Food


I’m reminded of a documentary I saw on a man working to distributed iodine-supplement salt in China. Thyroid disorders were very prevelant in the areas the rice was distributed. A tiny amount of iodine added to someones diet can fix all these problems. Free rice with the addition of iodine seemed the perfect way to distribute this dietry supplement.

Apparently some people receiving the free rice didn’t eat it but instead sold it. They believed the rice was not good for their health and tasted funny. Some people just feed it to their animals. Rumours had started to circulate, who knows from where, that the rice was poisonous. Although it seems tragically ignorant for them reject the rice I can understand how history may have taught people not to trust foreigners and to skeptical about any free gifts from them. We always tell children never to accept lollies from strangers. Perhaps if they sold the rice, maybe even with a premium price, it would have gained more acceptance.

In Laos there are many organizations that distribute food in the country. I’m told that in some parts of the countries at certain times of the year there are very low food supplies because you can not grow rice. Most Lao people eat sticky rice. Sticky rice is very expensive to buy in bulk when compared to white rice (the variety you would eat in a Chinese restaurant). However the opposite is true for small quantities, such as a market in Vientiane, where white rice would be more expensive.

I’m not exactly sure why this is true. It might be something to do with the fact that there isn’t much demand for sticky rice outside of Laos, so there’s no one producing large amounts of it for exporting.

Buying sticky rice in bulk might be 2 times more expensive than white rice, possibly even more.

So some development organizations buy white rice rather than sticky rice to save money. There are problem in that many Lao people don’t like or really know how to eat white rice. Unlike sticky rice, after eating white rice they don’t feel full. They may also not really know how to cook white rice. They may also dislike the taste and texture of white rice and it may not go as well with their other types of food they eat.

So sometimes the villagers don’t eat the free rice that’s given to them. They may instead use it as animal feed.

This story highlights to me the problem of poverty and malnutrition not being an engineering problem. Throwing money, resources and rice at the problem won’t necessarily fix it. Like that famous horse analogy, you can take a person white rice but you can’t force them to eat it. I’m reminded of the US army dropping rations in Afghanistan as a relief effort to Afghani population during their war with the Taliban. Apparently the rations contained Western food such as peanut butter. Unfamiliar with this strange food most people chose not to eat it.

Giving people the food that is the most nutritious for them may not always work. They need to be consulted and it has to fit in with their existing diet, otherwise people simply won’t eat it. Americans definitely have the money and resources to have a healthier diet than they currently have, but the fact they choose not to shows that having a healty diet isn’t always people’s number one priority in life.

Another volunteer has been up in Northern Laos working on a Iron Chef like project for the UN. He’s trying to do some cooking education to encourage an improved diet in some villages. He asked his helpers to go to the market and buy a large variety of vegetables. They’re going to have a cook off to try and create some new things, get some new ideas across and hopefully have a delicious meal.

The other problem that occurs when you start giving away food for free is that it lowers the prices of food and hurts the profits of those who grow food to sell to others, usually themselves poor people. For example, if an organisation were to start giving out cows for free this would lower the price of cows and negatively impacts the anyone who already owned some cows. This is not a good thing for them if that cow represented a significant part of their life savings.

Pahdek is a fermented fish sauce used in Lao cuisine. As far as I can tell, it’s made by putting a bunch of fish in a bucket to rot. Visually, it looks like a bucket of human waste. The smell is so horrible that no one phrase or word is enough to describe it. Here are a collection of figurative descriptions I have collected in an attempt to accurately convey just how horrid it smells:

  • An unholy stench
  • An abomination against the nose
  • Pure evil originating from the Devil’s own arse
  • A smell most foul
  • It smells better coming out than going in
  • Probably the worse smell in the entire world

My family visited me this week for four days. We managed to visit quite a number of Vientiane’s finest restaurants. They were impressed by the quality of food available for such a low price.

Le Central is a French restaurant that has a 3 course set lunch for only $6.5. It’s one of the nicest restaurants in Vientiane. I have also been there for dinner and found the menu to be good value for money. The average mains are $8 to $10. The construction taking place outside the restaurant will certainly have hurt the restaurant’s business.

Chateaux De La Cave (or something like that) is another restaurant near Nam Phu (the water fountain). You can get a set menu with steak there for only $6, even for dinner.

Just away from the water fountaine is a Crepe restaurant. I’ve tried the dessert crepes here and thought they were very nice. It’s rather pricey though, at about $3.5 to $5.5 for a dessert crepe.

