Laos can trace its name back to the Kingdom of Lan Xang, which means, “Kingdom of a Million Elephants.” This successful kingdom was one of the largest in Southeast Asia from the 14th century until 1893, when it became a French Protectorate. The official name of the country is Lao People’s Democratic Republic or commonly referred to by its people as, Muang Lao. The rest of the world continues to call the country Laos, which is technically not correct, yet remains to be the norm. Laos’ enchanted history can be traced much farther back than the 14th century. An ancient human skull was recovered in northern Laos, dating back 46,000 years.
Laos is a landlocked country, located in the center of the Indochinese peninsula of mainland Southeast Asia. Her neighbors are: Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) and China to the northwest, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south and Thailand to the west. The country is covered by dense forests and rugged mountains, with some plains and plateaus as well. The climate is tropical and influenced by the monsoon pattern. The rainy season is May to November, followed by a dry season, December to April. Its rivers, most notably the Mekong River, which means “Mother of Water”, is the lifeblood of the country. Most of the villages in Laos are scattered along its banks or tributaries. The river marks the border with Thailand, where recent bridges have been built to allow access to each other’s border crossing. They are called the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridges.
Laos gained independence from France on July 19, 1949, after a brief occupation by Japan during World War II. It is one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia and is one of the few remaining communist run regimes. Nearly 85 percent of the population works in agriculture, mostly subsistence rice farming that produces 51 percent of the country’s GDP. New private enterprises are enjoying some success as the country tries to establish a more market based economy. These enterprises include handicrafts, beer, coffee and especially tourism. Tourism is the fastest growing sector of the economy. However, new dam proposals along the Mekong River, which are quite controversial, are expected to make hydro-electric power its number one export.
Laos’ biggest challenge is a terrible crisis the country has faced since the Vietnam War. There were more than 580,000 bombing missions in Laos, (mostly by the United States of America) from 1964-1973. This is sometimes referred to as the “Secret War”, as many Americans were unaware of what was happening during that time in Laos. The aerial bombardment in Laos was an attempt to destroy North Vietnamese sanctuaries and stop the supply line, known as the Ho Chi Minh trail. CIA agents were placed in Laos to call in coordinates where they saw activity, during the war. This resulted in a bomb drop every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years.
Aside from the devastation of war, the additional problem stemmed from the 270 million cluster munitions dropped, where up to 80 million failed to detonate. They remain live, in the ground, since the war. More than one-third of Laos’ territory suffers from UXO (unexploded ordinance) contamination. More than 20,000 people have been killed or maimed as a result of UXO accidents since the war ended. Forty percent of those casualties have been children. It is estimated that it will take two millennia to clear Laos of UXOs at its current pace. Although the United States has recently increased its funding for this effort, it is simply a drop in the bucket for what is needed to see progress. The removal of UXOs is a painstakingly slow and a very dangerous task. They literally search a patch of dirt with a detector, finding them one at a time, then carefully digging them up and exploding them. There are more than 87,000 square kilometers to cover.
The Laotians are known to be simple people. Most are Buddhist with a minimalist belief and lifestyle. They are master craftsmen, from wood carvers to weavers. They can carve the most amazing structures and weave just about anything from bamboo. They are also known for their highly sought after, Laotian silk, weaving it into the finest cloth. Another handicraft is turning all that shrapnel and metal from bombs into art and even into dinner utensils. These artifacts and crafts are found all over the country.
Music plays an important role in Laotian life. The khene is the instrument most associated with Laotian music. It is made from a special kind of bamboo. Sets of bamboo and reed pipes of various lengths are strapped together and then blown into by the player. Singing accompanies the khene, when used to play the traditional folk music, known as Lam. It is popular in both Laos and Thailand. Dance is also prevalent, known especially for the beauty and meaning of the graceful hand gestures, choreographed throughout their traditional dance.
