Am back in Vientiane after an all-too-brief visit to Bangkok followed by a week in the central Lao province of Savannakhet. And what a week it’s been… My job at the moment is essentially to walk around towns in Laos and gather information, a task that’s been made increasingly difficult by the arrival of summer here in Southeast Asia. Although I’ve lived in the region for over a decade now, I’ve only spent a couple summers here, typically having spent this time of year at home in Oregon or Sweden, or somewhere else cool. As a result, the intense heat feels relatively new to me, and is almost unbearable, particularly for one who’s walking as much as 10km or more a day. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever sweated so much in my life, but rehydrating in Savannkhet was a literal pleasure, thanks to Centella asiastica:
a green herb known in English as Asiatic pennywort and in Laos (and incidentally, Mae Hong Son) as phak nork (it’s called bai bua bok, ‘land lotus’, in most of Thailand). The herb is used as a side dish, salad ingredient and juice component from Sri Lanka to China, but I never really took to the latter form, particularly in Thailand, finding its herbal flavour a bit too intense. But in central Laos, as I’ve also seen done in Vietnam, it’s prepared slightly differently. Here, a couple fistfuls of the herb are tossed in a blender with the juice and meat of a young coconut (and the inevitable and inevitably large ladleful of syrup). This is blended for a good minute or two and the resulting frothly green pulp is strained into a tall glass of ice. The result has substantially less herbal flavour than the Thai version, but rather is green and grasslike in flavour, with a slight hint of bitterness. It’s incredibly refreshing — I think I had three glasses one particularly hot day.
Another equally refreshing drink found on nearly every street corner in Savannakhet is sugarcane juice:
Branch-like sugar canes are peeled then passed through the wheels of an electric press several times to extract every last drop of liquid. This is, I suspect, perhaps another Vietnamese influence, as the vast majority of vendors use Vietnamese-made machines, specifically the ones with the funky 1960’s lady one sees everywhere in that country:
Served with a squeeze of lime, it’s almost as good as nam phak nork, and isn’t nearly as sweet as one might suspect — I’m generally not a fan of sweet flavours, but had no problem downing both the glass and pitcher shown above.
Actually this photo could have been taken just about anywhere in Laos; it illustrates a typical scenario that unfolds upon pulling into any rural bus station here. Even before the bus comes to a complete stop, women frantically run to the bus waving sticks of grilled chicken, bags of sticky rice or mangoes, grilled eggs, buckets of drinks and tubes of nyaa dom (nasal inhalers). I don’t tend to see too many purchases, but the number of vendors suggests it must be at least a somewhat profitable venture.
Moving back in time slightly, while home a couple weeks ago I also had my first chance to cook in a month: I made cozido à Portuguesa from this recipe, using some very tasty Portuguese chouriço picked up in Macau, garnished with homemade molho de piri-piri and accompanied with a side of salada de grão com bacalhau, a salad of chick peas and salt cod, and a cheap but good red from Dão.
Didn’t really involve a whole lot of actual cooking, but it certainly was nice not to be eating in a restaurant.
After more than a month in Vientiane, I have to admit that it’s still the case that I’ve still only been able to find a scant handful of places that do good Lao food. Luckily I live literally around the corner from one that I, not to mention many locals, consider the best place in town.
Nang Kham Bang (‘Ms Khambang’), or as the sign says, Khambang Lao Food Restaurant, is a third-generation family run place serving a relatively short but solid menu of Lao dishes. I’ve eaten here at least eight times now, both by myself and with others, and can say with confidence that the kitchen is consistent and service is also good, the latter a true rarity in Laos.
Just about everything here suggests quality, even down to the good-quality and perfectly steamed sticky rice:
The house dish is fish (pictured at the top of this post), in the form of a half or whole paa neua on (a type of freshwater fish) lightly seasoned and grilled. Mekong River fish is also featured in kaeng som paa, a sour fish-based tom yam-like soup with lots of dill, bai menglak (a basil-like herb), shallots and galangal:
They do an excellent sai ua:
a Lao-style sausage, often associated with Luang Prabang, that’s less herbal than its similarly-named Thai counterpart. Other good meat dishes are a sublime grilled beef tongue:
very good laap:
including an excellent koy plaa (like laap, but made with larger chunks of freshwater fish), and jee sin lot:
strips of beef that have been grilled until charred then scraped of all the burnt bits and pounded until tender.
Other dishes worth ordering are or laam, a thick stew-like stew of beef or pork with lots of herbs and vegetables; a very good jaew mak len, a dip of grilled tomatoes; and I reckon their tam maak hung (som tam — papaya salad), served here with tiny crispy tomatoes and even tinier freshwater shrimp, is the best version of the dish I’ve encountered yet in Laos.
Khambang Lao Food Restaurant
97/2 Th Khounboulom
+85 217 198
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If you spend enough time on Rte 8, the Lao highway corridor linking Thailand and Vietnam, you’re bound to encounter huge lorries bound for Vietnam carrying cages filled with hundreds of dogs.