Ku Lao is the nicest looking Lao restaurant I’ve been to in Vientiane. The menu is very extensive but not too expensive. It’s probably double what you would pay at the lower end Lao restaurants, but they have a free performance of musicians and dancers every night. The mains seemed to be about $3 to $5 on average.

I visited Xyaoh cafe for the first time. They have a range of western and lao food. On Sundays they are a British roast, which is $5.5 and includes a beer lao. You get Yorkshire pudding,  a load of roast vegetables and a just adequate serving of roast meat. It’s a pretty good meal and good value for money.

I am going to try and keep my restaurant bills and put up scanned images of them on this blog. This will give a better idea of the prices and food available at various restaurants in Vientiane.

There is a Lao Cultural show in Vientiane. It’s pretty good. For $7 you get a 1 hour show with about a dozen performers and a dozen different performances. Some are dances, some a songs. The costumes are quite interesting. The lonely planet guide describes the show as “professional” and I agree. At the end the audience even gets the chance to get up on stage and dance with the performers. Just another tourist thing to do in Vientiane.

I went to a work buffet on the weekend. The older Lao males loaded up their plates with snails. I’m not sure what type of snails they were. I don’t know if they were water or land based. My rough estimate is that they would have eaten about a dozen and a half each. It might be the French influence that accounts for this large consumption of snails. The younger Lao people didn’t touch them and seemed even more adverse to the snails than I was. They told me that it gives them jep thong (stomach ache).

The most commonly eaten food in Lao offices for lunch is probably instant noodles. It’s very cheap and a lot of people eat it for lunch. My work colleagues tell me that they eat so much instant noodles their heads will soon turn into noodles.

A fellow volunteer has a mango tree but only retrieves the occasional mango from it. Most of them are taken by the local factory workers who climb his wall and take the mangoes. His landlord, who lives next door, also helps himself to the mangoes.

The boldest mango takers are the local kids.  They wait until he goes to open his front gate, push him out of the way, then run into his front yard and grab a mango.

Walking towards the Vientiane Bowling Centre for another volunteer’s birthday celebrations, I spot a bakery along our way. It’s main feature are two glass fronted fridges side by side, filled with colourful cakes. One looks like it’s icing has been made out of watermelon. I suggest that we buy a cake as a birthday gift to our fellow volunteer. At this point a young man pokes his head behind the fridge and comes to assist us. He’s wearing a awfully tight shirt and even tighter short, shorts. We point to a cake and ask “tao dai?” (how much). He quickly darts back to behind the fridges and into the shop, returning with two ladyboy friends to help us. The most knowledgeable one comes forward to help us with the price. He’s dressed in a red mesh shirt that reminds of the villain Bennet from the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie “Commando”.

The lady boys look like they’re off duty. They’ve got the clothes but they don’t have the makeup. The bakery wall is covered with pictures of seemingly thai models and tv/movie female stars. Role models perhaps, looks to aspire to.

The lady boys ask us to write a message on a white board, which they then expertly and perfectly recreate on the cake. They work together in a group, one writes while the others watch to make sure she’s not making any mistakes. They help interpret some letters he doesn’t understand.

We walk out with our 30’000 kip cake (approximately $3 USD) from three very unique bakers.

 

Ladyboys in Laos

Ladyboys in Laos are not uncommon, and are largely accepted by the community. A Lao guy I met told me that this is a recent change, and that 10yrs ago they would have been unable to so openly show themselves in public for fear of persecution. During the Lao New Year parade 5 ladyboys featured quite prominently, leading the final float. There are some photos of them on my flickr website. They were heavily targetted for water throwing by the crowd, and there was a lot of laughing at them, especially by children.

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There is a Ladyboy working girl who hangs around the main fountain in Vientiane’s central area. Two volunteers have been accosted by her, and one was even groped quite aggressively. I told them that instead of saying no and running away, they should have instead asked tao dai (how much?) and peng pawt (too expensive). Another volunteer saw her driving off on the back of a young phalang’s (foreigner) bike one evening. He looked very pissed, and there was a good chance he’d wake up the next morning very regretful. I can imagine a crying game happens every night in this town. This is the story they should tell young Australian volunteers to scare them from getting too drunk while overseas. One volunteer’s friends had joked with him that our pre departure training for our assignments to Laos lacked a “Ladyboy detection” workshop.

I’ve realised that it’s been almost 6 weeks since I’ve prepared a meal, not counting cereal or instant noodles. I haven’t even made a sandwhich. Now I know how my friend JBC has gone 25 years without preparing a meal. I think I could comfortably get through this entire year without cooking. There is an buffet korean style BBQ down my street for about $3.5 AUD. This is the closest I think I will ever get to cooking in Laos.