Month: December 2014

But what do the tourists eat?

Luang Prabang is an extraordinarily beautiful city. Designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, it has undoubtedly become the tourist center of Laos. There is a seemingly genuine local and governmental effort to protect the culture and history of this holy place, supported by the “urban heritage conservation” efforts of UNESCO. I have been very impressed with the vibrant and healthy local handicraft scene. Genuine fair trade businesses seem to do well here. Because of UNESCO efforts and government ordinances, the architecture on the peninsula remains within certain traditional bounds, and there is funding for many restoration projects.

The entrance to Wat Nong Sikhounmuang, one of my favorite temples and easily one of the most colorful in the city

However, the influence of visiting tourists, like me, affects the cultural and physical landscape. Luang Prabang is faced with the questions growing common for most cities and countries that experience a tourism boom: how to accommodate the foreign presence while protecting local heritage? How to encourage socioeconomic development while also practicing conservation? And, the question that I found myself asking, over and over: how do you feed large amounts of foreigners?

Panoramic early morning view of the south side of the city, taken from the top of Mount Phousi, located in the center of the peninsula

Outsiders spending their money in a local economy have local ramifications, and I would argue that the local food economy is the most affected. As opposed to the onetime silk textile or wood carving souvenir, tourists are using their culinary purchasing power to buy meals three times a day. And while a tourist may want to bring home a locally made craft, they may be less likely to try local noodle soup or grilled meat on the street. Walking down the main street of Luang Prabang, you can spot pizzerias, fried rice shops, and donut stands. Under the Lao section of a menu, you may see “Lao pad thai.” Many restaurants may serve traditional Lao dishes, but “tourist style”, with no fermented fish sauce or less chili. Most dishes are becoming sweeter, catering to tourist taste buds. With the growing number of tourist restaurants, it is actually quite possible to travel in Luang Prabang without eating Lao food.

Lao style steamed fish, served with steamed vegetables that are, according to a Lao friend, most likely imported from China

The night market, located in the center of the town every evening, is representative of this relatively new tourist economy. Vendors have laid their goods on every available surface of the main street, angling bright lamps for their display. Tourists swarm the scene, examining piles of scarves, pants with elephant prints, and t-shirts printed with the Beer Lao logo. Many goods are imported from China and Vietnam, perhaps embellished, and then resold here. The neighboring alleys are lined with fruit shake vendors and crepe stands aimed at foreigners. There are also local bbq stands, local sweets, and Lao dish buffets; the vendors advertise prices as tourists walk by. At the night market, sometimes the foreigners seem to outnumber the locals.

The morning market

If the night market represents the tourist economy, the morning market, located on downtown side streets, represents everything about the local economy. The main market in Luang Prabang is located just outside the central peninsula. Vendors at the morning market frequently buy from local farmers at the larger market early in the morning and then resell in town.

Gone are the tourist wares. The streets are lined with piles of fruits, vegetables, and herbs. Fishermen clean your fish as you wait; butchers slice hunks of meat and package them up. Everything is kept as fresh as possible- the chickens are still alive, as are the crabs and the fish in their bowls. Street vendors are selling rice, grilled local sausages, noodle soups, and takeaway Lao breakfasts and lunches. Clothing vendors sell fewer elephant print pants and instead stock Lao skirts (sinh) and children’s clothes. People are shopping for their daily groceries, chatting with each other, moving slowly and carrying loads.

Even if I don’t buy anything, if I have time, I like to walk around the morning market- so much to see!

How can these scenes exist side by side, in the same city? Where does one find the “authentic local food”, as I am frequently asked? Is it authentic when a Lao child eats an imported Thai snack? How about the Lao family that owns a pizzeria? Is the foreigner (read: me) cluelessly ordering mystery meats in English at the local bbq place eating authentically? What about the foreigner who excitedly orders food listed under the “Lao” section of the menu, unaware that it is really Bangkok food in disguise?

Cuisine, like any other part of culture, is a living, breathing thing. It reacts to economic pressures and changing tastes. The food scene here is diverse and complicated; one can find a bit of everything. There are beautiful traditions to be acknowledged, but cuisine adapts to new conditions, as every aspect of culture does. How does one decide when that adaptation becomes “inauthentic”?

