Monday, April 12, 2010

Laos food odyssey

Ten days in Laos: a chance to experience a new cuisine, try some new dishes and savour some street food.

I knew little if anything about Laos or its food traditions before we arrived in Vientiane. Immediately the French influence was apparent: fresh baguettes sold in the street, and handful of nice-looking patisseries and decent wine readily available at a decent price. The Scandinavian bakery was doing good business in its own shop and supplying many eateries around town, including our own hotel, with fresh breakfast croissants and more.

But what is a typical Lao dish? The very first thing we tried was laap (also spelt larp), a commonly-served warm salad dish using whatever minced meat you prefer - chicken, pork or beef. Apparently it is also served raw like ceviche but we didn't see that offered anywhere. The meat is seasoned, cooked then tossed with raw vegetables, usually including mint, morning glory (a river weed cooked as we would use spinach, asparagus or broccoli), bean shoots and spring onion, and served on a bed of lettuce or cabbage leaves. Eaten with sticky or steamed rice it goes down a treat.

My Western-style breakfast in our Vientiane hotel included the tastiest, freshest eggs I have had for a while, plus some locally-gathered wild mushrooms which were meatier and tastier than any mass-produced white mushrooms we eat at home. Divine. Eggs loomed large most mornings, and we were fortunate enough to have our breakfast/brunch along the riverside for almost every day of our stay in Laos, no matter what the town.

A trip to a local waterfall saw us snacking on Lao pork buns, which were suspiciously like Chinese pork buns except the pork filling was augmented by pieces of hard-boiled egg. Much better!

On our road trip to Luang Prabang, our bus ticket included lunch at a basic roadhouse halfway through a ten-hour journey. The food was ready for us as we disembarked: a beef dish and a pork dish, simply seasoned and cooked, and a couple of vegetable dishes, all served with either steamed rice or on top of freshly-cooked noodle soup. Three days into our journey it was just like home cooking and we devoured it. I'm a sucker for something simple with rice.

Luang Prabang is a World Heritage site, and there is no shortage of boutique hotels, cute wine bars and pleasant restaurants. We dined one evening at Tum Tum Cheng, famous for its head chef's homage to dishes prepared for the Royal household, and its cooking school. The deep fried spring rolls were to die for (this became a popular starter for us in Laos and they never disappointed), but the main courses were a little disappointing. My Luang Prabang stew was tasty enough but bland, and Orlando's spicy pork was not so spicy. We resorted to our emergency stash of chilli sauce sachets kept in my handbag for just such an event.

At 150,000 Lao kip (approx. $19) including my 200ml carafe of wine, Tum Tum Cheng was probably one of the most expensive meals of the holiday but in terms of taste and price it was totally eclipsed by the exceptional dinner we had the next night at a little family-run roadside eatery with three tables. Orlando's "fried pork with chilli and less" (sic) and my "fried mini local noodles with pork" were accompanied by a handful of the tiniest, hottest chillies we've ever encountered and cost 40,000 kip (less than $5) for two. Delicious, honest home-cooking again - can't beat it. We loved it so much we went back next day for lunch.

Luang Prabang's night market was pretty good value for money in terms of eating out. One small laneway was transformed in the evening into a typical Asian food market, with noodle soup, Luang Prabang spicy sausage, barbecued fish, chicken and pork, fresh fruit and more all available for pennies. Totally tourist-oriented unlike most of the other night markets we ate at, the food was nonetheless hearty and nicely presented on a banana leaf.

There were two types of local sausage in Luang Prabang. One looked a little like a black pudding although the inside was much more finely chopped. We tried this one twice, one at a family stall down a back street one afternoon, and once more as a packed lunch on our two-day boat trip up the Mekong (matched with a few triangles of The Laughing Cow longlife cheese: marvellous).
The first sausage was much more herby than spicy, but the second was like a good Italian sausage with just the right amount of chilli kick mixed in. The second type of local sausage was longer and thinner, stuffed with excellent lean pork and again well seasoned. We loved both.
night market delicacies

our boat picnic of Laughing Cow and sausage
(OK I added lime and chilli crisps too!)

Northwards by boat into the country and smaller villages, we broke our two-day trip up the Mekong in the small village of Pak Beng which is well-placed to cater for travellers thanks to the Lonely Planet. The main (only) street is lined with guesthouses, eateries and a couple of bars. We chose the one with the sign that made us laugh the most: "Lovely Jubbly" restaurant which proudly announced that "My wife is a very good cook". And she was. We both chose the pork laap which was fresh, perfectly seasoned and most welcome after a long and tiring day lying back on our boat watching the Mekong and its villages float by.

This was our last official meal in Laos too, although we didn't know it at the time. Next morning we breakfasted on freshly-made minced chicken, egg and salad baguettes made at our guesthouse before embarking for our second day of river travel, and by nightfall we were over the border in Thailand and dining on home-made noodles courtesy of Dan, the campest guest-house host in town.