It seems like the weird food is everywhere here in Laos, so here are a bunch of weird food related thoughts.
I think the first thing that would qualify as Weird Food (capitalized, therefore referring to Steve’s Weird Food, and not just some random, undocumented weird food) is the dried squid I had with Jim on the banks of the Mekong. These were small whole squids that were flatter than a pancake, hard, and chalky looking. Women were wandering along the riverbank selling them from baskets. They came in several sizes, and when you ordered them the vendor would pop them onto a little brazier she carried on her other shoulder to warm them through. It was a perfectly self-contained operation. Squid in the basket, hot coals in a pan, tongs to handle the product, and baggies to package it up. The smell of warm, dried squid is not one that’s going to take the Paris parfumiers my storm, but the taste was not bad. Well, when I say “not bad” what I really mean is stringy, fishy and chewy, but acceptable with a cold bottle of Beerlao alongside.
I’ve also noticed something in the Weird Beverages department. I’ve seen a lot of vendors selling different drinks that are made up of scoops of… stuff… from different jars. I have no idea what most of the different ingredients are. Some of them look like seaweed, and some like mud, and some like normal stuff – coconut and lime and such. The really weird bit comes when you order one - the guy selling them will pick up a small, heavy plastic bag and pour in ice and seemingly random scoops of this or that noxious-looking liquid. Then that bag goes into another plastic bag, this one with handles, like a mini grocery bag (a.k.a. carrier bag for our two U.K. readers: Anne and PT). Then they pop in a straw and hand it over. Drink-in-a-bag! It’s a bit odd. I tried it myself, though I got a very tame orange drink, and it turns out to be a pretty good system. There usually so much ice that you can actually set the bag down, contrary to what you’d assume, because the ice gives it some structure. And the large amount of ice means your drink stays really cold. And as an added bonus, you can hold the bag up against your forehead like a cold compress, which feels really really good.
Edited to add: The liquid-comestibles-in-a-bag phenomenon is not restricted to drinks. I've had spring rolls from street vendors who package the accompanying fish sauce in a small plastic bag held shut with a rubber band. And I've seen other places with noodles or other soupy stuff for sale that gets ladled into bags. You could have a whole meal in bags - starters, mains, drinks...
More Weird Food you say? Well how about that old favourite – organ meat? After gnawing on
dried squid for a while, I went up to Vientiane’s night market. Night markets are always a good spot for finding weird food, and this one was no exception. There were stalls lining either side of a short stretch of street, and most of them were selling meat on bamboo skewers. There were whole fish, and lots of unidentifiable bits. I spotted a likely candidate and asked the woman selling what it was. “Chicken” she said, though it was clear this was nothing you were going to get at KFC. I had my suspicions, so I put my fist up to my chest and made little pumping actions with it. She nodded. And that’s how I came to order a skewer of chicken hearts.
All of these kinds of things are normally cooked beforehand and then put back on the grill to re-heat through thoroughly once you order them. So I waited around for my skewer and paid the woman the grand sum of 1,000 Kip. That’s about 13 cents, so I think that the chicken heart kebab has the distinction of being the cheapest weird food so far. And it was also one of the tastiest. They were sort of chewy (I suppose any muscle that works as hard as a heart is bound to get a bit tough), but the flavour was great. So great that I almost went back for another one, except that I was still quite full of dried squid and chicken lap and papaya salad and, of course, Beerlao. So I contented myself with the one small skewer and wandered back to the hotel, secure in the knowledge that another weird food was in the books.
In brief bit of non-Weird Food related news, how about a little local Lao sport? During the Vientiane Bush Hash we ended near a small village, and ran right past a group of guys playing… something. I think it would best be described as “hacky sack volley ball”.
There were two teams on either side of a net, and they were kicking a large wicker ball back and forth. I say it was a wicker ball, but I think it was probably woven rattan or bamboo. It looked like the kind of thing that would be purchased for an outrageous sum at Pier One Imports and then artfully arranged in a pyramid formation with many of its fellows on a large square white dish. The dish would then, of course, be displayed in the middle of a glass coffee table by Martha Stewart.
Another odd things about dining in southeast Asia. Remember how there were very few proper paper napkins in the Middle East, where they used boxes of kleenex instead? Well here that practice is taken one step further. Instead of a box of kleenex on restaurant tables, you get a roll of toilet paper in a little dispenser. The more posh the place, the fancier the dispenser.
Finally, it’s time for a Weird Food fruit course. It’s pretty much guaranteed that whenever I wander through a market in Asia there will be at least one fruit or vegetable that’s completely unrecognizable. In Luang Prabang, it was this:
Lately I’ve been getting a bit more adventurous in asking about these things, which is how I ended up with some nice little red plums in Hanoi. In Luang Prabang when I asked about the item in question the woman at the fruit stall just grabbed one, cracked it open with her fingers, and offered me the flesh inside. It was fantastic!
All you hands-up people are probably now saying, “Yeah, it’s a mangosteen you idiot. They’re common as dirt,” which may be true. In fact, when I mentioned my discovery to a Cambodian couple the next day they laughed at me. I suppose this would be like someone walking into the produce department at Safeway and gazing in wonder at the magical and exotic… Mackintosh apples.
Regardless, I’m a total fan of the mangosteen, which actually does taste a bit like mango, and is juicy and refreshing. Tip: they’re easiest to get into if you run a knife around the whole circumference and pop the top right off. And beware that thick purple rind – it stains.
That’s about all there is to say about Weird Food for now, except to tell you about the One That Got Away. On the way to the Kuang Si Waterfall (which you’ll hear about later) I ran into a vendor selling eggs. Not so weird? Well these were eggs on a stick! They were the most unlikely things. The eggs had a hole in the top and bottom of the shell and were threaded onto skewers, three per stick. Honestly, eggs on a stick! It was bizarre. I asked around a bit and it turns out the raw eggs are carefully drained through the holes in the shell and then cooked up with other things, and then the mixture is stuffed back into the shells and they’re put on the skewers. I really wish I’d at least taken a photo because, well, EGGS ON A STICK! Need I say more? I’m on the lookout for them in Luang Prabang, but no luck so far.
Dried squid, organ meat, drinks in a bag, eggs on a stick… Laos is Weird Food paradise.