Roadside vendors, Route 9 to Savannakhet, Laos. Seth Rosenblatt (c) 2006. One major item that I left off the list of ingestibles from a few days ago that can be purchased from vendors on the side of the road was baguettes. They come in plain, cheesed and pated varieties, and I'm pretty sure they come from the French/Vietnamese tradition of sandwiches. See? Something good did come out of colonialism. Snarks and cynicism aside, being able to chow down on a fresh or barely-stale bread roll was a welcome alternative to burnt beetle on a stick.
Roadside vendors, Route 9 to Savannakhet, Laos. Seth Rosenblatt (c) 2006. It was hard not to notice that most roadside vendors in Laos were women. In fact, women led incredibly visible lives, whether they were in the fields, running a store or restaurant of some kind or selling food to passing buses and sawngthaew. This is not necessarily surprising, though. Since the start of Communist rule 30 years ago, women have played an integral role in the country in part because they make up a larger percentage of the population: there are approximately 96 men for every 100 women in the country. According to a UNESCO study, women compose 60 percent of the agricultural labor force, 60 percent of the handicraft labor, 50 percent in commerce, public health and education, 25 percent in the public sector and 20 percent in the industrial sector. Although most of the Laos hill tribes tend to be patrilinear, the majority of the 5 million Laos citizens tend to live in the lowlands, and generally come from more matrilinear tribes. Since most of the country's development has been in the more accessible low-land areas, these groups have naturally favored women. It was quite a startling contrast for the FMA and I to jump from India to Laos in the space of a week, and see women interacting socially on a level that we hadn't seen in more than two months.
Roadside vendors, Route 9 to Savannakhet, Laos. Seth Rosenblatt (c) 2006. In Laos, it's fairly hard to avoid a road food vendor. They're about as polite about it as you could hope for, which means you'll get asked three or six times if you want a bottle of water or a blackened frog on a stick, but once the vendor has cottoned on to the fact that you ain't buyin' grubs 'cuz you don't eat grubs, everyone winds up happier. By and large, if I didn't enjoy the delicacies being offered, I enjoyed watching them being sold. There were hard-boiled eggs, grilled chicken, the aforementioned scorched amphibians, cooked insects, more chicken and occasional pork things. Most of it was presented on sticks made from split bamboo, splayed open in a most ungracious posture. If you're hungry, how something looks isn't anywhere near as important as how it tastes and so more often than not the FMA and I would dive in. The frogs were more crunch than meat, but whether that was because of the layers of char that replaced their skin or the bones on the inside is perhaps better left for a biologist to figure out.
Looking out the front windshield of a public bus, Bangkok, Thailand. Seth Rosenblatt (c) 2005. The water taxis of Bangkok, which functioned more like buses than anything else, were one of the best and cheapest ways to cope with the heat and humidity and bustle of the city. So it's a great way to get around one-eighth of the city, or to traverse it from north to south, but beyond that the water taxi is a bit limited. Enter the bus. Buses in Bangkok were even cheaper than the water taxi, and despite being trapped in the middle of the buzzing swarm that is city life, they retained a certain amount of charm. In no small part, this was due to three things. They had no air conditioning, so the windows were always open, except during rainstorms. This let the smells of the ubiquitous street vendors waft in, and if we were lucky, overpower the noxious fumes emanating from the surrounding traffic. They also had wooden floors, which made me wonder if the drivers had holes cut where the brakes should be and they were all actually run on foot power, the air pollution a stab at authenticity as people were really carried from place to place via more Flintstonesesque means. But most of the charm came from the enormous kitschy shrines that adorned the front of the non-A/C buses. Fresh flowers stood in vases, while a rainbow of plastic tchotchkes dangled from the sun visor, from the window sill, from the ceiling and sometimes from the gear shift. The buses roared down empty streets and took corners at speeds that would've tipped over a Sherman tank. Riding on a Bangkok bus wasn't for the faint-hearted. Besides being able to handle strong and unexpected doses of adrenaline, requiring excellent bowel as well as vocal control, a bus map was more essential than a clean pair of shorts. Without the ability to grab the conductor and point to a street name and a little orange triangle, I'm sure the FMA and I could've easily found ourselves in Cambodia, or worse, having wasted all our money on automotive taxis. And where's the fun in that?
