Lan Phetrasy spoons up a mouthful of steaming noodle soup and draws our attention to the restaurant’s décor – scorpions preserved in rice-wine, a pickled pangolin in a large jar, the skulls of deer and badgers nailed to the wooden walls.
“The proprietor believes that you can eat anything that walks,” says my young Lao tour-guide.
“Even that – during the war he says they ate one of their comrades when they were starving … of course, I don’t know if it’s true.”
Even thirty years after it ended it’s impossible to avoid the ugly legacy of America’s secret war here in the wilds of Xieng Khouang province in northern Laos – a little, land-locked country in the heart of south-east Asia, one of the last places in the world where the hammer and sickle still flaps proudly from the flagpoles.
The hills are scarred with the craters left by 2 million tonnes of high explosives rained down by the B52s. A blackened Buddha presides over the ruins of his temple, and villagers have fashioned fences, rice granaries and feeding troughs for their buffalos out of bomb casings.
But we are not here to commemorate the dead, but to explore the culinary curiosities of one of the world’s most exotic cuisines, and the Nan Noy restaurant in the old provincial capital of Muang Khun is as good a place as any to start.
We have been in Laos for a week, and have eaten well – and astonishingly cheaply. A typical dish like laap (a yummy Thai-style salad of minced duck, tossed with lime-juice, spring onions, mint and chili) at an upmarket restaurant costs less than $A2, though at 10,000 Lao kip to the $ that can be a wad of bank-notes that would choke a cow.
We have nibbled on khai, Lao nori (dried seaweed) made from river-weed with slivers of garlic and chili pressed into it, and chewed fresh-roasted cashews whilst quaffing icy BeerLao in open-air cafes overlooking the mighty Mekong River.
We have enjoyed fricassee of catfish – a succulent white meat like a cross between fish and chicken — and the stir-fried tendrils of morning glory vines at a restaurant in the old royal capital of Luang Prabang, watching the moonlight glint off the gilt of ancient Buddhist temples.
We have sipped tea made from mulberry leaves, eaten half a dozen different varieties of bananas, and enjoyed rich, creamy fresh-roasted Arabica coffee from the Bolaven plateau in southern Laos which is gaining a gourmet reputation even in Australia.
We have crunched on giant sweet freshwater prawns barbecued on the riverbank as the big red sun went down in Vientiane. But we haven’t had that culinary “wow” experience yet.
Everyone keeps telling us to travel north, away from the cities, where the forest is the supermarket, strange fruits, moss and fungi are gathered, and hunters shoot and trap wild boar, squirrels, civet cats, monitor lizards, jungle fowl, rats and snakes.
Which is one reason why we (photographer Mayu Kanamori and I) have flown north to the honky-tonk frontier town of Phonsavan. The other is that it is the jumping-off point for the Plain of Jars, the hills where hundreds of mysterious stone urns, megaliths known as the Stonehenge or pyramids of south-east Asia, are found.
Northern Lao food, we discovered, is a little like Thai food on steroids – on our plastic-covered table at the Nan Noy, next to the vivid pink roll of toilet paper, are the condiments : bottles of chili and pongy nam paa (fermented anchovy sauce), dishes of fiery pickled chilis and whole heads of garlic, and the speciality of this region, jaew bawng, a paste of pounded (you guessed it) chili and salted buffalo skin. Eating a Lao meal can be a bit like swallowing a torch-light procession.
Unfortunately, all that’s on the menu when we unexpectedly drop in on a scorching summer’s afternoon is the ubiquitous pho (noodle soup) containing pork and chicken, and served with a piled platter of local salad greens, including watercress. It’s scrummy, but nothing you can’t find in a hawker’s market in Bangkok or Saigon – or, for that matter, Sydney’s Cabramatta.
I ask Lan about the “wild food” for which the region is famous, and his eyes light up as he tells us about strangling and eating a cobra, and attending a barbecue rather like a Maori hangi at which a badger was wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in a fire-pit. Lan fancies himself as a gourmet.
The following morning he shows us around the so-called “wet market” in Phonsavan where – amid a profusion of salad greens and tropical fruit – vendors have some of the local wild delicacies on sale. There is a flying-fox and a badger which a hawker tries to conceal under a banana leaf (apparently it is illegal to kill them, but, in a place where the police earn 20 cents a day, not hard to get away with it.)
There are catfish, though unfortunately not the fabled giant variety from the Mekong which grows to 300 kilos and is said to be the largest freshwater fish in the world. Buckets of frogs sit side-by-side with scuttling freshwater crabs and water-beetles, pale piles of ants’ eggs, and slabs of pickled buffalo-skin. Smoke rises from small charcoal braziers where hawkers barbecue the ribs of sweet-smelling dhole, Lao wild dogs.
We have already had our first meal in Phonsavan – by coincidence at the Maly Hotel/Restaurant which is owned by Lan’s colourful father Sousath, an old soldier who learned his English from a downed American airman and helped put the Plain of Jars back on the map by defusing some of the mines that still kill and maim those who wander off the beaten track.
It’s hard to miss the restaurant – the casings of cluster bombs mark it off from the road, and an enormous collection of US and Russian military hardware – guns, grenades, shell-casings with “This End Towards Enemy” stenciled on them – decorate the walls.
We have eaten well – the stand-out dish is a fragrant duck curry, washed down with a complimentary tot of lao lao, the local rice wine, in which matsutake mushrooms have been marinading. But where are the local specialities?
“Go to Sang Tavanh,” says Lan,”They always have unusual things, though you have to order a week in advance if you want the monkey brains.”
I hurriedly assure him I have no intention of eating anything even vaguely humanoid or endangered and especially nothing that’s both. Lan gives us directions to the restaurant, which is not far from a Buddhist temple on the outskirts of town, and at 7 that night we arrive full of anticipation.
Sang Tavanh translates as Light of the Sunrise and it’s a down-home kind of place with trestle tables covered with plastic sheets, a TV blaring lurid Thai pop idols on the wall, and the proprietor/chef, Mrs Wan Seng, firing up the gas-rings in an open-plan kitchen.
We are the only customers, and a smiling Mrs Wan bustles up as we puzzle over the menu, to show us a plastic bag containing damp sawdust and a handful of little white things the size of match-heads. Termite eggs.
We’ve come to the right place. We nod and point to some of the other novelties on the eccentrically-translated menu.
“Beef with pickled cow-dung?” She shakes her head.
“Mole-blood pudding ?” Another ‘no.’
“Gliricidia tree flowers stuffed with pork glass noodles and egg ?” No.
“Tiger-bone soup ? No, hang on, we don’t want that.”
Eventually we settle on three dishes we have never tried before : termite-egg omelette which has a beguiling, nutty taste and a texture like tapioca; a stir-fry of swallows (locals net them when they come to dust-bathe in bomb craters) and aubergines which is tasty but bony; and the piece de resistance, hedgehog in a hot/sour sauce containing its own bile, a delicious game meat somewhere between squab and venison. It comes, as do all Lao meals, with sticky glutinous rice in bamboo baskets and is a meal we will never forget.
Unfortunately, the next day we have to leave. Lan is disappointed he can’t even find us a frog or an eel for our farewell lunch.
We don’t have the heart to tell him we are heading back to Vientiane in search of a fine French meal and a bottle of wine. There’s only so much swallow and hedgehog even an intrepid gastronomic explorer can take.
Pub date: January 2006
Photography: by Ben Hills