[Ben sez]: A few more 12-24 hour budget SE Asian travel bus rides, a few more stamps in our passports, and we are now back in Bangkok having visited the awesome cities of Vientiane, Laos and Chiang Mai, Thailand. These two cities are somewhat similar, both possessing a similar cuisine, and dealing in the most laid back attitude possible without life completely stopping. We took some cooking classes to fill out our schedule between long periods of doing absolutely nothing.
Vientiane - No Rushing A-Lao'd
[Nate sez]: This city is hot. And I don't mean like Jamie Oliver making pesto, I mean like getting shoved into a 105 degree oven as large as a city. To bake. Or dehydrate. Or mostly want to do close to absolutely nothing. So after a hard morning/afternoon/evening of chilling out in our A/C, we'd venture out to the local Ban Lao, which loosely translates as "Lao Restaurant". If you've had Thai curry, papaya salad, Thai stir-fries, and sticky rice, you've just about eaten everything mainstream offered in Laos. We hear that rat and iguana is also frequently on rural menus, but after seeing Anthony Bourdain's reaction to iguana, we decided it was not on our agenda.
The national dish of Laos is Laab. Or Larb. Or Lahb. Depends which menu you consult. However, this is quintessentially Lao: ground or shredded pork, beef, chicken, or fish dressed with searing chilies, lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, roasted rice powder, and a bucket of mint. We learned how to make the fish version with a very nice French gentleman named Greg and this was truly a great dish.
Simple. Fresh. Tasty. Definitively Lao. The mint and chilies really balance each other out in a deliciously synergistic way. Serve it up with some sticky rice and papaya salad, and a Beer Lao over ice, and you've made it.
Touch Mai Sausage
Chiang Mai is absolutely my favorite city in Thailand. They took my favorite dish, Som Tam (Papaya Salad - I'll make it for all of you when I get back) and made it better. Instead of Papaya, they used shredded green mangoes. My mango salad lady put 8 chilies in, used about twice as much palm/coconut sugar, and created what became a two to three time a day habit for me. I'm adding her to the list of street food vendor ladies I intend to marry.
[Ben sez]: To keep me from feeling left out I found a couple of nice sausage stands in the markets selling succulent, slightly spicy, fresh-off-the-grill pork sausages flavored with kefir lime leaves and lemongrass. One of the best moments of my recent life involved sitting down in a park with a bag of this sausage, some sticky rice and a bottle tea. Sometimes it really is the simple pleasures that are the best.
[Nate sez]: There's been a noticeable pattern of almost all of our best meals being eaten outside in a park, plaza, or squatting against a wall on the street.
Much of the sausages that we've encountered throughout the region have been from the Chinese school: really fatty, really sweet, really not good at all. I'd been craving some tubular meat to put in my mouth, and until northern SE Asia, it was all deeply unsatisfying. The Chiang Mai sausage in particular was so crisp, meaty, and it's contents so well integrated. The herbs and spices perfectly accompanied the pork's sweetness, and sticky rice brings a fantastic texture combination as well as an effect of cooling some of the heat from the chilies.
[Nate sez]: God, Ben really likes sausage doesn't he?
The one real problem with this city is their love of sweets. Not so much a problem as a liability to my waistline. Every corner seemed to have a mango sticky rice stand, along with another one halfway down the block, and I suspect there may have been a lady with a portable setup tailing me through the streets just to taunt me. We even ended up at a buffet which included mango sticky rice in the "all you can eat." Needless to say, I went back for seconds.
Nate and I also learned how to prepare sweet sticky rice in Chiang Mai. Recent news also suggests that Indian mangoes are making their way back to the American market. Word on the street is that they are (I don't know which of the thousand + varieties are getting imported) sweet, non-fibrous, custardy, and will make you appear to have just shot up heroin.
God Bless Mangoes.