Oct 28, 2007

Som Pak (gaht) or pickled mustard greens

I’ve no idea why we call these greens mustard greens. In Laotian they are called pak gaht. They grow pretty well in the cooler part of the year, and are a common winter vegetable. Here in Colorado they are one of the first plants up in the spring, and one of the last to die in the fall.

Mustard greens are the ingredient for the som pak you see sold in bags wherever kao neeow is sold. Typicaly a small bag costs twenty cents or so, combined with sticky rice and something barbequed they round out a meal.

The following is mama’s method.

The leaves are washed then sprinkled with salt which is worked in with lots of turning over of the leaves and gentle squeezing to push the salt into the vegetable. A benign bruising if you will. To test for saltiness taste some of the water that collects at the bottom of the bowl. If too salty drain and add fresh water. Remember the rice water has salt too.

Rice is boiled with water and salt so that the rice breaks down, cooled, and then pushed through the fine strainer when added to the mustard greens. The whole concoction is put in a large jar and set on the counter to sour for a day or two. The reason for the screen is to keep out the rice grains themselves, they don’t look good.

I like the som pak plain with ginger and sticky rice, with scrambled eggs, and especially in the stock for the thin sour soup called gaeng som pak.

Oct 20, 2007

Environmental Destruction a Go Go

I read a couple of online sources of information about Laos and lately it seems like I should leave my computer off. Every time I log on a new source of eco destruction awaits me.

Within the last month I have learned of;

A proposed lignite (soft sulphurous coal) power plant to be built in Xayabouli province at the site of the former annual elephant ho down in Hongsa. New Mandela

Ferry Boat at the Thadua crossing Xaiyabouli

A hydro power dam on the Nam Tha, would flood out 15 villages some of which are resettled Lao seung. You know those people brought down to the river valleys to “modernize” them and wean them from growing opium. It’s all in Nalae district, which I’m unfamiliar with. More Mandella

I found out about an intended 1410 mega watt plant in Luang Prabang while trying to find a link for this post. Reuters

The one that hits home the hardest is the dam on the Nam Ou of about 600 mega watt capacity with three more in the plans. It’s the most beautiful big river I’ve seen in Laos. Pnomsin Blog

Kids making ripples on the Nam Ou above Hatsa

In Vientiane the Tat Luang marsh is slated to be developed by a Chinese investor into an instant city. When driving out of town this tributary of the Mekong called Houay Mak Hiao was always my indicator that the city had been left behind. It’s beyond the two big markets of Ban Tat Luang. When driving over the bridge you can see all the rice growing up and down stream. The Lao government proposed a site further from downtown, but the Chinese insisted. Whose city is it anyway? I guess the person with the money’s.

One ray of hope is the simple math of this message posting to an online group, sorry can’t link.

"Given that the Lao Government budget revenues amount to around $500 million a year, a simple calculation indicates that a 20% investment in the hydro scheme would amount to around a third of government budget revenues for any given year. Given also that the government is concurrently signing several such agreements I wonder where the government contribution is coming from. Is it simply a gift from the developers in return for government complicity? "
The writer is referring to the one hydro plant on the Nam Ou, estimated cost $700 to $800 million.

My worry is that modernization will mean that corrupt officials are now better able to quickly strip Laos of it’s existing timber, poison it’s watersheds with effluent from various mines, and flood all the lowlands for exported electricity? Is China the example of what Laos will look like in twenty years?

Oct 14, 2007

Laos Opium Free?.....Not quite yet

Recently I read on a blog called Imaging Our Mekong that Laos is no longer “opium free”. Of course it never was anyway. The piece goes on to state that overall hectares under cultivation in Laos have increased 40% in 2006, from 1,800 hectares to 2,500. In tonnage that translates into 14 to 20 tonnes, vastly down from the 2001 estimates of 134 tonnes, but a long way from zero.

