There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Return to Vientiane, Cooking and Eating: Part 4 of Thailand and Laos


Vientiane is a twenty minute drive from the Friendship Bridge.
To Vientiane from the Friendship Bridge
The Lao people are closely related to the Thai; their languages are similar, indeed the Thai spoken across the bridge in Isan is closer to the language spoken in Vientiane than to the Bangkok dialect. To the untutored eye the alphabets look the same too, though there are, apparently, differences. 'Laos is just like Thailand,' Ake had said, 'forty years ago.' He may well be right. The most obvious difference, apart from driving on the other side of the road, is the disparity in wealth; the average Thai is four or five times better off than their Lao counterpart.

After settling into our hotel we strolled towards the river in search of a late lunch, pausing en route at an ATM to become instant millionaires (£1 buys 13,000 kip). It felt good to be back in Vientiane, a low key, low rise capital city whose relaxed, friendliness more than compensates for its lack of metropolitan excitement and sophistication. We did not have to go far to find a noodle shop to satisfy our hunger.

We wandered back via a temple and past Mahkpet, a restaurant we visited in 2014, which trains former street children to work in the hospitality industry. We were sad to see that it had closed. [update: good news, it has only moved]

One of the odd pleasures of Laos, once a French colony, is that pastis is readily available and very reasonably priced. Our plan for the evening was to drink a pastis aperitif in our hotel before walking to a barbecue restaurant we had visited before.
Barbecue restaurant 2014, Vientiane - it looked no different in 2015
The hotel had no pastis. Thwarted, we unsuccessfully tried several upmarket bars before returning in desperation to the hotel where we stayed last time. That solved the problem and left us with a very short walk to the restaurant. Like last year we chose a large fish, though this time teamed with pork ribs, chips - you need a change from rice occasionally – and, inevitably, Beer Lao. The country's only brewery was founded by French colonialists, improved by Czechs after the revolution and is now owned by Chang beers of Thailand. It produces one of the best beers in South East Asia (though that does not set the bar very high!).
Barbecue Restaurant, Vientiane
Dining in the same restaurant 2114. It looked very similar this time, but we ate pork instead of duck on the plate on the right

On the way back we walked through the centre of Vientiane’s social scene.

Vientiane's coolest social centre

After breakfast Phim arrived and introduced us to Nook, our teacher for the morning’s cooking lesson. We climbed into her personal tuk-tuk and headed for the central market. As the market starts at 3am and continues until lunch time it was in full swing when we arrived.
Nook's personal tuk-tuks and driver
We parked by a rice stall. It is remarkable how many different varieties there are; sticky rice (startlingly white) and ordinary rice (ivory in colour) are the main categories, but within each there is a host of different varieties and grades differentiated by colour or grain lengths.

Rice outside Vientiane Market

We looked at the vegetables...

Vientiane Vegetable Market
....including aubergines which come in a surprising range of sizes and colours...
Aubergines, Vientiane Market

....a variety of mushrooms...
Mushrooms, Vientiane Market

...and some very fresh meat.
Meat Market, Vientiane
At one stall a woman was chopping the tops off tender coconuts. In India or Sri Lanka you buy a coconut and drink the contents, but here the coconut water is decanted into jugs and you buy a measure poured into a plastic bag and served with a straw. Phim said the woman machete-d up to three hundred coconuts a day, which means a lot of indestructible plastic bags, mostly destined to become litter. We disposed of ours carefully.

We left the market and after a short short tuk-tuk ride we disembarked where a dark alley led off the main road. Following Nook and Phim down the alley we entered what felt like a village, a peaceful oasis in the centre of the city. Part of the alley had been roofed over to create a cafĂ©. The concrete wall had been painted with a scene of trees, a river and a distant town while flowering plants, gourds, bird’s nests and rattan balls hung from the ceiling as decorations. We had cooking to do, and lunch to make and eat, but it was early yet and there could be nowhere pleasanter to while away a little time.
A 'village' in central Vientiane

I like Lao coffee; it is dark and powerful, if lacking the chocolatey undertones of its Vietnamese counterpart. Nook prevailed on me, against my better judgement, to try a chilled coffee with coconut. She talked it up as something wonderful, and I have to admit she was right. Lynne had Lao coffee with the traditional condensed milk, which is fine if a little sweet.