As we look into the cuisine of Laos there are three things that define it. The first is sticky rice. Sticky rice is believed to have originated in Laos. It is glutinous rice that, despite its name, actually contains no gluten. It is the starch content in sticky rice that makes it sticky. It is traditionally steamed, not boiled, to give it a light, sticky texture. Sticky rice requires less water to grow than regular white rice and it can be grown on hillsides and uplands as well as in lowland paddies. Sticky rice takes longer to digest than regular rice. It is believed to give you more energy for a longer period of time. Buddhist monks in Laos typically eat just one meal a day and the people give sticky rice to the monks as donations, to keep them fuller longer. You can watch this tradition of the sticky rice being given to the monks in the town of Luang Prabang, where they reside in Buddhist temples. Each morning the orange robed monks walk barefoot down the main street. This is where they encounter the generosity of the people as they kneel on the ground, in front of the temples. Donors quietly rise and place a ball of sticky rice in the monks’ pouches as they pass by. What the monks receive as donations will be their only meal of the day. Sticky rice is the center of every Laotian meal and served in a cute little bamboo basket with a lid called, “Lao Aep Khao.” A piece of rice is always first taken, then rolled into a small ball and dipped into a tomato chili sauce or eggplant chili sauce, to begin the meal. The sticky rice is also used as a scoop, to enjoy with any of the number of Laotian dishes served alongside the rice. Usually the first bite is reserved for honored guests or the elders.
The second staple ingredient in Laotian cuisine is padaek; a strong, fermented fish sauce, unique to Laos and northern Thailand. It is simply what makes a Laotian dish, Laotian. It often has little chunks of the fermented fish in the sauce, which has been fermenting anywhere from one to five years. It is a strong and pungent sauce, yet strangely, not at all fishy. Something miraculous happens in the fermentation process when it is made properly. The use of padaek in the cuisine is what is known as the fifth taste, or umami. It is common to see jars of padaek fermenting away in villages across the country.
The third component of Laotian cuisine is known as the balance of flavors. Usually the ingredients are ground together using a heavy mortar and pestle. The flavors are: spicy, salty, sweet, sour and umami. A delight for the palate!
Of course there are other influences on the cuisine as well. The Chinese brought numerous dishes, but most notably, noodles and soy sauce, both of which are widely used in the cuisine. Noodles are the only food in Laos eaten with chop sticks. Otherwise, you would use a spoon as the main utensil in your right hand, and a fork to push the food onto the spoon, in your left. (That is if you are not simply eating with your right hand, which is probably the most common way to enjoy your Laotian meal.) Vietnam introduced foe, a noodle soup, to Laos. Thailand contributed a variety new spices and ingredients to blend. Many people around the world love Thai food, which very well, may actually be Laotian food. Some of the dishes, especially in northern Thailand, are indistinguishable from its Laotian neighbor. The French also brought many new food staples to Laos such as: potatoes, corn and sweet peppers and it is the French baguettes and pastries that are most loved.
This week I was thrilled to have a couple of new friends over for this Laotian International Cuisine meal. A couple months ago, I attended a weekend seminar for travel bloggers called, “The Women in Travel” summit. The seminar was fantastic and I met several exceptional women. I was thrilled when Megan, from HelloMeganO.com and Jennifer, from Worldonawhim.com, suggested that it would be fun to get together for a meal. They would get a chance to understand more about what I do with International Cuisine, as they are always looking for new blog material. I was honored to have them over, I hope you will check out their websites as well. Megan writes about fun and unique things to do in and around Los Angeles and also has a unique sort of bucket list with a time frame that gives 101 things to do in 1001 days. One of Megan’s 101 things to do is to learn about a new cuisine. I hope I helped her mark that off her list with Laos. Jennifer gives all kinds of tips and tricks for spontaneous travel. Her specialty is cultural festivals, mainly in Europe. She may have just convinced my husband and me to go do just that, and get traveling. We are thinking maybe Spain and a few other countries in the area, perhaps in September and October, Thanks Jen!
