Eating fried river weed and other delights in Laos

I was warned by a tour guide in Luang Prabang, who was teaching me a few words in Lao, “Be careful how you order buffalo meat because…um….er….you could end up asking for something between a man’s legs.”

Since I don’t eat red meat, I faced no risk of asking for any embarrassing fleshy bits. What I was keen to sample however, was ‘Khai Paen’.

I doubt that a description of ‘Khai Paen’ will ever have anyone salivating. It is after all river

Collecting river weed from the Nam Kha river to prepare Khai Paen.

weed dried, flattened and then deep fried and served with a sprinkling of sesame seeds accompanied with a spicy tomato-red paste.

But by the time the river weed arrives at the dinner table, it looks distinctly like squares of a banana leaf and tastes quite good too – crunchy and firm; more like strange, green pappadom rather than hairy, fried threads. However, I couldn’t eat too much of it because tiny droplets of oil were still sliding off its slender sides every time I lifted a piece off the plate and I couldn’t help feeling that with every bite a little cup of oil was being squeezed and drained neatly into my system.

Oily Khai Paen at the dinner table.

For my main course I ordered ‘Mok Pa Nin’ which is a steamed Mekong Tilapia fish with a whole variety of herbs cooked in a banana leaf. The fish meat was cooked perfectly soft and warm and the aroma that first escaped the banana wrapping seemed very promising. But I didn’t enjoy it too much because I strongly suspected that the chef had mindlessly pounded the fish with herbs while having a heated argument on the phone with his wife.

Finally it was time for dessert. I have a sweet tooth so this is the part of the meal I

Coconut custard with caramalised ginger.

generally look forward to the most. I ordered ‘Sangkhagna Ming Nam King’ which is coconut custard with caramalized ginger. I’m always excited by subversive desserts like this because they use ingredients in places where you least expect them. I was not disappointed. Caramalized ginger has a nice sharp taste and it complemented the mild coconut custard very nicely.

You will find several disturbingly stylish restaurants in Luang Prabang where you can try Lao as well as fusion French-Lao food. The above meal was eaten at a restaurant called Coconut Garden on the main high street that cuts through town.

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