Things I like about Laos #3: Funerals in Luang Prabang

A traditional meal as served to guests at a funeral in Luang Prabang This may sound like a macabre title for blog post, but anybody who's been to a Buddhist funeral in Southeast Asia knows the events take a decidedly different form here. For starters, funerals in this part of the world are more like family reunions, and are generally festive, rather than dour in atmosphere. They can often last several days, depending on the family's budget. And most importantly, like much of life in Southeast Asia, they tend to revolve around food.

I learned this firsthand while walking the streets of Luang Prabang, in northern Laos. I was searching for images to illustrate an article on Lao food, when I came across a funeral entering its fifth day. A man of 82 had died, and directly in front of the house in which he grew up, his relatives and people who knew him had erected a tent and were busy cooking.

It truly was a communal affair, at least among the women, and everybody pitched in, including neighbours, neighbours' relatives visiting from America, and sometimes people who just happened to walk by:

Woman preparing a funeral meal in Luang Prabang

Those not able to help in the more physical parts of preparation simply dished out the final product:

Serving up bowls of khua kai, a thick chicken curry, at a funeral in Luang Prabang

in this case, a thick coconut curry called khua kai.

When a meal, usually consisting of four different dishes, sides of fresh herbs and veggies, and sticky rice, was completed, the dishes were put on trays then laid out to be consumed:

Setting up for a funeral meal, Luang Prabang

Between meals everybody snacked on miang laao:

Miang laao, Lao-style crudites, as served at a funeral in Luang Prabang

A variety of toppings ranging from pork crackling to garlic that are put in a leaf, topped with a salty/sour sauce, and popped in the mouth.

Among the dishes made in the three days I visited the funeral were an herb-filled omelet, a laap-like pork dish, and because it was in season, several dishes revolving around bamboo, including a clear soup (pictured at the top of this post), and a delicious stir-fry of crispy bamboo, egg and ground pork:

An stir-fry of bamboo, egg and ground pork, as prepared at a funeral in Luang Prabang

Below is the recipe for saem, an eggplant and pork dish that I was able to watch being made from beginning to end. I was told by the people making it that the dish can only be found in Luang Prabang, and is among a repertoire of dishes often served at funerals and other occasions.

I've failed to include amounts here simply because the women themselves didn't measure anything; like most recipes in this part of the world the cooking was done entirely by taste, feel and experience. The dish is pictured at the top of this post at about 4 o'clock, and below.

Saem: Pork and eggplant 'salad'

Two women making saem, a pork and eggplant 'salad' at a funeral in Luang Prabang

Making saem

-Boiled pork liver and belly, sliced thinly -Lao fish sauce (paa daek) -Rice cakes (khao khop) -Young, round purple eggplants (ideally w/out seeds), boiled until soft and peeled -Ground pork, boiled -Salt, MSG, dried chili powder -Green onion and cilantro, sliced finely -Sides: fresh mint, watercress, leafy pak boong, long beans, chilies and small purple eggplants.

Slicing pork liver for saem, a pork and eggplant 'salad' at a funeral in Luang Prabang

Slicing pork liver for saem

1. Simmer fish sauce with some of the broth left over from boiling the pork liver and belly until reduced and fragrant. Strain and reserve. 2. Pound rice cakes in mortar and pestle until very fine. Remove. 3. Pound eggplant and ground pork in mortar and pestle until well blended. 4. Season to taste with Lao fish sauce, salt, MSG and chili. 5. Add pounded rice cake powder, liver and belly. Blend well. 6. Garnish with green onion and cilantro. 7. Serve with sides and sticky rice.