Food stall on Rattanakosin, Bangkok, Thailand. Seth Rosenblatt (c) 2005. Laap is a Thai/Lao dish that involves meat, mint and chili, and the FMA and I became obsessed with it on our trip. We came to the conclusion, using only the purest forms of subjective reasoning, that the Lao variation tasted better than the Thai. The mint was stronger, the chilis were spicier, and it cost us less. When we came back to the States, we found a recipe online, took a look at what was available at our local Chinese supermarket - how can you not love May Wah on Clement in San Francisco? - and tweaked the ingredients to suit our palette. The ingredients, excluding the meat, are not cooked but mixed into a wet salad that is then drizzled over the meat as a sauce. This is not a traditional way of serving it, but it's still quite delicious. The concoction can also be tossed with cooked ground meat that can be stuffed into rice paper rolls, pita bread, or simply inhaled on its own. Traditionally, laap is cooked with ground meat, and here we use 1 lb. of your favorite dead beast. Also, fresh herbs must be used. Precise amounts are not necessary, as you'll want the flavor to suit your particular tastes. This is extremely important when it comes to the chilis. We tend to use five or six finely sliced whole chilis, but one will do if you're delicate. Finally, the smell of the mixture is important, so if the final mix smells good you're on the right track. Ingredients Laap Sauce: 1/3 cup toasted toasted brown or white rice 1/3 large yellow onion, diced At least one whole, fresh red Thai chili chopped - we prefer five or six Six tablespoons Thai fish sauce 1/4 bunch or 10 sprigs chopped fresh cilantro Large half bunch or 15 to 20 sprigs chopped Vietnamese (Laos) mint Two chopped green onions Four large limes, juiced Meat: Two whole fish Eight sprigs of lemongrass or any of the following: One pound ground meat (chicken, beef or pork) 1 1/2 lbs shelled shrimp Two steaks Directions Laap Sauce: Toasted Rice In a wok or frying pan add a little oil. When the pan is hot toss in cooked rice. Cook for 5 minutes or until toasted constantly moving rice around the hot pan. Remove from heat. Laap Sauce Reserve 1/3 cup lime for the fish/meat. Combine all remaining sauce ingredients in a bowl and mix well. Add rice and mix well. Do not heat or cook sauce. Meat: Fish Cut up lemongrass into 3-inch sections. Coat with 1/3 of the lime juice. Put lemongrass inside the whole fish, cram in as much as you can fit. Coat fish lightly in sesame or olive oil with a brush. Wrap fish loosely in foil. Bake fish to your liking, and broil for five minutes for crispy skin. Remove lemongrass and remove the spine. Drizzle Laap sauce over and around the fish using all of the liquid. If there is any left over put in a small bowl and serve as a relish for the fish. Serve. Meat If using ground meat or shrimp: Toss meat in 1/3 reserved lime juice. Let sit for 5 minutes. Heat up a wok and add two tablespoons water. When water is boiling and the wok is hot add meat. Stir fry, breaking the ground meat into small pieces. When cooked through remove from heat. If not using lean meat, drain the fat. Toss the just cooked meat thoroughly with the laap sauce making sure it is well mixed. Serve. If using steaks: Let the steaks sit in lime juice for 10 minutes on both sides. Cook steak as you like it. Top the steak with Laap sauce making sure you divide the herbs and liquid evenly. Serve. We've noticed that most Sauvignon Blancs we've tried with it go well, as do some Pinot Grigios.
Wat Traimit and the unfinished sibling of the Royal Charoen Krung Twin Towers, Bangkok, Thailand. Seth Rosenblatt (c) 2005. Trying to find a tangible sign of an economic downturn can be tricky, but the abandoned skyscrapers of Bangkok make it easy by singing out their failures. Towers are meant to be coated in gleaming glass and stand proud against the sky, declaring their successful expression of human ingenuity. The wind whistles through the unfinished structure, and the skeletal architectural stew leaves but one question: What the hell were they thinking?
My Financial and Menu Adviser wearing a dress she made for my cousin's wedding, Yorba Linda, CA. Seth Rosenblatt (c) 2007. As Tom Waits said, "I don't mind going to weddings or anything... I mean, I show up." But to her credit, the FMA does a very good job of looking good when she shows up, no? Of course, you'd never see me wearing that dress.