So let’s eat a Laotian meal
We set the scene with a terracotta jar, serving double duty. It was placed to represent the Plain of Jars in Laos and also the famous jars they make their beloved rice whisky in, called Laolao. The Plain of Jars will be an UNESCO world heritage site once the area is cleared of UXOs. The area consists of thousands of giant, stone jars scattered around the plain of the Xiangkhoang Plateau. The majority of the jars are made of sandstone. Why the jars are there is shrouded in mystery and there are many different theories. The most believed theory is that they were used for burial purposes, where the jars may have been used to distil the bodies before cremation. However, Lao legends tell a story of giants who were ruled by a king, that created the jars to brew and store huge amount of lau hai. (Lau means alcohol and hai means jar.) Another theory is that they were used to collect monsoon, rainwater water for caravan travelers. Once the area is safe from UXOs, archeologists will have a chance to examine the giant jars much closer and perhaps solve the mystery.
The table was also set with elephant shaped oil burners, as elephants are the national animal and the scent from the burning oil was plumeria, representing the national flower. We placed a few little boats to signify the main mode of transportation along the Mekong River and its tributaries. The table was square and low and we sat on the floor, as would be customary there. Typically in Laos the tables would be round, small tables are added and placed next to each other, depending on the number of people. Sticky rice is available on each one. They serve the meal all at once, family style, as opposed to in courses.
We began with a ball of sticky rice and a dip into the spicy eggplant dip called, jeow mak keua. The dip had a lovely smokiness to it and was a little spicy having been made with a Thai chili. In general Laotians like their food spicy, yet balanced.
Another dish served was beef jerky. Drying fish and meats is common place in Laos, especially in areas where they lack refrigeration. The marinade used for the jerky comprises all the flavors of Laos: hot chili, garlic, lemongrass, ginger, a little sugar and fish sauce.
Laab was another dish on our table and it may have been my favorite. It is a minced beef and herb salad. They eat laab, often times raw, made with different meats and fish. This was a grilled version and it was awesome; bursting with flavors from the various herbs and spices. Laab, aside from sticky rice, is considered to be the national dish of Laos.
Another salad on the menu was a refreshing and addicting, spicy, green papaya salad. It also contained the flavors of Laos and provided a tantalizing burst of flavors. I learned that green papaya is not an unripe papaya, it is in fact its own species, called green papaya.
Grilled chicken, called Ping Gai, was another dish we had. It was just little chicken legs that had been marinated in the balanced flavors of Laos. They were cooked on the grill until tender and were so delicious.
Of course a soup was also served, as would be customary, with nearly every meal in Laos. This was called Khao Poon. The broth was made from chicken, lemongrass, coconut milk, tomatoes, and other spices. The noodles were vermicelli. The noodles were served in a bowl with the broth and the fresh greens and meats were served in a large basket, allowing you to choose what you wanted to include in your soup.
Another one of my favorite Laos dishes is the lemongrass chicken. I actually forgot to cook this dish for the main meal. We decided to enjoy it as dessert (since my original attempt at the coconut cakes was not successful.) Lemongrass stalks were made into little baskets to hold the ground chicken mixture. Once deep fried, it was served with a peanut sauce and worked out to be a lovely dessert.
As I mentioned, my original attempt at the coconut cakes for dessert was not successful, but my second attempt, after the fact was, (Sorry girls!) They were crunchy on the outside, creamy on the inside and delicious. It turns out, I just did not have enough flour in my first mixture so they never cooked properly in the middle. I added a bit more flour and the problem was solved.
It was so much fun having Megan and Jen over for our Laos meal. I hope to do it again on another journey. We sent them on their way with a bamboo plant for good luck and of course, leftovers. As we say goodbye to Laos, we do so with the hope that they get more support to safely remove the UXOs. It remains one of the few places in the world to visit that has had little influence from the west. It is said to be enchanting and beautiful with a special mist that only lies at the base of the mountains, along the Mekong River. I would love to experience a mystical float down the Mekong one day.
Had you ever heard about the “Secret War” in Laos?
Until next time,