Kees and I arrived at the Boat Landing Guest House and Restaurant in Luang Namtha after a long bumpy drive in our fire-engine red Honda Jazz from Luang Prabang. This car in SE Asia is considered a teenager’s car but in New Zealand, its a Nana-mobile. OK, I’m a Nana and Kees has teenage tendencies – so its a good fit for us, even if it is not really suitable for travelling in Laos. We thought we might have to lift it onto a barge at one stage! Still, it, like us, coped with anything, even though the trip cost us two shot tyres!
No sooner had we checked into our bamboo “chalet” by the river, and showered off the dust than we were summoned to Nang Noi’s 20th birthday celebration.
Nang Noi (Little woman) had been looking after Namthip as an after school activity since she was about 12 years old. Now Namthip is 9. As you can see it was cold in Luang Namtha!
Everyone gathered outside the Boat Landing kitchen around three low bamboo tables, which had the makings for a version of Lao hotpot sin dat (without the meat as fish was used instead). A huge aluminium bowl of green vegetables, herbs and bean sprouts had been washed and torn into manageable pieces and fine dried rice noodles had been soaked and drained. A rice serving bowl holding delicious spicy home-made chilli sauce was at hand and two electric hot pots filled with stock bubbled away.
The vegetables were piled into one pot of stock – loads of them and simmered. Meanwhile, the fish pieces poached in the other pot. To serve, vegetables were removed with chopstick to a soup bowl, rice noodles and a bit of broth added, topped with fish. The diners added sauce to their liking and mixed up everything together. Accompanied with Beer Lao, this is a great way to celebrate a birthday with minimal work and maximum fun and informality.
The leisurely meal and socialising took several hours, but we toddled off to bed early after catching up with everybody. 7 hours on the road takes its toll! However, the road is much improved from November last year, when it took us 11 hours in a van.
“What are you eating, Khamsouk?” “Animal from the forest!” I peer at her plate of brownish stew with sticky rice accompaniment. Unidentifiable, I muse, but maybe barking deer. Best not to enquire further. Khamsouk, Kees and I were in a roadside restaurant in Pak Mong at 11 in the morning having lunch on our way from Luang Prabang to Luang Namtha. We were eating early because the road between here and Oudomxai (60 km) was so bad we would not arrive at Oudomxai for lunch before 2 pm, a potential disaster for all those Lao with clock-work tummies set at mid-day for aharn tian (lunch). Kees and I had ordered fer, a Vietnamese-inspired noodle soup ubiquitous throughout Laos. We hadn’t had a chance to eat fer on this trip so we were hanging out out for it. In the rush to get our “fix” we had missed the trays of pre-prepared dishes lurking in the shopfront glass cabinet. But Khamsouk hadn’t! Oh well, I thought, peeved at missing the opportunity to sample bush tucker, at least fer is the best dish for not getting the trots while travelling! (Such considerations are necessary on a long, steep and winding road with no loos and lots of exposed cliff faces). In Khamsouk’s opinion, the unidentified meat was too spicy so she didn’t finish it, but she was delighted to identify the other dishes in the display cabinet for us. Here they are:
The shop also served vegetable soop, an aw lahm (spicy stew), steamed local vegetables pak neung, two different kinds of insects, smoke dried meat siin yang (source unknown) and grilled baby fish. After finishing the photographs and buying snacks for the journey we got back on our way, with one stop to pour water on the brake linings at a local village, where Khamsouk showed us the local guava mak sida – very delicious. New leaves from the guava tree behind her are finely chopped and put in Akha pork balls.
She also showed us a wild vegetable growing close to the local water source – pak hart. It is steamed to be eaten with a jeow, and added to stews (both aw and gaeng). It has a numbing effect on the tongue.
We arrived in Oudomxai at 3 pm and finally in Luang Namtha at 8 pm – 11 hours and 308 km from setting out from Luang Prabang. Goodness, we needed that Beer Lao when we arrived at The Boat Landing!
Kees and I are just back from Lao PDR and 2 weeks of fabulous fêting and feasting! I’ve got lots that I want to write about and will do so over the next couple of weeks. Kees is now sorting his way through hundreds of photos so we can put some in this blog and on his zenfolio site.
Highlights were the baci and party held in the Khmu (Khamu) village of Ban Chalensouk in Luang Namtha province, organised by the unstoppable Khamsouk.
We have heaps of photos to share of the two day celebration, including food preparation for the meal after the baci (all the ingredients were local products grown or gathered: sticky rice; vegetable soop (mixed cooked vegetables with galangal, chillies and pounded roasted sesame seed – yum!; sa siin moo – a lahp-style dish with heaps of finely shaved banana flower, and an excellent forest bamboo shoot soup with pork).
Other photos are of the baci and party (7 hours of non-stop dancing!) and other meals there – three before lunch the next day – plus photos and ‘how to’ for Northern-style khao poon, the Lao national dish of noodles and accompaniments all mixed together with a flavoursome soup. I hadn’t had time to record this before publishing the book so it was a top priority for this trip.
Northern khao poon is very different from the Vientiane version – the Northern version has lots of blood and blood products whereas the Central and Southern versions have pig’s head, liver, lungs and fish, plus blood products. I hope that does not put you off – each version tastes delicious, and the blood was very, very fresh. You can also make a very delicious khao poon leaving out all the inside bits, so not to worry!
I also want to tell you about WIG (Women’s International Group) and the presentation we did in Vientiane about northern Lao food. This will include what we did to serve Lao food as canapés at the gathering of 70 plus people.