Several girls mix individual bowls of noodle soup at the Sam Neua morning market in Laos.
Greetings from the American Southwest. Jerry and I are home to a house that looks much the same. The herb garden grows again, the pomegranates bloom. And we fight the remnants of jet lag while leaping back into stateside life. I’ve had sporadic postings here lately, but that will change next week. Stay tuned for new reports and lots of stories from the weeks and months behind us. Meanwhile, you can also follow the Rambling Spoon Facebook page, where I often write between blog posts with links to food news and interesting tidbits.
Though the body has made it to New Mexico, the brain remains in Laos. Amid five months’ worth of dusting, vacuuming and laundering, I’m spending my hours typing and organizing hordes of notes. I’m remembering a steamy Sunday morning, just a few weeks ago (I cannot believe it was this month… feels like ages ago), when Jerry and I strolled through the Sam Neua morning market, which sprawls along the riverbank. We sat on a long wooden bench at a wide table covered in trays of herbs. A friendly woman stood beside her bubbling pots, ready to dole out servings of buffalo foe (or fer). Hers was one of the best bowls of noodle soup I’d had in weeks—rich meaty broth infused with galangal and thin tender strips of buffalo meat, very lightly cooked over parboiled wild water grasses; topped with a variety of fresh wild mints and additional raw wild water grasses, lime and the usual chile. This is what I love about Lao foe: most every bowl in every little village or town tastes different. It is one cook’s creation and none other.
As we ate, we watched seven little girls marching toward us. They aimed straight for our table, crowding around us, sitting patiently for their own bowls. They were, you might say, granddaughters of the revolution.
When their soups arrived, I watched as each little girl painstakingly constructed what was obviously her personal ideal—just enough chile, herbs, salt, fish sauce, shrimp paste and locally made Lao tomato-chile ketchup to make a uniquely individual breakfast. Each girl also brought a personal baggie of sticky rice to be dipped into the soup.
Slurp, slurp, smack, smack—they ate to contentment. But the girls’ bright red bowls contained so much chile, their little lips burned at the edges. They didn’t seem to mind. The vendor offered each of us a cup of drinking water served in a recycled glass shrimp-paste container, with label still intact. They were, I realized, the exact size and dimension of Vietnamese coffee cups.
Now that I’m back in the States, I’m struck by the freedom those little girls enjoyed. Seven kids, roughly between the ages of 9 and 12, out on their own for a Sunday morning breakfast and shopping spree. All across Sam Neua—all across Laos, really—we encountered little kids, some as young as 4 or 5, wandering and playing away from parental eyes. Kids walk to school alone. Kids hike through the forest alone. I’m not saying this always works. But coming from the perspective of a fear-riddled country in which parents drive their kids to the bus stop two blocks away—this sort of Lao-style freedom is refreshing. There is little cause for worry. Laos is not a place of rampant kidnappings. But it is a country in which parents help parents and neighbors help neighbors. In Laos, the village rears a child. If a mother isn’t watching her kid, chances are every other mother on the block is.
Anyway, it was a great bowl of soup. And even more pleasant to see young girls enjoying the food on their own terms.