Apr 24, 2007

Gaeng Kai Mot Daeng (Red Ant Egg Soup)

Cooking up the soup over charcoal in Bien's kitchen

Just before we left Laos Sengthian cooked me up some Gaeng Kai Mot Daeng next door at her sisters house. We stayed at that house for a couple of months back in 01 before Creag was born. They have a gas burner but like most in Vientiane prefer the charcoal. It’s cheaper and burns very hot. Smokes up the kitchen a little, oh well.
Geang Kai Mot Dang has to be about as unweird a type of insect food as I’ve ever eaten. The thing it reminded me of the most was the popular Tom Yung Koon that you can buy in any Thai restaurant in the world. The texture of the eggs is a little like soggy puffed rice. No crunchy legs and heads as in most insects.
I didn’t think we would still be around when it was time to get the ant eggs. I’d kind of forgotten that we were even going to eat them, but I did keep a distance from the nest out by our back door. Creagy got bit once, he steered clear of them ever since. Back in November I took a picture of an ant up close and personal.

Here’s the photo from then. You can see the white nest in the background.

Separating the eggs from the soldier ants requires a bucket of water. When the eggs and nest are in the water the adult ants lie still and even clump up in the water. They aren’t dead just saving their energies. You don’t want to just throw them in the trash or you’ll have a trash can full of angry red ants when you come back. Inevitably some of the ants get left with the eggs, it’s said that’s where the sour taste comes from.

Knowing I don’t like the tiny freshwater fish with millions of tiny bones, Sengthian made the soup with beef as the other ingredient. Tasted pretty good, I always think Lao beef is a little gamey anyway, went well with the sour and slightly fishy taste. I suspect the other ingredients were the usual suspects. Tomatoes, green onions, tamarind leaves, bai kii hoot, hot peppers, kah. No ginger, fish sauce or lime juice.

The greens are Pak Wan up top, Bai Kii Hoot on the plate and Home Paeow below.

Look carefully in the center and you will see an ant that never got picked out of the soup.

Sabai Dii Pi Mai

The Wat with Caribou Mountain in the background.

Pi Mai translates into new years in Laotian. For the Lao refugee population and their kids in the US it’s a day to go to the temple and see and be seen. There are a couple big barrels of water for the kids to fill their squirt guns in and the women cook food to sell and raise money for the temple.

The Money Changers at the Temple, actually counting the donations

Last year they played a recording of the old national anthem and the nationalistic types stood at attention and all. First time they’d done that. I told my wife, “hey, that’s the old national anthem” and she insisted it wasn’t. Took me a while to get through the idea it was the one from thirty years ago. Then they parade around the Wat in a circle and that’s about it. Not quite as big a deal as in Luang Prabang but that’s all there is. In the afternoon the younger set shows up and the serious drinking and whatever begins.

A Buddha attempts to ward off bad vibes from Longs Peak. (Actually only the top of Longs is visible, it's pretty much hidden behind the mellower Meeker.)

We left pretty early this year. Felt kind of cold. Missing Laos.

Apr 19, 2007

Loa Terrorists (Yer either with us or again us)

Above is a picture of the ones that are out to kill you.

In twelve years Laos has gone from having almost no private motor vehicles to about a gazillion murdercyles. Most of the traffic seems to be concentrated in Vientiane and the surrounding area. But every town of any size has people doing dumb things in the road.

In the normal course of life I’m seldom fearful of middle aged moms driving their kids to school or grandpa headed to the coffee shop to hobnob with his palls. Here in Laos it’s perfectly possible they could give you a real bad day.

It’s hard to say what is the potentially most dangerous habit. How about driving on the wrong side of the road on the edge until it’s possible to veer across all lanes to get to the opposite side. Or the standard practice of entering traffic without yielding or even looking. Take it for granted that the first few feet of the edge of the road belong to anyone.

Somewhere I’ve read the statistics of how many fatalities per kilometre driven and it’s one of, if not the, worst in South East Asia. How so many people could kill themselves so easily is a wonder to me. Thailand has much faster traffic but they’ve also had motorcycles for a lot longer.
A few years ago the powers that be made a rule that all the motorcycles had to have rear view mirrors. The first thing people used to do with a new bike was to take off the mirrors. The non use of mirrors should give you a clue as to local rules of the road. Nowadays I seldom see a mirror that actually is adjusted to look behind, more likely straight up to apply makeup or other very important things.

