Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Lunching Lao-style

Now we really weren't sure what to expect when it came to the food on this trek. Others we had talked to who had done treks before hadn't always had nice things to say. Mostly I was just hoping that it would be safe and not incur the wrath of my stomach gods...I didn't bother worrying about things like tasting good.

When we took off the first day they handed us each 3 bottles of drinking water to carry. This seemed like a good start. At least they were going to keep us hydrated. Wait, unless that was supposed to last for all three days and be just a bottle a day. Yikes! Properly paranoid we started off...

After a couple of hours of climbing and sweating we stopped at a little rest area with a thatched roof over a raised bamboo platform. One of our guides disappeared and then reappeared a couple of minutes later with an armful of large banana leaves. These were layed down upside down and overlapping across the platform, effectively creating our table and plates in one fell swoop. As we watched, they then took little plastic bags full of yet-to-be-identified, goopy food, and poured them out directly onto the banana leaves in little piles along the middle. Then we were each handed a smaller, dense, banana leaf-wrapped package of sticky rice and voila: a Lao picnic smorgasborg. Day one featured a pork and cabbage, a mixed vegetable dish, and a bamboo shoot-based dish, and of course some homemade chilli sauce (and a banana for dessert) and it was all delicious! The technique was simple, you just took a small chunk of sticky rice in your hand, squished it together to make a Lao version of a scoopable nacho chip and reached in and used your fingers to push some food up against the rice. Presto, eat. Day's two and three lunches featured similar meals, with only the content of the dishes (they added my favorite: a spicy green bean dish) and the village who prepared it changing. We really grew to like eating this way, though by the end we couldn't eat another grain of sticky rice if our life depended on it.

Dinner and breakfasts were eaten at the Hmong and Khmu villages and prepared by the villagers and our guides from village produce and meat. We had some fanstastic squash soup, some chicken soup, and really good eggs in the morning. So we quickly learned that our fears had been completely misfounded.

However on Day Two, we had the kind of cultural and culinary experience we had been simultaneously looking for and dreading. We were almost all the way to the Khmu village after a long up and down hike from the Hmong village on Day 1, when we passed a Lantaen village. One of our guides had a friend there and arranged for us to be able to stop by. Like the Hmong, the Lantaen were celebrating their New Year, but unlike the more decorous attitude up in the mountains, the party had clearly been going full swing here since morning. (more on that in the village section).

We were led up through the village and into a large house at the end of the path. Ducking in through the door and squinting in the dusky light inside, we saw an energetic, attractive Lantaen woman telling the lump on the bed platform that appeared to be her passed-out husband what we could best translate as: get up, get up, the falang (foreigners) are here!

We all sat down in a semi-circle on the dirt floor perched on little wooden benches and waited to see what would happen next. After some discussion with our guides (in Lao) the woman grabbed a banana leaf to use as a counter, a cutting block, a knife, and something round and brown hanging from a string. I was closest and my first (wishful) thought was some sort of fruit or something but as she sliced it it became quite clear to me that it was actually liver, a large one of unidentified species, and she was slicing ALL of it. Besides for the fact that random organ meat is something I'm a little wary about, liver happens to be one of the few foods that I absolutely can't makes me retch. So this was not looking good for the home team and a couple of us were shooting worried looks at each other.

After she finished slicing the liver, she walked to the back of the room and came back with what looked like a raggedly, chopped up piece of pork with bits stuck on. A second look and the scent while she sliced it made us realize that actually it was meat that apparently had been tenderized someway and marinated in something tasty smelling. So that was at least more promising, but we were starting to feel daunted by the size of the pile of meat in front of her. The worried looks continued. She was obviously using quite a lot of meat to make us a meal to honor our visit and the last thing we wanted to do was insult her by not eating it but 1) we were afraid it was too much and 2) we were just plain afraid of it and what it might do to our stomachs.

THEN she got up and walked over to a large, tall wooven basket (think large laundry hamper). When she took off the large banana leaf that served as a lid we realize that the ENTIRE thing was full of cuts of meat. She picked up several pieces (including hooves and a tail) but put them back down as they were clearly not what she was looking for. Finally she stuck her arm up to her elbow down into the pieces of pork and came out triumphantly with another large cut which she brought back to the cutting board.

At this point i think the semi-hysterical, semi-panicked giggles were about to come bursting out of the group. This felt like hot summer to us (even though it is the Laos winter) and that was a giant laundry hamper of meat just sitting there. Oh. my. god.

Of course, as such stories usually do, this one ends with the city folks getting an education from the country folks. The meat came from the three pigs which had been butchered that morning for the New Years festivities and so was fresh. The three dishes, which our guide had helped our hostess prepare, were tasty and full of flavor. (Well, except for the liver...that is pretty much gross no matter how you package it). They had even made eggs for Sophie, who couldn't eat pork. All of us, who had planned on making a few token tastes, ended up piling more and more of the meat onto our bowls of rice and there were a lot of smiles and "mmmms" to be heard.

(Of course, like any good thriller just when you think it's safe something happens to make you jump out of your seat. In this case it was the hostess walking around the group of us with a chipped tea cup and a bottle of Lao Lao (Lao whiskey). I think she made the circuit 7 times with shots before our guide was able to extract us so that we could stumble the kilometer or so in the dusk to the Khmu village where we were spending the night (and supposedly eating dinner).

The adventure continues...


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