Update Oct 17,07
Stop the presses! Today the Lao government announced figures for 2007 as being down to 1500 hectares, they also compare to 1998 to further make the figures rosy. Further fudging the numbers they claim a more than 50% drop in tonnage from a 40% drop in hectares. Maybe the most productive fields have stopped growing. Or maybe the numbers are total bunkum anyway.
Vientiane Times

Above is Lung (uncle) who let us stay in the extra house he had for trekkers above Chang Dao in Thailand back in 96. When Thailand started to clean up it’s trekking program the guides stopped staying at his place for the obligatory smoke fest. During a months long wait for a visa I stayed at his extra house to get away from the city for a few days. The setting was idyllic, and I’m not bothered by opium smokers, they are quiet and harmless.

Lung married a Lahu girl back in the 60s and has made Thailand his home. Originally a KMT soldier, he told me he had fought all over China before he and many in the KMT army made the retreat into Thailand and Burma. He had a very modest business selling opium. Like many long time smokers he was thin. He spoke Thai with a decidedly Mandarin accent. Once in a while he would lapse back into Chinese and make his point by jabbing the end of his pipe in my chest. He was a splendid host, and pretty hilarious having a lifetime of stories to relate. Two of his daughters were working in Chang Mai as were seemingly all the girls in the village. When I think of him I think of how life takes it’s twists and turns. How does one end up living in a hill tribe village up on the side of a mountain in Thailand. I hope he is well.

Back to Laos.

I assume they must have ways of counting hectares using satellite imagery and they extrapolate tonnage based on those images. Of course this all is a drop in the bucket of the estimated 6,610 illicit tonnes produced worldwide, a fraction of a percent. Taipei Times All figures are for 2006. This also isn’t counting the legal opium produced by Australia, France, Turkey and India, for pain relief.

The respected Senilis Council goes on to estimate that only 25% of the worlds pain relief needs are being met. The short story is that people, especially in poor countries, are dying in pain and at the same time we are encouraging countries like Laos to impose the death penalty for crimes like opium sales.

Even more ironic is that in Laos a common cause of death is liver cancer. The worm found in fish of the Mekong watershed, imbibed raw in the fermented fish of padek, over time, while residing in the liver of it’s victims, causes enough liver damage and irritation to cause liver cancer, a very common form of death for people in their forties and fifties. I’ve heard liver cancer is very painful.

So here is a county that until the mid 1990s had no laws banning anything to do with drugs, who then under pressure from the USA and the UN, has now criminalized opium to the extent of making it a capital crime, and there are many people dying in pain from a lack of those self same drugs.

The issue of abuse and addiction must also be considered and opium addiction does occur. From the viewpoint of this observer, and bear in mind I seem to do no drugs these days of any sort, that when compared to the violence and poisoning caused by alcohol or the very real life shortening affects of cigarette addiction, it doesn’t seem very threatening.

Above is a photo taken by a young Canadian adventurer called Rudecam who traveled through Laos in 2006 looking for excitement. First he tried to hike up Phou Bia the highest point in Laos. Unfortunately Phou Bia is also at the centre of the Xaysombone Special Zone, and was still heavily contested between the Lao Army and Hmong insurgents. Complicating things further it is probably mined pretty heavily by the government forces and the approach begins at the old not so secret CIA airport at Long Chen. He didn’t get far.

His other objective was to hike up to Lima Site 85 on Phou Pati. He didn’t have much luck with the government tour guides on that one either. He did take the photo though. Oh to be 20 yrs old and on the loose in Laos.

Bringing the whole thing back to a personal level the Vientiane times, which is the official English language mouth piece for the Lao government, blames the ruination of Laos’ opium free status on Luang Namtha province which produced 40 of the 25,000 nationwide hectares. They claim plantations in inaccessible valleys are difficult to control. Plantations sounds much different than a subsistence farmer trying to grow a cash crop.

Well, my immediate thought is good for them. I of course think of the villages of Nambo, Mongla, Jakune, and any other villages left in the Nam Fa watershed. The ones that haven’t been relocated down to the lowlands. I can’t think of any area that would be less accessible in Luang Namtha Province. Access is relative. I think what is meant is that areas under cultivation can’t be reached by way of Toyota Landcruiser. I can’t imagine any place in Luang Namtha province being more than a days walk from the road, no more than 25 km, hardly remote from my perspective. Probably that is why Luang Namtha became the early target of eradication efforts.

