For breakfast every morning, we head to a local food stall and make bowl motions with our hands and indicate how many we’d like (we’ve learned our numbers!). For this, we are given delicious bowls of noodle soup. You pick what kind of noodle you’d like, then meat or veg, and they add bean sprouts, greens, or long beans. Over all this, they pour hot broth and garnish with garlic. It’s usually served alongside an entire plate of lettuce, lime wedges, hot peppers, mint, cilantro and purple basil. These are all chucked into the soup, lettuce included (it’s used like any other leafy green around here – like kale or spinach). Most stands will give you complimentary tea as well. The other option for brekkie is usually rice porridge, but the noodle soup is just so delicious that we’ve only opted for porridge once, just to try it.
If you’d like a coffee in the morning, as J usually does, it’s probably going to come from a 3-in-1 packet. As in, instant coffee with sugar and powdered creamer. We were only able to find “fresh coffee” in large cities, and usually quite expensive. The exception to this rule is Lao Coffee (above), which can also be found in some parts of Thailand. Lao coffee is a half cup of intense, nutty, flavorful coffee served over a half cup of condensed milk. The result is often described as “teeth-clenchingly sweet,” but after you get used to it, it’s pretty delicious. Maybe as dessert.
Other drinks of note: Delicious blended teas which basically involve a variety of sun-dried herbs, fruits, and spices thrown into a cup with hot water. Soy milk, sold in small juice boxes at markets in at least 20 different flavors, or sold in bags by a guy with a bell on a bicycle/scooter/tuk-tuk with all the bags dangling from the handlebars by rubber bands (above). Fruit smoothies – ’nuff said. And beer – in Thailand, usually Chang, Sing ha, or Leo, which all taste about the same. It’s a cheap, light lager, usually served in a glass over ice. In Laos, it’s Beerlao, the regular isn’t half bad but the dark was a winner. Apparently an winner of “international awards,” if you believe the label. Though any beer you get is potentially skunked or expired. Beervana – do your magic!!
Street snacks – walk in any direction down any main street and you will find someone selling meat on a stick. This is sometimes meat on skewers – can be chunks of meat, unique parts – e.g. chicken tails (pretty much just fat) – can be small fish or octopus whole, can be ribs – two skewers required! These are pre-cooked, but put on the coals to warm for you when ordered. Sometimes instead of a skewer it is larger piece of meat – a larger fish, or half a chicken – lashed between two pieces of bamboo. Sometimes it’s dried meats or squid (tastes like kombu, but the consistency of jerkey), sometimes meatballs or sausage, which are not just meat inside, but also noodles and large chunks of garlic, ginger, and lemongrass. If it’s “sour sausage,” it’s fermented. And delicious.
Also sometimes on skewers, though we still haven’t figured out how it’s possible, is khai – egg. One of J’s first food words, and one which has proved very useful. Unfortunately, she’s learned it without any qualifiers, such as boiled, incubated, raw, etc. Thus, sometimes we order it and get surprises – the eggs on skewers, which have been emptied, rid of the yolk, and put back into the shell with chives and black pepper (not bad in a processed-meat kind of way. . .). What we’ve come to call tea-eggs, which are hard-boiled in some sort of Chinese 5-spice and are Oh so delicious. Quail eggs, which pretty much taste like chicken eggs but you eat five times as many. Or, fairly commonly, soft-boiled, fertilized and partially incubated duck eggs (aftermath above). As in, there’s sort of a fetus inside. Gross-looking and difficultly textured, but surprisingly good in flavor. If you can believe it, we’ve tried it more than once.
Ethnic street foods – lots of Chinese and Indian restaurants in big cities, but also steam bun or samosa stands on street corners. Also Burmese roti, or pancake, though it’s actually more of a crepe. It’s folded around an egg (and sometimes with the optional addition of nutella or sliced banana) and drizzled with condensed milk. Sometimes it’s served sliced in a plastic bag with sticks to eat with. Sometimes you also find crepe stands geared towards kids that drizzle flavored sugar syrups and serve in awesome anime-decorated paper cones (above).
Chinese hot pot meals. In the center of the table, you receive a bucket of hot coals topped with a pot of broth. You are also given a plate of assorted raw meats, sometimes topped with a raw egg, and a basket filled with raw noodles, cabbage, vegetables and herbs. You eat fondue-style, by dropping all of these things into your broth and then serving yourself ever-changing tiny bowlfuls of the resulting soup. Lots of fun, but only if you’re patient and like sharing food. If you’re starving and have a large group, this is not the way to go.