According to this fascinating four-part investigative report and video by journalists Patrick Winn and Pailin Wedel, the trade in dogs as meat in Southeast Asia actually begins in northeastern Thailand, where stray dogs are caught on a daily basis by what many consider a local mafia. Most Thais don’t eat dog meat themselves, but many contribute to the trade anyway, seeing it as a way to do away with pests and alerting dog catchers of stray dogs in exchange for plastic buckets or cash. The trade is technically illegal, but local police choose to look the other way, claiming that enforcing the drug trade or illegal immigration is a better use of their resources.
The caught dogs are eventually brought to Tha Rae, a town on the banks of the Mekong River in Nakhon Phanom, where they are temporarily held in pens, graded by quality, before being packed into wire cages and loaded onto a truck. A typical truck can hold as many as 1000 dogs, with five or more dogs crammed into each cage:
The trucks then cross the Mekong on a barge, beginning a journey across Laos, via Rte 8, that can take up to a couple days. The dogs aren’t fed or given water during the trip, and some die along the way. I encountered one of these trucks (pictured at the top of this post) three times along Rte 8 one unlucky day, and the smell of dog fur and excrement coupled with the endless sound of howling and fighting was truly heartbreaking. A Lao man we spoke to near the border with Vietnam claimed that the trucks pass every single day. “Some days I see four trucks,” he added, causing me wonder how there are even enough stray dogs to supply this demand. Arriving in Vietnam, the dogs can be worth as much ten times the price for which they were obtained in Thailand, making the trade highly lucrative. Winn and Wedel estimate that this particular cross-border trade in dog meat could be worth as much as US$3.6 million a year.
Boat driver on the Nam Kading River, Laos
You can hear some fascinating stories when you talk to the older generation in Laos. This guy, who now works as a boat driver along the Nam Kading river in central Laos, helped the Vietnamese fight against the French colonialists in 1959. He still remembers some Vietnamese and after the war had 10 children.
More and more communities in rural Laos are opening up their doors to foreign visitors in the form of homestays. Ban Hat Khai, a village located at the edge of Phu Khao Khuai National Protected Area, in central Laos, is an example of this. I spent a night with a family there a week or so ago, and in addition to meeting some very nice people and gaining an insight into rural Lao life, I also got to witness some Lao food made firsthand. The resulting three dishes comprised one of the better meals I had in Laos.
The first recipe I witnessed is essentially a ‘dip’ of grilled tomatoes that is as simple as it is delicious, and is also very Lao. The second two dishes took full advantage of two live ducks picked up at the market. On previous visits to Laos I hadn’t really noticed how fond the Lao are of duck, but on this trip I seemed to see it everywhere, particularly grilled, which other than Bali, where I think it’s technically roasted, is something haven’t really encountered elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
Jaew Mak Len
Medium-sized chilies, 5
Garlic, 2 small heads
Salt, to taste
Fish sauce, to taste
Cilantro, green onion, chopped
Skewer the tomatoes and grill over a coals until the exterior is slightly charred and the inside is tender. Toss the chilies, shallots and garlic directly into the coals. When slightly burnt on the outside and soft inside, remove from coals, and along with the tomato, peel off all the burnt bits. In a mortar and pestle, pound grilled ingredients together into a rough paste/dip and season to taste with salt and fish sauce (and MSG, if desired). Garnish with chopped cilantro and green onion and serve with sticky rice and par-boiled vegetables such as green beans or cabbage.
Tom Pet and Laap Pet
Ginger, peeled and sliced, one 5cm section
Galingale, peeled and sliced, one 5cm section
Shallots, peeled, 6
Chillies, red, 3
Lemongrass, bruised, 2 stalks
MSG, to taste
Fish sauce, to taste
Small sour tomatoes, halved, 10
Young tamarind leaves
Cilantro, one small bunch, chopped
Phak hom laap (a local herb; substitute with mint), equal to amount of cilantro, chopped
Green onions, 4 stalks, chopped
Shallots, 4, sliced
Khao khua (ground roast sticky rice), about 2 Tbsp
Fish sauce, to taste
MSG, to taste
Lime juice, to taste
Kill ducks. Remove innards and feathers. Joint ducks, separating the bones from the meat. Skewer the meat bits and grill over coals until fully cooked.
For the tom pet, a duck broth, while meat is grilling, bring a large pot of water, enough to accommodate the bones from both ducks, to a boil. Add ginger, galingale, shallots, chilies and lemongrass. Bring to the boil and allow to simmer for about 20 minutes. Season to taste with MSG and fish sauce, add tomatoes and young tamarind leaves. The resulting broth should be equal parts meaty and tart.
For the laap, when the meat is grilled, chop finely and mix with the chopped herbs. Add sliced shallots, khao khua, fish sauce, MSG and lime juice to taste. Serve with a platter of additional fresh herbs (more cilantro, a few sprigs of dill, mint) and sticky rice.
If you’re interested in taking part in a homestay in Ban Hat Khai, information on visiting Phu Khao Khuai is available at the Tourist Information Centre in Vientiane.