Sunday, March 2, 2008

Laos food

The food in Laos was unbelievable, with some similarities to Thai food. The first night there we found banana pancakes. Not really a pancake, but kind of a puff pastry with banana and sweetened condensed milk. It’s the kind of food you buy from a street vendor, and they get the pastry just right by slamming it against their cart repeatedly until it’s paper thin. It was fabulous – I had them as regularly as I could manage, but it seems that the best ones we had were in Vientiane (the capital – and our first stop). We also loved their fish specialty – it was grilled with lots of salt and garlic so that it was crispy on the outside and perfectly tender on the inside. In general, we went fish crazy as we almost never eat the fish in China. Too much mercury, antibiotics, and other toxins says Yoni. Too bad – in the Chinese restaurants the fish often looks so tempting.

We learned that Lao people eat sticky rice as their staple food, and I really loved it. You roll it into a ball and pop it into your mouth with spicy (and I mean SPICY) dip. The locals have it for breakfast . . I tried it once but couldn’t handle it. Also learned that many foods in Lao don’t have an English name as they’re grown locally and the country has only opened up to tourism in the past 8-9 years. So we tried the “maknumnum” fruit and some other things that I can’t remember the names of. Pomello and banana trees were everywhere – and the bananas were small and so sweet. Tasted slightly different from what we’re used to. The pomellos are better in China and Israel.

Had a wonderful day learning how to cook Lao food with Penina and Shalom in Luang Prabang. I attended a similar course with Linda R in Yangshuo, China, but the cooking course in Laos was very different. Extremely laid back – spent just as much time on breaks as we did cooking. Very Lao – emphasis on relaxing, hanging out, and sharing food with friends. My experience at the cooking course reflects our experience with the Lao people in general – very warm, friendly, and always smiling. According to our reading, Lao people do not like stress and try to avoid it. So while my Chinese cooking course was a half-day and they crammed in as many dishes as possible, and ran the course in two shifts to maximize efficiency, the Lao course had a very different feel to it. It wasn't just about money either, as the course in China was much cheaper. We learned of an interesting saying that reflected our experience – the Vietnamese plant rice, the Cambodians watch it grow, and the Lao listen to it grow. Another great expression we learned was,”bo panyang” – no problem. A very common expression in Laos.

Of course the fact that we were coming from China made our experiences with Lao people that much more extreme. In China people work so hard, and the kids are always studying for their myriad exams. And you rarely see a group of young children playing together . . only toddlers seem to play outside and they’re often flanked by parents and grandparents as most families have only one child. But when we got to Laos there were scores of kids everywhere, always playing, almost always unsupervised. The country has a very high birth rate – and I can’t tell you how different it felt. Every time we passed a school it seemed like all the kids were at recess. Only later did we learn that there’s a shortage of classrooms so often times at least one class is outside playing while the others are studying. Of course the differences between China and Laos were further exacerbated as we left Xi’an in a state of deep freeze – coldest winter in at least 50 years and more snow than anyone knew what to do with. People literally hadn’t left their homes except for work and school in almost a month. And Laos was relatively warm and sunny (although an unusually cold spell occurred there as well later in our travels).

My students in China told horror stories about their Chinese New Year vacations - one student spent 36 hours on a train (was supposed to be 12 hours) with inadequate food and water. I can only imagine what the sanitation was like. Other students who came from smaller communities stated that their pipes all burst due to the deep freeze and they spent their vacations hauling water and freezing.

I'm attaching two pictures - one of Penina and Shalom with their fabulous morning creations, and the other is a picture from the local market. Much of the flavouring for the food there comes from this smelly fish sauce - lots of different kinds and all looked like it was the last thing you wanted to add to your food if you wanted to stay healthy.