working thanks to its waterproof housing. Hilariously, it did take some incredible underwater footage of various freshwater fish!

With all the fish we caught that day, a fishing family showed me a typical dish that they would cook after a day’s fishing in the cold water. They gathered sticks and built a fire right on the water’s edge, then simmered a broth made from fish bones, garlic, shallots, young coconut water, tamarind, lemongrass, chilli and padek for 20 minutes. The family then gathered around the fire and hotpot, threading fresh fish fillets and vegetables onto a bamboo skewer, then each person cooked their own skewer by dunking it into the simmering hotpot and taking it out when the food was cooked. I just loved this way of cooking and eating. It brought the whole family together after a long, hard day’s work, and made cooking communal and lots of fun.

I said my goodbyes, then continued to a small village in search of a special insect dish I’d heard so much about...

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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