Rice, of course, is a main staple. Most restaurants will serve a basic meal option of a plate of rice topped with some sort of meat or vegetable in sauce. Usually, it is served with a few slices of cucumber (to cool the heat), extra sauce (very often tamarind sauce of the kind used in pad thai – delicious), and a small bowl of broth to go with your meal. Something I’m fairly certain is unique to Laos and Eastern Thailand – Sticky rice as something entirely different from steamed rice. It is partially dried and then stored in loosly-woven baskets to allow airflow. The rice is eaten by pinching off small balls with your fingers and dipping it into your sauce/soup/broth/curry. It tastes a bit like mochi, but, of course, still in grains.
Another eastern specialty is Larp – usually described as meat salad. It is meat, usually pork or chicken, ground up with garlic, hot peppers, and ginger. And it’s delicious. Although once we bought a bag of it on the street and J was stabbed in the mouth by a bone shard and was totally turned off of larp for awhile because of the bleeding.
There’s other interesting regional differences. Noodles are most often made of rice, but come thin, like vermicelli, flat, like pad thai, “wide noodles,” like pad si ew, or rolled flat and folded into a large, gummy square at the bottom of your bowl. In Thailand, curries are coconut based and delicious. In the east, they’re more Indian or Burmese in flavor – smokier and a bit of sour sauce. Further south you find more Indian and Malay spices and flavors. Green papaya salad is another personal favorite. It’s incredible to watch it made on the street here – a woman holds the green papaya in one hand and a special machete with a grater in the other. She thwacks the papaya into perfect little wedges, connected in the center, then takes the grater side and slices them all into a large mortar and pestle thing. She grinds in garlic, hot pepper, tomato wedges and long beans, and voila! Som yam Thai is usually fresher tasting and garnished with peanuts and tiny dried shrimps. Som yam Lao is heavier on the tomato and fish sauce. Both are incredibly spicy and refreshing.
Other things of note: Green beans which are 3 feet long. Pumpkins that grow in trees. 8 different kinds of eggplant. Fruits such as mangosteen (delicious), durian (disgusting) and the propensity to pick fruits green (mango, papaya, even guava). Also, an odd propensity to put vegetables into ice creams and yogurts – most often kernels of corn and small pieces of green beans. In a picturesque note, just about everything can be dried on trays or mats in the sun. Probably ads to the dust factor, definitely looks delicious. This includes grasses, chili, sliced bananas, even sliced meats.
And now I have a story for you which exemplifies all the SEA hospitality and readiness to serve, farang stereotypes and strange foods. It was Noche Buena, and we were celebrating Xmas with our rock climbing buddies, none of whom were Cuban, so J was the only one looking for festivities. The two of us decided to go out for a nice dinner together, and decided that we would get ourselves one of those whole roasted ducks we’d seen dangling tantalisingly in restaurant windows. However, once we’d set our quest, we wandered high and low and couldn’t find a single restaurant like those we pictured.
Finally we were browsing the menu outside an establishment and the proprietor came over to us, asked us what we wanted. J explained that we were looking for BBQ duck, and even flapped her wings and quacked a few times. Without blinking an eye, the woman said that they didn’t have it there, nor could she think of a nearby place that would, but if we came in and sat down, she would get some for us, which she would serve with roasted vegetables for a reasonable price.
Um, yes, that sounds great. We sat down and ordered drinks, and a girl drove away on a scooter. She took awhile, but when she returned, our plates were served within minutes. It smells delicious. It’s heavily marinated in a BBQ sauce piled with lemongrass and kafir lime. It’s a bit cold and tough, though. Huh. And y’know, this totally tastes like red meat. She probably just served us water buffalo (beef around here is all water buffalo). We were still trying to be excited and festive, and were halfway through our plates before J got a really tough piece she pulled out of her mouth and totally recognized as nose. And you guys, we had been chuckling earlier that the menu had offered “yokhurt with fruit”. As in, this woman had trouble with Gs and Ks. Not only had we just eaten dog, we had just special-ordered dog.
It was tough and tasted like it had lived on the street, but Laos are famous for eating absolutely everything except the Irrawaddy dolphins. And that sauce was pretty delicious.
Now eating our way through Malaysia, which has an entirely different set of culinary delights! Lots of Chinese and Indian influence here. And that means delicious.