Thursday, January 06, 2005

Ant Egg Soup: The Adventures of a Food Tourist in Laos

(by Natacha Du Pont De Bie)

I liked the opening disclaimer:
I'm not a chef and I'm not a journalist, I'm just a greedy romantic...

While others are lying comatose on the beach or cycling up mountains revelling in the agony as their lungs become pods of pain, I'll be down at the local market, elbow deep in produce... Like a mad person, I'll get up at six in the morning to photograph exotic fruit displays whilst snacking on local fast food delights, or watch women walking to market with bowls of live fish on their heads. And I'll trek for hours, and I mean hours (or even days if its a really good lead), in search of a really good lunch.
So Natacha starts her tale of her exploration of Laos, a country which many have commented on as being populated by very gentle people (if we set aside thoughts of those who wrested command from the King and have retained that command through less than peaceful means). Natacha herself comes across as a very gentle and warm person, one who is keen to let people tell their own story. The start of her journey is a charming one: she lands at Vientiane airport, expecting to be frogmarched by officious uniformed drones to wait for hours in a grim airport office. Instead, she finds the sole official very helpful and friendly, to the point she engages him in a two hour conversation about where to get lunch, in which his entire family seems to get involved. Nice.

Her focus is to find the local foods, including the ingredients and techniques, inspired in part by a very cool cookbook, that of the former King of Laos's personal chef. Not being very familiar with the layout of Laos, and despite the map in the book, I don't really know if she got to go all over Laos, or to just selected destinations - I suspect the latter, as this was not a straight travel book as Theroux might write, but one with a theme.

I have to say that I've wanted to go to Laos myself for some time now, and this book has made me a little more ambivalent in that desire. That's because I have particular aversions when it comes to food: I don't like the idea of raw meat, even sushi is beyond the pale as far as I am concerned. And in Laas, Laap is the main dish eaten all over the place which, as she says, breaks every rule of cautious travel eating by being made from raw meat (water buffalo, goat, deer, whatever is to hand really) and with unpasteurised fermented fish (she later confesses that the fish essentially rots for several weeks in order to produce the Paa-dek, the fermented fish sauce). Then late in the book, when she describes the making of the frog stew, made from entire albeit dissected frogs, I had to pause in my reading. The food of the title didn't sound too appealing either: the soup itself sounded OK, but there would be a bunch of ant eggs floating about in it - apparently they taste nutty (and are available, tinned, on the internet!). There are recipes for all these dishes, and more, included in the book.

But not all the food she talks about is so extreme and, indeed, there are many variants on the Laap, some of which use cooked meats and just a smidgen of the fish sauce: I could cope with that.

Apart from the food, we get to read a little about her accomodations, the few sightseeing trips she'd make to see a cave or waterfall or whatever and her contact with fellow travellers. With some of these, she was very harsh - especially those do-gooders she saw as imposing their own standards upon the people of Laos, such as aid workers who would go there for a couple of years but never socialise with the locals or even learn their language. She was much more approving of those going there to try to support the sustenance of traditional Laotian ways of living, such as by educating them about more environmentally friendly methods of land use. Most scathing of all, however (and quite naturally), was her attack upon the boss of a fellow she went to see. The boss basically hijacked the poor fellow's attempt at being hospitable, raved on about how much money he was making (and how - such as by getting aid money to pay workers $10 a day but only paying them $1) then tried to rape Natacha. I'd have had his goolies: Fat Boss Man Goolie Soup anyone?

A major concern for Natacha is the extent to which Laos is still covered in unstable bombs: dropped in Laos by the American Air Force if they just happened to be surplus to a particular bombing run on Vietnam, despite Laos's complete non-involvement in that war. Apparently, more bombs were dropped on Laos than on Europe during WWII. And these are nasty bombs - made up of several hundred bomblets, which themselves are made up of many pellets. They were dropped without detonating, but of course, 40 years on, aren't exactly the safest thing to have in the neighbourhood.

I don't know what else she has written - googling about, I see that she is a lot prettier than her self description had led me to expect. There's a nice interview, extract from the book and several of its recipes here.

Over at the BBC, she can be heard cooking a (cooked) beef Laap, which sounds really good.


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