I suppose as soon as you have blogged about typical fruits here, there’s really no way around a brief, additional post about the veggies and dishes in Lao PDR. So here we go:
In general, there are not sooo many unknown veggies on the local markets. There are potatoes, onions, carrots, eggplants, peppers, beans, cabagges, … Most of the vegetables, I have already encountered on the Asian Markets in Berlin. My new local favourite is Water Spinach though, an Asian variety of spinach and sooo delicious fried with Tofu. Crunchy, fresh and healthy! And for some dubious reason, it is called Morning Glory here 😀
Usually, you season your meals with salt, ginger, garlic, chillies, turmeric, lemon grass, lemon or Thai basil and some oyster and fish sauces. But frankly, Lao food is not as “complicatedly” spiced as Thai or Indian dishes. I’d say spicy is the main flavour which is why I learnt early how to order my meals with only very few chillies.
One other thing I learnt quickly was that Lao people eat a LOT of meat. There’s even a saying according to which they eat anything that crawls and moves. Fish, pork, beef and chicken are the most frequently eaten goodies, but you also see different kinds meat on the local menus: Frogs, snails, dogs, ants and other insects, squirrels, a variety of seafood etc. One Lao speciality is larb, a kind of minced beef salad. But I am really no expert on this….
So let me tell you about Sticky Rice instead.
Seriously, it’s not a proper Lao meal without Sticky Rice. It’s steamed – not boiled – and the rice contains more starch than other types of rice which is why the grains stick together like gum on shoe sole. In fact, it’s quite impossible to detach a bite from the big lump with chopsticks. Consequently, you use your hands, then knead and roll it around with your fingers before dipping it into one of the various spicy sauces. Sticky Rice is made sweet and savoury and often, you find the sweet, coconutty version rolled into banana leaves and grilled over an open fire.
In addition to Sticky Rice, there are usually various mixed vegetable and meat dishes on the table as well as mountains of (to me unknown) bitter herbs and weeds; it seriously looks as if someone just grabbed whatever they found in their backyard. It’s those raw plants, often badly washed, that are famous for making travellers sick… Then again, I quite like rolling my sticky rice into those leaves to make a primitive sushi-roll and you just can’t remain suspicious of the food all the time… I also came to love the salad of shredded green papaya although it is awfully hot when you forget to tell the chef to prepare a falang version for you… But to be honest, there were a few meals when I only ate sticky rice and eggs because everything else contained meat so I started bringing my own food to the office soon. In the restaurants, it’s easy enough to order some steamed veggies and the like, but since I work outside of the city and the staff from KM8 usually cooks together, it’s been a bit hard for me…
Everyone shares all those dishes and people eat using their hands, spoons and chop sticks; all those tools are accepted. What is not accepted, however, is to finish your plate: This would mean that the serving was too small and that you are still hungry. As a guest, it’s polite to leave a little leftover on it to show your host or waiter that you are pleasantly full (frankly, it’s a tradition I dislike because I am not a fan of wasting food on purpose….).
In general, I can say that I have found a couple of delicious treats here and I’m happy to share some recipes with whoever is interested; such as sweet coconut-sticky-rice with mango, saep lai! But I am not going to miss Lao cuisine severely… In fact, I am very much looking forward to some German groceries: Vollkornbrot, Käse, QUARK! In Vientiane, you can buy the majority of Western groceries in international supermarkets if you really crave them, however, you pay a tremendous price for average quality….
P.S.: It’s equally unusual to wait until everyone is seated and has received their food until you start eating as it is to say something like “Enjoy your meal”, so just go for it! 😉