Getting your weed down by the river

Trip Start Nov 05, 2006
Trip End Jan 14, 2008

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Monday, March 12, 2007

Day 3 of "smoke watch" and it is still smoky!  In the past, if someone said they were going to get some weed at the river, I would have thought of something very different, and more scandalous than what that means in Laos.  Fried river weed is in fact, a staple here in Laos and one of the many unusual dishes we sampled and learned to cook at the Tum Tum Chaung Restaurant and Cooking School.  We saw the locals harvesting their weed from the Mekong in long bright green strands glistening in the sunlight on our boat trip to the caves.  It comes out of the water looking like fluorescent green hair.  After harvest, they spread the weed out, add some tomatoes, mushrooms and pepper and dry it in the sun (I guess pepper and tomatoes add to the weed flavor!)  It is reminiscent of nori (sushi seaweed) at this point taking the form of dried sheets.  Next you fry it in a wok and eat it like potato chips. Not a bad snack once you get past the fact that you're eating something that came out of a river that livestock and humans use as a toilet.  I guess it's true, you really can eat anything fried! 

Laos food is otherwise similar to Thai food in ingredients with a greater emphasis on sticky rice and communal eating using hands rather than utensils.  Laotian families eat three times daily like other cultures, with sticky rice included at each meal.  Nobody eats until the eldest family member starts!  Then the food is scooped up with the sticky rice and eaten off communal plates.  Like Thai food, Laos food relies heavily on fish sauce, chili, lemon-grass, garlic, ginger, galangal and shallots.    Subtle differences distinguish the Laos and Thai food such as with their versions of mango and sticky rice where the Laos version cooks the coconut cream into the rice with added sugar while the Thai version keeps the rice and cream separate.  We also got to try "Lao Lao," otherwise know as Laotian moonshine.  Not quite an aged scotch whiskey, made from sticky rice in pot stills, it packs a wicked punch and if it were any cheaper, they'd be paying us to drink it! A soda size bottle for 10,000 kip (one dollar).  On the subject of drinking, a couple of lines on "Beer Lao".  This is the only beer made in Laos.  You could say it's communist beer.  Who cares?  It tastes pretty good, and at a dollar for a 24 oz bottle, the production must be government subsidized.  Between the moonshine at $1 for 12 oz, and $1 Beer Lao, this place is sort of a cheap drinkers paradise. Also worth a mention is our previous night's dinner at a Laotian barbecue.  This is similar (I think) to Korean barbecue in that it consists of a stone bucket of hot coals hanging in the middle of your table (occasional showers of sparks are a risk since there are no protective screens), on top of which is placed an aluminum dome with a moat around the base.  It sort of looks like a large version of an old citrus juicer with perforations for smoke to escape.  You are provided with the meats of your choice, a bucket of broth, fish fat to grease the barbecue dome, and a bucket of eggs and vegetables to add to your broth and cook over the fire.  Dishes of chili sauce are provided for dipping.  You eat the meat as it cooks, and the noodles and  vegetables in a soup that's as interesting as you make it.  A pretty decent way to fill up an evening and two empty stomachs.  Recommended accompaniments by the locals are Lao Lao and Beer Lao!   
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