Tourism in a developing country poses complex, amorphous, and sometimes unanswerable questions. While I was here, I tried to eat and spend my money in respectful and responsible ways, learning what I could about this place and its people. But I leave here after a short two week stay, and the people here will continue to be faced with these inescapable questions. I hope my favorite noodle stand continues to thrive, surrounded by restaurants. I hope that my favorite restaurant on the Mekong continues to add fermented fish sauce to everything, surprising the foreigners. I hope that the small family businesses are not pushed out by overstaffed, over the top luxury restaurants that cater to tour groups that arrive in buses. But most importantly, I hope that the people here continue to build their own style of development, protecting what they value and pushing to create all that they deserve. They are they only ones that can decide what the future of this city will look like. I just hope that future includes the fermented fish sauce.

One of my favorite scenes in Laos- one temple includes a school to teach novices and monks traditional arts as they relate to Buddhism. This is a studio to learn how to sculpt a Buddha form, and this one is in progress. Finished ones are in the back.

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New Tastes in Sticky Rice: Luang Prabang, Laos

One of my favorite things in Laos is that when you order tea at a cafe, you receive a whole pot. To me, that’s representative of what the city of Luang Prabang has been saying to me all along- hey, why don’t you stay a while?

A pot of Lao green tea, one of my favorite teas in the entire world

Luang Prabang has been the spiritual and cultural center of this area for hundreds of years. The many layers to this city- traditional Buddhist influences, colonial French architecture, today’s (rapidly growing) tourist market, add up to an overwhelming charm. The city is based around a peninsula at the confluence of two rivers, the Mekong and the Nam Khan.

A panoramic view from just north of the Mekong, looking back at Luang Prabang

I had no idea what to expect from Laotian culture or cuisine before I arrived. With a smaller diaspora network and landlocked borders, Laotian cuisine hasn’t been as widely exported as neighboring Thai or Vietnamese. I don’t believe that I had ever eaten a Lao dish, and was even informed that “it’s just basically Thai.”

But I was soon to discover how much I had been missing!

After navigating confusing “authentic” tourist menus for a few days, I took a cooking class from a Laotian restaurant, Tamarind. Run by Laotian chefs who are truly passionate about their country’s traditions, the course offered insight into a complex culinary history, of which I had only scratched the surface.
The base of most Laotian cuisine is “sticky rice”, also known as glutinous rice. Sticky rice is a completely different breed from the more commonly known steamed rice. It is prepared in a bamboo basket, “huat khao”, over charcoal. To keep its texture and quality, it is served in a “tip khao”, bamboo container, allowing the heat to be evenly distributed. Sticky rice has a dry but chewy consistency. It is eaten with the hands, in contrast to steamed rice found in Thailand and Vietnam. The rice is balled up into bite-sized pieces and then used to dip into sauce or as a vehicle for scooping up meat or vegetables.

Sticky rice cooked in bamboo baskets. The rice on the right is “purple rice”, which is often used for desserts. It must be covered while cooking or it will dry out.

The prevalence of sticky rice in Laotian cuisine provides a general guideline of authenticity for different dishes. If the dish can easily be eaten with the hands, it is probably Laotian. If the dish has a liquid consistency, like many curries and coconut milk dishes, it was more likely imported from Thailand and should be eaten with steamed rice.
Laotian cuisine also features very strong, bitter, and spicy flavors (one possible explanation, offered by a chef- bitter foods make your blood less tasty to mosquitoes). Strong smoky flavors from charcoal grills add depth. Bitter agents like bile add flavor to a quintessential national dish, laap, and the acquired taste of the wonderfully pungent padaek, fermented fish sauce, provides real saltiness.

A sampling of different “jeow”, or dipping sauces, many with a smoky and spicy flavor, that will be eaten with sticky rice. In the lefthand corner, there are some fried cakes made out of river weed, sundried tomatoes, and sesame seeds.

As I haven’t had any of these Laotian dishes before, I am quite content to explore this city for a few weeks. I am in no rush. Many restaurants and cafes are located on the river, offering beautiful views of the mountains and forests that surround this city. I think I’ll stay a while.

