Farming in Laos
Khao niaw, sticky rice. It’s the lifeblood of lowland Laos. The Lao phrase “to eat” specifically implies eating glutinous rice. To some, sticky rice is an integral part of national and ethnic identity.
Many Laotian meals are designed around glutinous rice, which is taken with the right hand and formed into little balls for dipping into sauces, salads, soups and stews. Most basic, most pertinent to the Lao table are jaeow—a pounded chile paste with endless varieties of herb and spice combinations—and padaek, fermented fish paste, a staple ingredient of many dishes.
In the highlands, it is mountain rice that sustains the farmers who plant steep slopes in an array of grains, ranging in color from red to brown to purple. Laos maintains one of the world’s highest per capita consumption rates of rice: somewhere between 247 pounds and 395 pounds a year, depending on the study and its methodology. More than 70 percent of Laotian families grow their own rice. In Laos, dinner depends on the land close to home.
A market vendor sells fritters in Phonsavanh, Laos.
If you are in New Mexico, please join us Friday for a special celebration of Lao food and farming, hosted by Slow Food Albuquerque. (Click on the link to RSVP.) Festivities begin at 6:30 pm at the Center for Peace and Justice. We’ll have sticky rice, jaeow and a spread of Laotian foods for you to try (as well as a very special variety of tea).
Many people ask me how Lao food compares to Thai food, which is better known in this country. It’s similar… but not.
Most every Lao meal includes chiles—fresh or pounded, in sauces and pastes.
Lao food is typically less sweet, often spicier, sometimes bitter (bitterness can connote nutritional and health benefits), typically herbal and earthy. Traditional country food is home-grown (or hunted or foraged), hand-picked and freshly prepared. In Laos, a soup or stew will often come with a mound of fresh herbs, as we might see spinach or lettuce piled high in our own kitchens.
Fresh herbs and lime accompany many Lao dishes.
Please come—we’d love to share this food with you. Take a plate, then watch and listen for a while as we give a multimedia presentation on Lao farming and the long-term effects of war on the land. If you’ve been reading this blog or my other writings for a while, you probably already know the numbers: between 1964 and 1973, in an offshoot of the Vietnam War, US forces flew more than 580,000 bombing missions over Laos. Millions of pounds of bombs were dumped across the country in the equivalent of one bombing raid every eight minutes for nine years. Today, millions of unexploded bombs remain, making farming a risky endeavor.
Perhaps you have already seen one of our slideshow presentations on unexploded bombs in Laos. This will be different—more food photos, more color, more flavor.
We would love to see you on October 17.
A typical Lao assortment: pounded fragrant mushrooms with herbs and chiles, served with cabbage and boiled greens, to be eaten with sticky rice.