The food of Vientiane

November 14, 2010 § Leave a comment

It’s no secret that I love street food vendors. As someone who subscribed to the San Francisco Crème Brulée Cart’s Twitter feed just to know where the man was on the hour, it is almost impossible to get me to walk past a food vendor on the street without stopping to sample or purchase, just one bite of some strange new food I had never seen before. It is also equally unlikely for me to be seen walking past a bakery window without stopping to peer inside. Vientiane is the perfect spot for this type of exploring. Food vendor carts line many of the streets of this small city, women selling roasted meats, sweet snacks and Lao iced coffees, which is sweetened condensed milk poured over a very strong brew — very close to an espresso packed with sugar. Done right, it’s delicious; done wrong, it’s one cringe-worthy sip after another of liquid sugar, making you wonder whether your teeth might be rotting at that very moment.

Throughout the trip, I basically threw myself into the hands of people who knew better and let them do the majority of the ordering. This makes writing about specific food I ate rather hard because I would often ask what I was eating, to be met with some complicated word in Lao, which I would then have to have repeated about ten times as I scrambled for a notebook. Even for those who did speak Lao, ordering food often consisted of pointing, shaking your head and then pointing again. This process could go on for a variant amount of time before you received something that corresponded — sometimes only approximately — to what you had originally desired.

Some of you may remember my post on a Lao cooking class, which I hosted this summer. I spent the week tracking down my favorites from that as well as trying anything that looked exciting. The convention’s buffet food served as my introduction to food in Laos, which was unfortunate because I soon took to the streets looking for something more authentic. There, we found…

Roasted meat and crackly pork rolls all wrapped in leaves of lettuce with peanut and black bean sauces, ginger and other fresh herbs at an open=front restaurant with a laminated menu and few choices. Fresh spring rolls too!

Sesame balls at the talat sâo or morning market.

Fried gluttonous coconut cakes filled with corn kernals.

Buttery, melt-in-your mouth cookies at the Scandinavian Bakery.

Moelleux au chocolat with a molten chocolate cake, chocolate pot de crème with a crackly top and small chocolate truffle served with citrus sauce and vanilla ice cream at the restaurant at the Ansara Hotel, which is a small hotel on a quiet alleyway frequented by French visitors. Fittingly, I just had a moment looking at the words “ice cream” spelled “ice crème” trying to put my finger on what was wrong.

I included this picture not because this was particularly good but because it was one of the most interesting things I was served in Vientiane: a lemon tart, which looked quite good from the exterior, revealed a layer of chocolate cake when I took the first bite.

Laab minced chicken with onion, mint and chili and fish sauce at the house of a woman’s friend — dinner guests included the Lao ambassador to the UN. Followed by one of the best desserts I have had in a long time: sweet coconut sticky rice topped with custard, steamed in banana leaf. I should also mention that we had dinner at the Prime Minister’s office, complete with red carpet, white tablecloths, over 1,000 guests and entertainment all night long.

Finally, on my last night here, we found mok pa, white fish steamed in banana leaf (are you sensing a trend here with my favorites?) with lemongrass at Amphone. On the table were also Lao sausage, which unlike most sausages which I find disgusting, consisted of packed ground meat enclosed in a crispy, oily wrapper, which crackled when touched, pîng pa whole fish packed with fresh herbs and grilled, like they do at stands by the riverside, and endless típ khào full of sticky rice.

There were also plenty of pineapple and papaya shakes, rice noodle soup (fõe) served with a strong kick — though I was only ever givens felong spicy (or white person spicy), Vietnamese sandwiches which I have been craving since I was younger and vegetarian and could not eat them, and croissants for breakfast, a staple left over from French colonial rule. On the last morning, I sought out some French comfort at Le Banneton where I had a pain choco-amande and Lao iced coffee. The French ex-pats can be found sitting at the outdoor tables eating their morning tartines and croissants alongside strong cafes.

And all of this washed down with BeerLao, which I believe is actually cheaper than water, which even the locals drink bottled.

*Also, more of my writing about Vientiane, Lao P.D.R. can be found on Legacies of War site here or here.

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