Australia is fortunate that as a result of the large mix of cultures that call this land home, we have a wonderful diversity of food and ways of eating. As an avid lover of all things culinary I feel this is one of the great results of multiculturalism. I think that it is fair to say that what is often referred to “Modern Australian” food is in part a fusion of Asian style cooking. I definitely have an Asian persuasion when cooking myself at home. That is of course amongst a myriad of other styles of cooking I enjoy doing, but Asian flavours are certainly one of the more dominant in my personal approach.
I think it’s no wonder that we have such a strong Asian influence in our food in Australia considering our geographic location in the world, our climate and our population mix. Now, however, I do find it very disappointing that there is a distinct lack of Laotian influence present. At least, that is, a far as I have found.
I recall when Damien returned from his four month odyssey around Asia in 2009-2010 that he raved about all things Lao. Damien spent two months of his trip in this country because he was so enamoured of it. Damien was especially keen for me to try some Lao food. We spied a Lao restaurant on Oxford Street, Sydney and went there. Damien was disappointed in the meal and said that it was really Thai food pretending to be Lao. He said it could not be a real Lao restaurant because it didn’t have sticky rice. I, for one, couldn’t see how the lack of sticky rice was so important. I did however agree that the food tasted a lot like Thai, or any other type of Asian food I had eaten before. The food we ate here did not introduce me to a new Asian culinary personality, as I had hoped.
Thus, I went to Lao with no expectations about the food and I think my discovery of how wonderful and unique it is was all the more enjoyable as a result. I learnt very quickly that khao niaw (sticky rice) is indeed central to Lao food, and that any restaurant claiming to be Lao would intrinsically know this and it would not be absent from the menu! I am going to steal from a little souvenir booklet on sticky rice that Hien (our friend from Luang Prabang) gave us:
“The people of Lao generally proudly regard the consummation of glutinous or ‘sticky’ rice as part of their cultural identity. The Lao language expression ‘to eat’ not only means ‘to eat rice’ as in the language of their Thai neighbours, but ‘to eat glutinous rice’. The cultural and national association with glutinous rice has also sometimes reflected in the people of Lao saying ‘if they did not eat glutinous rice they would not be Laotian’.
It is worth mentioning that the use of the word glutinous is misleading. Sticky rice does not contain gluten, rather it sticks together like glue. I quickly learnt that sticky rice is central to how Lao people eat their food. The rice is served in small woven containers with a lid. The rice is then used to eat with the accompanying meals. It is normal for Lao people to share a range of dishes together and they are consumed by rolling up small balls of sticky rice in the hand before dipping it into the food to eat.
I was introduced to a number of new flavours during our time in this country and one that intrigued me was citronella. Prior to coming to Lao I was only aware of citronella being used to ward off mosquitoes! However, one of the very first dishes I tried in Lao involved eating mixture of fried rice balls which had been broken up and mixed with other delicious ingredients, and then wrapped in either lettuce or betel nut leaves with a number of other leaves such as citronella stuffed inside. Unfortunately, I did not learn what all the other leaves were that I ate but citronella and betel nut were two I learnt about and identified in a number of the meals I ate.
Laap is probably one of the more widely known Lao dishes. It is similar to the Thai larb dish. Lao laap is normally fish (often raw), chicken, pork or beef minced up and mixed with a number of herbs such a mint and citronella and with some lime juice and chilli. I did also sample a lovely tofu laap (which is amongst the pictures above).
Buffalo meat is also widely consumed in this country and it is common to find it dried (sometimes complete with the hair attached), like jerky. I sampled buffalo paste that was mixed into a powerful blend with chilli and eaten with steamed greens.
Perhaps one of my favourite discoveries was khai paen. This dish originates from Luang Prabang as it is made from the river weed that grows in this area. The river weed is bashed into a paste and dried with garlic and tomatoes into sheets and coated in sesame seeds. It looks very much like nori. The sheets are then fried and make excellent snacks to accompany a Beerlao! Although this dish comes from Luang Prabang we sampled it in Vientiane, Vang Vieng and Pakse as well. We even spied rolls of the sheets being sold at road side stalls during our bus trip.
Another dish which is also comes from Luang Prabang is or laam. This dish is like a stew and has an earthy flavour. I was not such a big fan of this dish but it is Damien’s favourite (other than sticky rice, that is). I asked him how he would describe the flavour and to him it has a medicinal quality. There is a particular fungus that is used in this dish that gives it its distinct flavour.
As for alcohol the national beer is Beerlao. I enjoy beer but I am definitely not a regular drinker of it, I prefer wine. That said, I really did like Beerlao a lot. It is a flavour that appeals to me. But not being a beer afficionado I can’t really describe it! I also sampled Lao-Lao a few times. Lao-Lao is a rice spirit that it is much more common for the locals to drink than the beer, as it is much more affordable. I had it with coke and it’s a potent drink to be sure (the way it was served to me, at least)! The taste is akin to drinking whisky and coke. Probably the most pleasant and drinkable mix I had of Lao-Lao was in Si Pan Don (4000 Islands) where it was served warm with lemon and honey. Tres bon!
