A Rural Lao Food Diary

Breakfast, Day 5

Last month, we spent nine days in the field with Jim Harris’s team in rural Phongsali province. We camped at the local dispensary and showered with cold river water, which was piped uphill to the village. The team hired two young women to cook, clean and launder. Our meals were served communally, outside, on an old red table. There weren’t enough benches and chairs, so we stood around baskets of sticky rice and the plat du jour. Each person paid 30,000 kip ($3.50) for three daily meals.

In those nine days, I kept a diary of what we ate. With a few small exceptions (late meals, off trekking), I managed to record almost every meal. I present that diary here because I find it a fascinating telltale of village life, its limitations, its repetitions and routines. Villagers bestowed the team with little gifts of homegrown garlic and backyard tamarind. But after the novelty faded (Sophoon is unaccustomed to foreign guests), I don’t think our cooks quite knew what to do with us. I would have loved more of the roots and vegetables that villagers collect in the forest, as well as the greens they grow in their garden. I offered to pay extra for fresh lettuce, spinach, herbs and other greens–but the residents of Sophoon almost never sell their vegetables, so the concept somewhat confused them. When something new appeared on the table, it likely had come strapped to the back of a dusty moto, driven by itinerant peddlers who make the daily trek from Dien Bien Phu, not far across the border. These sorts of travels make me a more appreciative person. The surprise of a fresh mango or mustard leaves tickled my palate with delight.

I’m a lover of simple, spicy farm food; homegrown and homemade. But it didn’t take long for my tongue to tire. By Day 3, I was sick of fish (and egg, which neither Jerry nor I eat). Of course, repetition is a matter of life in Sophoon. Villagers eat what’s in season, what falls off the tree, what pops through the soil in the forest, or what comes through on the occasional truck to Vietnam.

On the other hand, Sophoon is an organic locavore heaven. When a cook walked into the kitchen hut with a chicken, we ate it for dinner that night. And Michael Pollan would approve: nothing on this menu contained more than five ingredients. With a couple of canned exceptions, absolutely everything originated in the hills between Sophoon and Dien Bien Phu.

Dinner ’round the red table

So goes our week of village sustenance (with comments in parentheses):

DAY 1
Dinner
-Sticky rice
-Red jaeow (or jeow—spicy paste made with toasted chiles. More on this to come.)
-Minced fish with chile
-Plain boiled cabbage
-Green & yellow beans with tomato, onion, chile, garlic

DAY 2
Breakfast
-Sticky rice
-Red jaeow
-Fried egg with green onion, garlic, tomato, chile
-Boiled cabbage with garlic and chile

Lunch
-Sticky rice
-Red Jaeow
-Boiled cabbage
-Fried small fish

Dinner
-Sticky rice
-Red jaeow
-Fragrant fish soup with lemongrass (which team leader Vilaisack plucked from a field after a bomb demolition)
-Fish laap

Team leader Vilaisack with lemongrass cut from a field near a bomb demolition

DAY 3
Breakfast
-Sticky rice
-Very garlicky red jaeow
-Boiled cabbage and tomato with garlic
-Small fried fish

Lunch
-Sticky rice
-Red jaeow, super garlicky and juicy
-Omelet with tomato, chile, onion
-Spicy slightly bitter fish (from Dien Bien Phu) stuffed with lemongrass in a soup of tomato, garlic and local sour fruit

Dinner
-Sticky rice
-Red jaeow
-Omelet
-Fish/tomato/lemongrass soup
(This is getting old and the team is griping. Only fish and egg, egg and fish. We lobby for more vegetables.)

DAY 4
Breakfast
-Sticky rice
-Red jaeow
-Omelet
(This is really old. And skimpy. We try to get the cooks to buy vegetables from the locals. It costs 3,000 kip, 35 cents, for a kilogram of any vegetables. We offer to pay extra if necessary.)

Lunch
-Sticky rice
-Red jaeow
-Pork with boiled garlic, tomato, chile
-Mustard greens soup with chile and black pepper
(Variety! A distinct improvement.)

Dinner
-Sticky rice
-Red jaeow
-Steamed cassava leaves (which the team collected after a demolition)
-Dried salty crispy beef
-Pork with tomato, yellow beans, chile, garlic

DAY 5
Breakfast
-Sticky rice
-Red jaeow
-Dried toasted buffalo skin strips (hard as rock)
-Yesterday’s leftover pork cooked with garlic, chile, spinach
-Minced pork fat cooked in tomato garlic broth for a Lao khao soy-style sauce
-Bowl of fresh raw lettuce leaves
(A pig was purchased before yesterday’s lunch, and we’re still eating it).

Lunch
-Sticky rice
-Fresh green roasted chile jaeow, super hot
-Pork fat with shredded tomato and cabbage
-Mustard green soup with hunks of pork fat

Dinner
(Jim succeeds in organizing “Mexico night.”)
-Raw cabbage leaves to use as tortillas
-Canned black refried beans cooked with fresh garlic
-“Salsa” of cooked tomatoes, onions, chile
(Jim uses the cabbage to wrap the ingredients like a taco. It works. The guys each try one and declare it sep, meaning delicious. Then they eat their sticky rice, pork fat with greens and green chile jaeow and deer meat of mysterious origins.)

