Beef, Blood & Bile in Lao
Today, we bring you something different. Marco, the more culinarily adventurous member of Vamos Kigo, has been keeping a food chronicle. Today, you can experience something unique and wonderful/horrible vicariously through Marco. Read all the way through and then enjoy (?) a truly entertaining food video.
Lao – simply beautiful – this statement is absolutely right. The most relaxed place I’ve ever been, with calm quiet streets, numerous temples for worship and beautiful monuments and structures representing years of complex history. Wandering around the streets of Vientiane, I found fantastic local fare. From laab, a delicious crisp and fresh salad made of minced meat (pork, duck, chicken or fish…I tried them all) mixed with fish sauce, lime juice, mint, cucumbers and green beans to delicious sausages loaded with lemongrass and spices to fantastic hot pots of boiling flavorful beef stock ready to cook the accompanying fresh noodles, loads of vegetables, raw beef and egg yolks right in front your eyes, these dishes make you want to eat all of the time with your tastebuds working at full force.
Traveling to sleepy towns, I had numerous fantastic coffees (a strong brew mixed with condensed milk over ice) that kept me energized throughout the days searching for the good food. In the town of Vang Vieng, due to the countless restaurants serving sandwiches and bad pizza often sprinkled with happy substances, I was in mission mode looking for authentic and real deal local foods.
I found a restaurant serving friendly straightforward food like fried rice, curries and the salads I previously mentioned, but at this point some of these dishes bored me a bit. I saw the owner of the restaurant eating by the kitchen, something wrapped in a banana leaf. I had no idea what it was, but I ordered it and the server, the owner’s wife, laughed and said no. I gestured it was fine and that I wanted it. Not sure, she went and asked her husband if it was okay to serve me the dish.
He approached the table and asked me where I was from. I said, “I’m from Mexico.” Without hesitation he pointed to the mountains a couple of times. I couldn’t understand him, not even through our primitive sign language, and with a smirky smile on his face he went back to the kitchen and dinner was served. Coming back with a small pouch of unidentified meat which left a trace of steam behind, he tapped me on the shoulder and pointed at the mountains again.
When I unfolded the banana leaf, I immediately noticed a funky smell and knew right away that I was eating wild game.
Picking the meat from the small bones made me wonder, “What is this?” The meat was stringy and bitter, well seasoned and earthy, muddy flavors mixing with the dark meat, and topped with whole chilis which masked some of the ‘off’ flavors. Not my favorite dish, but not bad either, I finished my portion paired with a cold and crisp Beerlao.
As I was about to leave, the owner came to my table, shook my hand and hugged me, pointing at the mountains once again and then to a stray cat that was passing by. He emphasized the mountains and I asked him to write the name on the back of my receipt in his own language. Further research indeed proved it was wild mountain cat. I didn’t feel quite good about eating wildlife like this, but hey, I didn’t know what was coming. On the other hand, I felt proud and welcomed just like a local.
My next stop was Phonsavan, located in the north central part of the country. This town holds the mystery of the Plain of Jars. There is not much known about these archeological gems that date from 2,000 years ago. After a day of driving around on our semiautomatic Honda Dream and exploring the sites, I was ready for another food mystery, so I ordered the only item on the menu with no English translation. I received the same reaction from the server as my experience in Vang Vieng.
She actually refused to serve the item as I insisted she give it to me.
With the same smirky smile, she brought me a plate of boiled beef with a side dish of mixed bile, blood and soy sauce for dipping garnished with green onions. I barely remember the last time I spit food out of my mouth. Tarantulas in Cambodia…no. Live crickets and chinicuiles (agave worms) in Mexico…no. Chocolate milk when I was 8 for breakfast…yes! (I didn’t like breakfast before school, so as soon as my mom turned around, I would pour the milk down the drain. Don’t tell her. She still doesn’t know.)
Bitter, irony, room temperature boiled beef with absolutely no salt or seasonings, because why would you need seasonings when the bile is your main source of condiment, wrapped in crisp lettuce with fresh mint was very appealing to the naked eye. I was no match for the Lu. I ate about a third of the dish, trying to appreciate the powerful bitter organ flavors, but it didn’t work out so well.
I’m very satisfied with my culinary journey through Lao. Digging hard for your food can be very rewarding, not only in taste, but also with the great social experiences that come along with sharing dishes. Bottom line, don’t be afraid to walk into the packed local restaurant and be the only foreigner. The language barrier is not big enough to stop you from sampling the great local cuisines that a country like Lao has to offer.