Coffee in a village like atmosphere, Vientiane
(Lynne, Phim, Nook and a man in yellow shirt and shorts)
After coffee Phim left, saying he would see us in the evening. Back in Nook’s tuk-tuk we passed the French Embassy, the Ministry of Health and other official buildings and then at some traffic lights she surprised us by hopping out with a cheery 'see you later.'

The excellent iced coconut coffee is in no way responsible for the demonic expression
We continued north along Fa Ngum Road, past our previous night’s restaurant and at the end u-turned south onto the larger road beside the river. We realised we were being driven round the houses for some reason, but after so much travelling in air-conditioned cars it was pleasant bowling along with the wind in our hair.

We reached the main road heading back towards the Friendship Bridge and on the edge of town swung right onto an unsurfaced road. For a while we bumped along through the woods beside the river passing a few fishermen while pleasant looking dwellings lurked in the shade of the trees.

Bumping along beside the Mekong, Vientiane

Eventually we reached a side road, turned into it and stopped outside the first house. We banged on the gate which was opened by Nook, who led us in to the large shaded garden in front of her house. Slowly it dawned on us that the elaborate drive round had been to give her time to go home and get organized.

A work bench was laid out on one side of the garden, steamers stood over hot charcoal on the other and in between a table was laid ready for the lunch we were about to cook.

The next hour or two involved a great deal of chopping and pounding.
Lynne chops under Nook's tutelage
Nook was a pleasant and engaging guide through the world of Lao flavours as we first constructed Mok Pa, slabs of fish trussed up in a banana leaves with chopped chillies, spring onions, holy basil, lime leaves, fish sauce and a little pre-prepared sticky rice.

It was to be accompanied by two dips, Jeow Mak Kewa - golf ball sized aubergines pounded with chillies, fish sauce, garlic and spring onions – and Jeow Mak Lin – tomatoes with chillies, garlic, fish sauce and lime juice. We also made Tam Mak Houng, the green papaya salad that is becoming the theme of this trip. Nook julienned the unripe papaya by striking it repeatedly with a knife, then turning the blade round and simply slicing off long, thin spaghetti-like strips. She did not suggest we have a go, so I suspect it was harder than it looked. We mixed the papaya with chopped tomatoes, lime juice, garlic, chillies and fish sauce.
 Jeow Mak Kewa  - when I pound it, it stays pounded
We also made Laap Gai, one of Laos’ ubiquitous meat salads. Nook provided pre-cooked minced chicken which we mixed with banana flowers, onion, galangal, mint, lime leaves and fish sauce finally sprinkling it with rice flour and moistened it with stock.

We negotiated over some ingredients. Lynne dislikes coriander so we left it out, though it should have been in almost every dish. Nook knew that westerners do not like chillies but felt she must include one or two or the meal would not be Lao. We are chilli lovers (surely not as unusual as she seemed to think) and suggested putting in more. We compromised; Nook looked sceptical but we felt we had erred on the side of caution - we could have looked foolish if we had overdone it.

We popped our fish on the steamer to join the sticky rice which had been there some time and chatted with Nook about her cookery school and her aims and ambitions. She had recently returned home after spending six weeks with her fiancĂ© who lives in Malvern, so we also talked about her culinary experiences in the English West Midlands. 

Nook and her steamers, Vientiane
Then we sat down to our lunch, eating the fish with our fingers and making balls of the sticky rice to mop up the dips. It was excellent, though a couple more chillies would not have gone amiss. At the end Nook produced a dessert Khao Niaow Mak Moong, mango with sticky rice, sugar and condensed milk which rounded the meal off nicely.

Eating the luch we cooked, Vientiane 
Lunch over we said goodbye and tuk-tuked back to our hotel.

We went straight out in search of postcards (extraordinarily cheap) and stamps (eye wateringly expensive).  We also bought a bottle of ‘premium Lao whisky’ as our Thai rum was half finished and we were heading into rural parts where luxuries like shops might be hard to come by.

