Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Lao Cuisine

In the south of Laos there is an area called the Bolaven plateau, where beautiful waterfalls (somehow it doesn't seem to matter how many I see, I always find them stunning) cascade over sheer cliffs to the plains below. Due to its elevation, the plateau has a mild climate that is perfectly suited for coffee plantations, and allegedly Lao coffee is very good, though since I don't drink the stuff I've got to take other peoples' word on that. This little intro, however, leads me nicely onto today's topic of conversation, and a subject very dear to my heart: food.

Though not tremendously varied, I find Lao cuisine not unappealing. Apart from the standard noodle soup (called foe in Lao, the oe pronounced as in the French word oeuf, making it sound something like feugh) that is found throughout eastern Asia, the main staple of the Lao diet is sticky rice. In my month here I've really grown to love the stuff. Not only does it taste better than ordinary steamed rice, but it is also the perfect travel food as it can be stuck in a bag and handily eaten using one's hands (the grains stick together very well and barely do so to your hands, so you can have no end of fun sculpting it into fun shapes). To accompany their rice the Lao generally find some animal, skewer it on a stick, and grill it. They're not too picky as to what type of animal they eat; so far I've seen (whole) chickens, giblets, frogs, crickets and even a mole (just to show that I'm not kidding, here's a hilarious article from the New Scientist from last month). In actual fact I'm persuaded that the French habit of eating frogs' legs and snails originated here, as neither beastie is an uncommon sight in Lao markets. Another delicacy they have is called laap, which is a salad of minced meat, mint, coriander, chillies and lime (to be eaten with sticky rice, of course) and is very reminiscent of Mexican food. But all this pales in comparison with the national drink: Beer Lao. According to one story (perhaps apocryphal) Germany sent over some beer specialists, to help improve the taste of Beer Lao, as part of their development aid, and apparently the Germans said there wasn't a thing they could do to improve it. Whether that is true or not, the fact remains that Beer Lao is probably (south east) Asia's best beer (and probably cheapest too!).

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