Lately they have painted in left turn lanes some places and I’ve even seen some people using them. Usually people have two options, cut across traffic at the first chance and drive up the wrong side of the road until their turn comes up, or slow down in the breakdown lane and look over their shoulder before cutting left across all lanes of traffic.

Cars are worse, they hurt more when they hit you and due to their size there’s more there to mess up with. Cars make slower progress due to all the motorcycles and they need to push to make up for it. Kind of like how a queue forms for a line at the post office, except in this case it’s a thousand kilos of metal they are pushing around with. Backing up and especially parallel parking are skills beyond many.

Once a kindly neighbour gave me a predawn ride to the airport. The road to the airport is divided and he ended up on the wrong side of the road forcing motorcyclists coming the other way off the road. He was of that crucial age of forty and over. Older folks didn’t grow up with motorcycles and so never learned to drive in their wild and crazy years. You can spot them ahead of you in traffic they wander and seem to float, unaware of their surroundings trying only to keep from hitting someone in front of them.

At night things get scary. There are a lot of things out there in the dark and many of them don’t have any lights, like cars and trucks and motorcycles. Drunks that can barely walk getting into their pickups and thinking they are stunt drivers on TV. Come to think of it Sunday afternoons are pretty bad that way too.

My only hope lies in the younger generation. The other day I saw a high school girl driving fast but skilfully through rush hour traffic, watching her rear views continuously for out of control maniacs approaching from the rear. Used her turn signals, anticipated entering traffic the whole bit. Another twenty years and things should be safe.

Apr 18, 2007

Even More Online Stuff

No reason to blog anymore, I just read lao miao.

Other fun things I’ve noticed there are Thai script and Chinese Characters appearing mid sentence. I know there are a couple people who have read my blog who read and write Thai as well as Mandarin. Take a look. It’s greek to me. I recognise the root symbols of the characters, you know, fire, field, person, whatever. It’s been so long since my fifty character vocabulary has been exercised that it all seems vaguely familiar yet I understand nada.

Even if I could learn to write a whole word in Lao it would be a major obstacle to figure out how to use a keyboard and make a document in two, or three, languages. Don't start looking for similar things here very soon.

Nice short piece about some off colour post cards in Muang Sing. One of those curios you notice and pass off as crass humour, but it never registers until someone points it out.

For a while she was posting often and there would be more every time I logged on. Currently (on the blog) she is in Phongsali, and I keep going back to the blog as I really liked Phongsali town. Hope she writes more about it.

I’ve linked to three more web sites also.

Travelfish I’ve been reading for a couple of years. It's simply the best online guide to South East Asia, nothing else even comes close. I haven’t traveled much outside of Laos for quite a while so I don’t use a guide in it’s conventional sense. I do like to read about what other people think of the places I’ve been and I find their information to be on the money.

Potentially the most useful feature of the site is it’s forum. It’s not that it’s fun for me to read for entertainment. I go there once a month to see if there is any news I’ve missed or to add my two cents. South East Asia is their specialty, and their information is based on first hand experiences. If you pose a question, and don’t get the correct answer very shortly, their moderator will answer it. The Lonely Planet Thorn Tree has a lot more “experts”, but on Travelfish questions are answered truthfully without any of the put downs of the more popular site and you aren’t left wondering which expert to believe.

The writing says a lot with a very few words. Unlike yours truly who manages to do just about the opposite.

Chaskemp’s Home Page I linked to even though I don’t think he has ever been to Laos. South East Asia runs all through all the pages of his sites. Charles’ life has been affected by the area and he has directed his interest in a very positive manner.

I just happened to run into the link a couple years ago. He reminisces about his time as a combat soldier with the United States Marines in Vietnam during the height of the war. The Marines are a branch of the service that is usually in busiest parts of our wars. I like the quotes from rock and roll songs of the time, and the old faded photos. Some Marines did me a big favour once so you know how it is, there is a guanxi debt going on and I’m the one who owes.
If Chaskemp’s links were only about the war they would still be of interest to me, I was a young teen during the time and listened to the same music and was paying attention the world at large.

