Spice, Texture and Crunch: Eating Local in Vientiane
On the road with Khiri Travel – guest blog by Ryan van Velzer
To eat Laotian food, is to understand the country’s history. In turns savoury, sweet, sour, spicy (really spicy) and salty. Laotian people understand complementing flavours in a way that is unique, even by Southeast Asian standards.
The only landlocked country in Southeast Asia, its history (and landscape) is marred by invasions and foreign occupations. Each leaving behind its culinary legacy, perhaps most notable are its Thai, French and Vietnamese influences.
Vientiane, Laos’ capital, is situated in a small pocket in the south of the northern bulge of Laos, some 20 minutes from the border of Thailand. The close proximity and relations with Thailand have had the biggest impact on the region’s food. Isan, Thailand’s northeastern rice-producing region, and Laos share nearly identical cuisines.
Green Papaya Salad
Papaya salad is made from green, unripe papaya cut (sometimes slices) and pounded in a large wooden mortar with a pestle. Oftentimes, in the evenings one can walk along the avenues, called rue from the French occupation, and hear the chopping of thumping of the papaya being prepared for dinner.Both cultures share a palate for spicy, grilled Isan-style dishes including fish, duck, chicken, beef and papaya salad. Perhaps best known is Papaya salad, known as somtam in Thailand and dtam mak huhng in Laos.
The papaya is then mashed together with small tomatoes, garlic, fresh chillies, limes and topped with peanuts. The sauce is made from a wide variety of ingredients that vary from region to region including shrimp paste (in Thailand), vinegar, fish sauce, crab, para (a spicy fermented fish paste). Peanuts are often added before serving
In Laos, as in Isan, a common favourite is papaya salad with para and crab. A saltier version of the dish, it’s not for the faint of heart. It is packed with chillies, mixed with para with the addition of small crab (which is meant to be eaten whole)
The papaya, not yet ripe, has a crisp fresh tension, while the tomatoes soak up the sauce. The peanuts and crab add crunchiness and saltiness which balances with tartness of the fresh squeezed lime. It’s best enjoyed with sticky rice—rolled into a ball and eaten with your fingers. The rice offers a reprieve from the spiciness of the dish and is used to soak up the sauce collecting near the bottom of the dish.
Laap is a mixture of whatever the restaurant might have on hand or put in it on any given evening. On a particular night one might find everything from liver to pancreas to heart among the minced morsels. That said, the texture of each adds a diversity and infusion of flavour to each bite, each bite being different than the last.Another local favourite is Laap, a mix of minced animal parts, spices and chillies. Served family style, as are most of the dishes, laap maintains subtle differences in flavours and ingredients from region to region. While in Isan duck and pork are among the most popular versions of the dish, in Laos, the most popular is beef.
The heat from the chillies, ground into the dish and also precariously placed on top, unify the flavours with a heat that builds. At first it’s subtle. A slight feeling of warmth in the back of the throat that, before you know it, becomes a searing heat. While probably best reserved for the devoted foodies, willing to put their stomach on line to try the unique flavours, laap is a unique presentation of the locality in which it’s produced.
A soup made with a clear broth, rice noodles, a choice of chicken, pork or fish, this particular bowl of pho (in the photograph) was made with slices of pork and pork balls, (a processed pork sausage). In addition to the pork were fresh tomatoes and onions topped with fried garlic bits (often fried to a crisp in pork fat). The dish was served (as many Laos and Isan dishes are) with a side of basil, chillies, green beans and lettuce.Another of the popular dishes enjoyed by locals and travellers alike is Vietnamese inspired pho.
The simplicity of the broth highlights each ingredient, the freshness of the veggies, the aroma of fresh basil and a slight hint of garlic. Locally, it can be found at any lunch time venue. A cheap, fast and healthy lunch usually found for $1 to $2.
Pâté Baguette Sandwiches
Best known are the Pâté baguettes. The bread is toasted over a charcoal grill, split and spread with Pâté, mayo and chilli sauce then layered with red pork, cucumbers, tomato, lettuce and cheese. The bread is crispy outside alternatively crispy and tender and the perfect vessel for the Pâté and veggies that accompany it. It’s a local alternative to Asian cuisine found for $1. Throw in a can of Beer Laos on a hot afternoon as the perfect complement — no chips necessary.When the French invade they bring baguettes. Actually the French united three different kingdoms (in 1907) to make the modern day Laos as a buffer zone to protect Vietnam. And with them they brought their architecture, wine and pastries. The baguettes have been added among the local cuisine, often eaten for breakfast or served as sandwiches at lunchtime. The sandwiches are made with anything from eggs and bacon, to chicken, ham and Pâté.