Almost every street in Vientiane has a massage parlour. The city has its seamier side but these establishments are not part of it, their purpose is merely to ease the pain in sore feet, aching backs and stiff necks, the massage often taking place in open shop fronts. As I had a long standing neck and shoulder problem I dropped in to one such place while Lynne walked back to the hotel.

Unlike Ayervedic massages you are not expected to undress so I lay down fully clothed and was subjected to robust, occasionally painful, manipulation of the relevant areas. The strong-handed young lady swapped from one side of me to the other by putting her hands flat on my back and hopping across. Under her weight I felt my lowest ribs grind into the hard surface below. She cured my shoulder and neck [update: no recurrence months later] but the bruised ribs caused problems for the next week.

In the evening Phim was supposed to take us on what our British tour company had dubbed a ‘tuk-tuk safari’, but when he turned up with a driver and a minibus, we realised the evening was not going to be quite as billed. 'Tuk-tuks don't run after dark,' Phim said by way of explanation.

We drove to the night market near Patouxi, Vientiane’s Arc de Triomphe. We expected to dine there, but that again proved wide of the mark. There were plenty of stalls and plenty of food but there was nowhere to sit. Phim explained that locals do not actually eat here, they picked up a take-away on the way home from work.
Patouxi by day
Photographed in 2014
We walked through the market and saw all sorts of meals, many ready packaged to be carried home. Much of it looked appetizing, though some of it came from parts of animals even I, a lover of liver, kidneys, chickens feet and pig’s intestines, would prefer to eschew.  One stall had saucers full of grubs and small fried grasshoppers. We tried both, the grubs had a pleasant texture but little flavour, the grasshoppers provided a nice salty crunch and we bought some as a beer snack

Lynne and a bag of grasshoppers in the night market, Vientiane
'Now we find a restaurant for dinner, ' said Phim. According to the script after eating at the night market we would be taken to ‘the team's favourite beer garden’, but when I mentioned beer gardens to Phim he said ‘they're very noisy and crowded,’ a clear suggestion that they were unsuitable for elderly Europeans. We could have felt offended, but we were happy enough to avoid the loud out-of-tune karaoke that is so unaccountably popular throughout South East Asia.

We drove into a part of town we did not know; it was not an area packed with restaurants and neither Phim nor the driver seemed to have a definite plan.

'There,' said the driver when we happened upon a well-lit open sided building with a bar and plenty of empty tables. We were looking for something typically Lao and this did not seem right; the only other customers were a pair of European girls. The menu was not right either, it was written in English and all the food was Japanese.

We were leaving when the proprietor appeared. 'Not what you were looking for?’ he asked, his look and accent clearly American. 'Sorry,’ we said, a little embarrassed to be walking out of what on another occasion might have been a perfectly good restaurant.

‘The driver said he saw some foreigners there and thought that might be good for you,’ Phim explained as we set off again. Clearly nobody had explained the concept of the evening to the driver. Nearby we found a small local restaurant, the owner’s family still finishing their dinner at one of the outside tables. It seemed quiet until we realised there was a separate air-conditioned room full of teenagers. The karaoke started up as we sat down, but outside it was not overloud – nor over-tuneful.

We ordered some beer and set about eating our grasshoppers. Phim stacked the beer bottles on the tray beside the table and the patron brought a jug of ice. Despite the (not entirely justified) British reputation for drinking warm beer, in a hot climate I like my lager to be cold, indeed very cold, but I would never, ever, put ice in it. I have never even seen Americans who scoop ridiculous quantities of ice into soft drinks, put ice in their beer; Coca-Cola in their Jack Daniels, yes, but not ice in their beer.  The Lao, who are in every other way an admirable and civilized people, put ice in the beer. Oh, the horror.

Eating grasshoppers with chop sticks, Vientiane
Phim ordered barbecued chicken and yet another green papaya salad (not as good as the one we made earlier) and we ate, drank beer and chatted. We soon discovered the down side to snacking on grasshoppers; little legs and wings work their way into places you don't want them, between your teeth, into the crevice between cheek and gum and even under your tongue. They are irritating and surprisingly difficult to remove.

It was not the evening we had expected, but sinking a few beers with the guide who would be with us for the rest of the week was a pleasant experience and allowed us to get to know each other.

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