Drinking Lao coffee (more bitter than Vietnamese coffee, but of course just as strong) while looking over the Mekong in the morning

Lasting Friendships in Hue

I am at the end of a nearly two-week stay in Hue. My visa ends in a few days, and I will be traveling on to Laos. I’ve chosen to stay here in this city, rather than continue south to Saigon, which has prompted reprimand from the southern Vietnamese food advocates.

Special in Hue, a type of processed meat, similar to sausage- this one contains a mix of pork and shrimp. Eaten with gelatinous rice cakes, covered in fish sauce.

But it has been wonderful to stay in the same place for an extended period of time; I am not the touring type of traveler. I like to visit the same few cafes here, and receive looks of recognition from the owners. I picked out my favorite bun bo Hue stand, and though I think that I still pay the foreigner price (a $.25 markup), I get more meat in my soup than I used to. I know my way around without a map. And most importantly, I’m staying in a guesthouse with the most wonderful family, who share meals with me and support my mission to eat the best Hue food possible (Sunny Fine Guesthouse, if you travel to Hue).

A meal I shared with a friend at a vegetarian restaurant. There are many vegetarian restaurants in Hue, because Buddhists in Hue try to eat vegetarian twice a month. The center front plate is a salad made with a type of fig that only grows in central Vietnam, and it is extraordinary. The small bowl in the right-hand corner is fermented tofu, which I had never tasted before. It tastes like pungent cheese.

While visiting the Imperial Citadal, the center of the Nguyen Dynasty, I came upon this part of the exhibit:

Looking at the emperor, I found myself feeling lucky. For one, I am quite content to not need a poison-tester in my humble life. But on a deeper level, quite honestly, the emperor looks lonely to me. In Hue, I’ve had the fortune to eat like a king, and yet still share my meals with interesting company. Due to the couchsurfing network and lucky opportunities, I was able to meet some incredibly kind Vietnamese people. They showed me around the city and surrounding region, took me to their favorite Vietnamese restaurants, helped me create a long list of dishes to try, and then proceeded to help me cross off each item. I learned about Vietnamese history, society, and humor from long conversations over meals and bottles of Huda (local beer).

Huda- a refreshing collaboration between Hue and Danish owners

These new friends showed me the warmth of Vietnamese culture. And when I think about my time in Hue, these friendships are what I’m most thankful for- after all, what joy is there in eating like an emperor, if you’re eating alone?

Slow Coffee in the Street

I spot the traveling cart with a large sign, advertising “cà phê”. I hold up one finger, and an older Vietnamese woman, dressed in comfortable slacks and a floppy fishermen’s hat, pushes two small red plastic stools my way. I take a seat on one, putting my purse on the other, and call out “Cà Phê Sua Da”, or coffee with milk.

My long American legs hunched up toward my chest, I look around this quiet side street. Around me, groups of young people have pulled their small red stools close to each other, forming a flexible arrangement of social cliques. To my left, two women my age examine their phones, checking Facebook while sipping coffee. To my right, a group of high school students share brightly-colored sodas. Two of the young men are clearly talking about me, and I laugh to myself. People not-so-covertly staring at you is obvious, even through a language barrier.

My coffee arrives, with a side bowl of ice on this hot day. I stir in the milk and then add the ice, trying to water down this strong brew. I take a sip- oh, how I love Vietnamese coffee.

One of the best parts about a slow cup of coffee on the street here is the people watching. As my foreignness can hardly go unnoticed, most of the time I stare back unabashedly. I usually bring a book to the cafe, but today I leave it in my bag, because the street is exceptionally busy. I simply sit, enjoying the sunshine and the cool breeze coming off the Perfume River. I have nowhere to be for another few hours, until I meet a friend for lunch. I grin and take in the day, enjoying all of my senses. I treasure these wonderfully slow mornings in Hue.

A panoramic view of the Imperial Citadal, the home of the Nguyen Dynasty. I wonder if the emperor and the mandarins ever had quiet mornings like mine, sitting near the lakes, drinking coffee.