I hope the people of those villages have made some money.

Oct 6, 2007

A Lao Food Blog I've been reading

But first a photo, have to have something to catch the eye right?

I thought this pepper was a habanero turns out the shape is slightly wrong and the way the fruit stem attaches to the pepper itself is different. I think this is a rocoto but I can't tell for sure. Never can tell what's going to come up in our garden box or where the seeds come from. Sometimes the seeds are from the actual fruit at the grocery store, sometimes from the mothers of my wifes Lao buddies, and sometimes from Laos. (Turns out these were hot peppers sold in a Super Walmart)

Anyway about the blog.

In my explorations of Lao cooking blogs I keep returning to one the same few to read more. Lately I’m intrigued by this one called Lao Cook.

The name itself is indicative of what’s underneath, not that is about a Lao Cook, which it is, but that it’s understated and doesn’t toot it’s own horn. I mean they could just have well called the blog Lao Fusion Haute Cuisine, or “The Most Modern, Avant Guard Interpretation of Lao Food On The Planet”, even Lao Chef, but no, they stuck with the humble “Lao Cook”. Vienne the head of the Lao cook team in keeping with his character calls his food Lao “new style“.

The more I read, the more excited I get in that here for the first time is Lao food not only prepared but also presented in such a way as to take it’s place amongst the finest foods of the world. I used to worry that the flavours of Laos would be lost before they were even known. I’m not so worried anymore.

I knew that the background for the website was a restaurant in Europe, I’d always assumed France, a more thorough reading reveals a restaurant at a very posh Spanish resort.
Bear in mind that normally I am a reverse restaurant snob in that I don’t eat at any place that has a menu, and seldom spend over a dollar on any meal. In Laos I steer clear of all tourist type restaurants. Actually I usually eat either at the market, very small mom and pop foe places or at home and at friends houses who are Lao. Reading the web site and watching the videos makes me wish that I somehow had a table between the kitchen and the dining room so that I could watch the food being cooked and grab some dishes as they go by on their way to the customers out front.

I also saw a link on Lao Cuisine to a video called “Lao Cook TV“, or LCTV. The video was about soured Lao Pork Sausage by LCTV. Som Moo with Alexandra saying "hi" and "by" In the video, I assume it must be Vienne speaking with a pronounced English accent. It has to be Vienne in that the speaker obviously knows Lao food. The video isn’t rehearsed and the speaker understands what’s going on with the break down of the texture of the pork as it’s being kneaded. The video begins and ends with a hello from Alexandra the Lao Pop star. Maybe my blog needs a hello from Paris Hilton or something. Notice though that the background music is classical.

Check out this recipe called Duck, Liver, and Mango

Foie Gras is covered with wafer thin slices of raw Duck Breast, and dressed with Yuzu Sauce that has been heated in Olive and Sesame Oil with some Peppercorns. Shreds of ripe Mango adds sweetness.

Duck, Liver, Mango typifies Mr. Viennes cooking style, background, and attitude. The influence is Lao, with a Euro twist, and a very unassuming presentation. I mean isn’t foie gras not so different than the pig liver pate that is in the baguettes sandwiches? Raw duck in laap is famous in Laos, and the mango is everywhere, especially in April. Mr Veinne could have called this dish many things, instead he chose the simple name to describe it.

If you followed the link you would have noticed that below the duck is some Nahm Dtok, you know that yam called waterfall after the way you are supposed to cook the meat only until the water starts to come out. They use tenderloin. I’ll bet the meat is a lot tastier than the hormone antibiotic feedlot raised beef I’m used to, and much much more tender than those cows in Laos that more resemble goats. The photos make me want to grab a piece with my fingers and and make it disappear.

Below that still is tom yum. Check out the lemon grass. It’s the leafy part. Great for soups, do they sell it that way in Spain? I doubt it. I suspect chef Vienne has a large patch growing out back. Bai kii hoot and kah too.