The thing that raises the blog above the level of many Vietnam remembering blogs is that the war is only the background that led to today. I think Chaskemp is a nurse practioner. I thought I remembered reading that and now I can’t find it. In any case he has worked many, many , years at the Agape clinic and with refugees from Cambodia, Burma, and who knows where else. He has helped an unknown number of people to adjust to life in the USA after they have experienced some pretty bad things. His links lead to translations of common health problems into most South East Asia Mainland languages, including Laotian. Lota good karma built up there.

There’s more. There’s also a travel guide on how to go to Hong Kong and South East Asia without spending a ton. I haven’t read this part much at all. I already spend very little. I like the style, not cheap, just doesn’t fling his money around. Probably would rather spend it on his wife or son. Who even cares how fancy a room you have if you are only there for a few hours to sleep and shower. A section on flowers, restaurants in East Dallas, (bet there are places to buy pho).

The Kammu pages are a gold mine I ran into while wandering the net. Now that I have the link I can’t find the story of how the pages began. As best I remember the writer worked for a researcher in the mid 1960s and helped the researcher to understand various plant uses. He began to compile a list of plants used for various things and came up with hundreds. Later in the Netherlands he assisted a botanical research group to come and study the plants.
The web site is written with an insiders knowledge of Kammu society.

I’ve met some Kammu, but know very little about them other than that they are the original inhabitants of Laos. I hope that with a careful reading of these pages I will pay closer attention next time I meet some or go to a village.
Next blog entry…. Lao Terrorists.

Apr 5, 2007

Online Stuff

I’m a reader of blogs. Lately I’ve been hitting pay dirt in my search for good Lao blogs.
I already knew Lao Meow was a winner, the author has been blogging while I haven’t been paying attention. The two posts that I liked were one identifying some of her collaborators for things Thai Lu, and the other is about the wat behind the Muang Sing Gest House. If you’ve ever stayed there you know the one. Looks like she even had a second story room in the back where she took pictures.
The Cat as she calls herself poses questions about Theravada Buddhism as practiced by the Thai Lu and has her queries answered by her three Thai Lu and one Hmong, monk collaborators.
I like it when things that I already have looked at are explained such that I understand them better.
Check it out for yourself.


I’ve also looked through a couple Lao food blogs. The one by a half Thai half Lao, now Canadian resident, Ms. Manivan Larprom, is a lot of fun. After you make it past all the requests for donations and sales hype for her cooking book, the recipes are the real McCoy. She even has the bravery to write down Bang Nuea in the ingredients but lists it as optional along with other ingredients westerners might not like, such as tripe. All the standbys are there. Actually the first time I’ve seen any of this food written down.
My one gripe is that she doesn’t call things by name. I can see it when there is a common English name like egg rolls, but how can you call Kao Piak Sen, chicken rice noodle porridge.
It’s the first time I’ve heard anyone actually describe how to cook sticky rice. For the uninitiated, Cambodians, Vietnamese, and Hmong, don’t have a clue. The beginning of any good food is the rice, and for Lao food that means sticky rice. One comment asks “do you really have to soak it 4 hours” uh huh! It seems so simple, something everyone cooks twice and often four times a day. But as evidenced by what happens when someone who doesn’t know how to cook it gives a try, I’d say it’s an art form. If you read carefully she tells you how to reheat the old rice on top of the new, and what to do with old dried up rice. No electric rice cookers here, just a pot and a cone type basket.
I haven’t looked all the way through the blog. If you click on different months you get more stuff. If you click on the profile you get her other blogs, mostly deserts, drinks, vegetarian etc.
I haven’t watched the videos yet. I hardly even note the proportions of ingredients, just cruise the blog. It’s pretty good that way. Her recipes are normal and not weird at all, but often I pick up new ways to do things. I think the blog is mostly orientated towards people that have never cooked Lao before. Her painstaking efforts to write down everything must be a big help.

Ms. Manivan Larprom

The authenticity makes it very interesting to someone who already is familiar with the food. This is also the first time I’ve seen a Lao cook book in English where the English is correct. Others like the famous “Cooking Thai Food in American Kitchens” have gross mistakes, calling a cup a quart or wrong names for ingredients etc. Ms. Larprom thankfully, is truly bilingual.

I’d be willing to bet the best part of Ms Larproms background is her moms name, Sanoubane, now that’s the name of someone who knows their way around a jar of plah dek!!
Thai Lao Food at Blogspot dot com