We ate at a number of wonderful restaurants and cafes during our time in Lao, but I think the adventurous meal we ate at Tamarind in Luang Prabang was the standout. This restaurant is owned by a Lao and Australian couple. They offer patrons an opportunity to try dishes that are not readily available to tourists in restaurants and cafes. They want to offer food that is representative of the types of foods that locals would eat, as well as how they would eat them. This immediately appealed to Damien and I, so we booked ourselves in for this gustatory adventure. You must book at least a day in advance so that they have time to source the food from the local market to suit your taste buds. They specifically ask if there are any particular things you want to try, and of course those which you don’t.
The first course was served with sticky rice (of course!) and consisted of a plate of numerous delightful morsels to dip the rice into. They were:
- Rice crackers and pork skin. The pork skin was rolled in the small rice cracker crumbs.
- Morning glory, sauted. Morning glory is a green plant that is common throughout Asia and often cooked with garlic.
- What we think was called “goat food” by our waiter! It was a zucchini/cucumber looking plant that was pickled.
- Bon leep. A plant that grows on the river bank and we think we were told it was like a thistle. The plant is pounded into a paste and barbequed with garlic. It had a smoky flavour.
- Chinese mustard powder. We were told this powder is particularly popular with old men who eat it with their sticky rice.
- Chilli paste
- A prawn dip
- Khai paen (river weed) dried and pounded into a powder.
- A dish of greens in padek (a Lao fermented fish sauce) and sesame seeds.
- And the piece de resistance: Yellow mushrooms in a coconut cream. Simply divine! This was delectable and we both liked this offering on the plate most. However, it was this course in general that we enjoyed the most as all the dipping options were great or sensational. I would have been very happy if we could have eaten this kind of Lao food again on our travels.
The next course was a series of larger dishes and insects:
- Fried baby frogs, holy basil, garlic and lemongrass. You are supposed to eat the whole frog which I did and I found them to be tasty, but fairly crunchy for the most part with only the legs being a bit more fleshy. Damien was not keen on eating the heads.
- Som pa. A sour fish pickle.
- Som mu. Sour pork pickle. Both of these dishes were okay but a little too sour for our palate.
- Cam ba (I think, the notes from the night are slightly illegible at this point!). This was small fish and herbs cooked in a banana leaf. Neither of us liked this dish at all. I have found that in general food cooked in banana leaves have a wonderful flavour, rice for example is so much more tasty when eaten after being wrapped in a banana leaf. This dish however, was a notable exception to the rule!
- Snake soup. This was a stew mixed with vegetables that had a strong and salty flavour. It was really tasty but there was heaps of bones which detracted from the experience a bit. After first trying snake last year in Cambodia, I think my preferred way to eat it is barbequed on a stick, a la ‘Boge because that way you can still enjoy the flavour and munch through the bones!
- ‘Goat vegetable’ soup. We were informed that the soup was made from a different part of the plant to what we were served in the first course. We liked the other part of the plant way more. This got a massive cross next to it on our notes! It was bland.
- Or laam. This was pork Or Laam which Damien thoroughly enjoyed and as I was feeling somewhat full at this point of the meal, I left this dish all to him to enjoy as I was not as keen on the flavours last time I tried the dish in Vang Vieng.
- Deep fried cicadas (at least they looked like very large cicadas to me). The abdomen of these bugs were stuffed with herbs. I pulled off the wings and legs and just ate the rest. They had a nice flavour and I was surprised that I didn’t find them revolting! It is fair to say I had to psyche myself up to eating the insects!
- The next thing I had to tackle was the beetle larvae, ever so artistically served in their cocoon. Personally, I don’t think I needed any further reminders of what I was about to put in my mouth and digest! Despite the fact that eating the larvae seemed totally wrong to me I was determined to try it. I was instructed that locals love to eat these as beer snacks and they are dipped in salt before eating. So I dipped the first fried larva in the salt and as recommended by the waiter, I ripped it in half to look inside. This was a good suggestion as it was not all gooey and pussy as I had dreaded, but firm with a light cream colour. Most surprising of all though was the flavour: it was actually really nice! I could probably even go so far as to say yummy. However, I had tackled the insect hurdle having already consumed two cicadas, so I stopped at the first larva satisfied with my hardcore cred intact and safe in the knowledge I did not have to worry about trying insects again for a very long time. I had been a tad concerned that I would gag (or worse vomit) if I ate the little critters, but I got through the meal and discovered that they genuinely aren’t disgusting as I had long suspected. It does not however erase my innate reluctance to eat things I have always seen as not food!
Damien was firmly adamant and comfortable in his decision to give the bugs a wide berth.
Our last course was dessert:
- Condom ke mieow. Translated means, cat poo cookie! Never fear, we did not eat cat poo. It just looks like a cat poo! I don’t know if that allays any fears but suffice to say, they were tasty little cat poos! They were crunchy and looked like possibly puffed rice coated in something sweet and brown. We also saw this being sold at many road ride stalls.
- There were then four little steamed rice desserts cut into little cubes. The green one had a coconut flavour, the brown one had a palm sugar taste, the yellow was made with coconut milk and pumpkin and the last one was pink and white but we did not catch what the flavour was.