Jim explains “Mexico Night” tacos to the team…


…which everyone enjoys before reverting to the usual sticky rice.

DAY 6
Breakfast
-Sticky rice
-Green jaeow
-Mild bok choy soup with chile and garlic
-Dark dried beef (we’re told beef, but it looks distinctly like the previous night’s deer) fried with bok choy, garlic, onion, a bit of tomato and pork fat

Lunch
-Sticky rice
-Red jaeow
-Dried beef pieces
-Beef, bok choy and garlic soup
-Fresh sweet mango

Dinner
-Sticky rice
-Red jaeow
-Fish soup (only fish and gingery broth, no vegetables)
-Watermelon (which I bought off a truck that stopped in the village and dumped its stash)

DAY 7
Breakfast
-Sticky rice
-Green jaeow with added tamarind
-Cilantro and green chile soup
-Steamed cassava leaves
-Canned sardines and tomato
-Omelet

Lunch
-Sticky rice
-Green jaeow
-Papaya salad with peanuts
-Mustard greens soup
-Green beans fried with chicken, chile, garlic

Dinner
-Sticky rice
-Red jaeow
-Green beans with chicken

DAY 8
Breakfast
-Sticky rice
-Red jaeow
-Boiled mustard greens soup, just a little chile and salt
-Plain boiled green beans
-Fried meaty bacon with little fat

Dinner
-Sticky rice
-Red jaeow
-Tamarind chicken soup
-Chopped “grenade” chicken with green beans
(In addition, I cook canned tuna, tomato, onion, garlic and chile.)

DAY 9
Breakfast
-Sticky rice
-Red juicy jaeow
-Fresh lettuce leaves
-Canned sardines in tomato sauce
-Sweet potato ginger soup
(This is good. Mild, young, fragrant ginger slightly sweetened from the potatoes. I think of making it at home: start with chicken stock, some small fresh garlic and garlic greens and/or chives, ginger, potato chunks, dried red chile, salt. If not using regular potatoes, add a pinch of palm sugar.)

Lunch
-Sticky rice
-Red jaeow
-Melon soup with green onion and grenade chicken
-Papaya salad
-Fried forest ferns with chile, garlic, fish (Borneo-style but these ferns have a leafier consistency… now why couldn’t we have had these sooner?)

14 thoughts on “A Rural Lao Food Diary

  1. I think about this often. We are so spoiled and fortunate in our options.

    My godparents have a small farm and raise most of their own food. It’s all local and organic, but yes, you do get tired of certain items while they are in season. Seasonal changes are something to look forward to.

    Thanks for the insight into another way of life. Now I’m craving sticky rice (but only for about three days).

  2. You forgot to mention that the fish from Vietnam were referred to as “needle fish” for the mouthfulls (mouths’ full?) of bones they contained.

  3. Tea, thank you. Funny — I’ve been in Vientiane for several days, eating lots of noodle soup and Indian food. And now I’m craving sticky rice again!

    Jerry, you’re right. I also forgot to mention the utter lack of sugar in this diet (which is typical of a traditional Lao diet). Aside from the mango and watermelon, we had essentially no sugar. Normally I don’t have a sweet tooth, but I found myself craving sweets. I’d trek up the road to the little shop, which sold cargo items from those Dien Bien Phu buses and trucks. More than once, I bought bottles of neon orange “25 percent juice” drink.

  4. Karen — gosh, I’m always so impressed with your posts. This is wonderful, enlightening, entertaining and beautiful. Love the photos. Your sweet craving cracked me up. I know exactly what you mean. I was at Kripalu recently and had no sugar (of any kind) for a week, which isn’t usually a big deal. But I was ready to put my mouth directly under the honey spigot by the end of the week. “Neon” orange is a great description. I can see it now. 🙂
    Melissa

  5. I felt your pain reading this post!

    The ginger potato soup does sound good though – how do you prepare the ginger? Minced?

  6. Thank you, Melissa. BTW, I forgot to mention that everything we ate in the village was entirely gluten-free!

    Sasha, the ginger was chopped rather finely (though not minced). I think you could prepare it any way you wish — minced or even strained if you prefer clear broth, chunky if you like chunks. As our good friend Yai would say, “Depend on you!”

  7. Thanks for an amazing read!
    After joining several tours in Vietnam, luxurious these standards, we were served the same dish, fish in tomato sauce, for every meal except breakfast. It seems the locals don’t seem to mind.

    I suspect we complain because we are used to living in multicultural societies. I’ve lived in KL, London, San Diego, Melbourne & Sydney. All very multicultural, and with a rich history. We might have pasta for one meal, a salad for another, Pad Thai, tacos, curry, burger, Chinese stirfry, sandwiches, bacon & eggs, ramen, pancakes, fried noodles, pho… I could go on 🙂

    Travelling in rural China and Vietnam can be a similarly monotonous experience of MSG-laden noodle soups, but where there’s infrastructure, there’s more food variety.

    oh, and thanks for the red jaeow recipe!

  8. Alpha, thanks. Sometimes I think we are spoiled with variety and possibility. I remember my first trip to Vietnam, my parents mailed chocolate bars to me. I savored that chocolate—and I think it tasted better because it was so scarce.

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