Enjoy Your Meal
'To eat' correctly translated into Lao actually means gkin khao – to eat rice! Rice was and still is the main staple food in Asia but is consumed less and less thanks to populations' growing affluence. It used to be a huge bowl of rice with only a morsel or two of flavored ingredients (gkin kap khao – to eat with rice) which were prepared extra spicy to last the distance. In other times, when foodstuff was scarce and expensive but rice cheap and plentiful, it was done out of necessity. Today we do it because it is simply a delicious way to enjoy food as the rice tastes so good!
Eat In Style
… means that all the dishes, except for sweets and fresh fruit, are served at the same time and therefore all placed together in the middle of the table. Help yourself to this spread at your leisure instead of being told what to eat when in western style. Furthermore you can combine various dishes' flavors to create new ones. Except for noodles eaten as an inbetween snack, everyday meals are large affairs for the family, friends or community to join together for a feast. Eating is a social event.
A meal should be a delightful mix of opposites, of contradicting and thus complementing tastes in the tradition of 'yin and yang'.
• Flavors salty, sour, bitter, sweet, spicy hot in any combination, or bland
• Ingredients meat, innards, fish, vegetables and herbs, roots, spices
• Cooking grilled, fried, boiled, steamed
• Presentation dry, soup, curry, stew, dip
• Colors contrasting
For a big dinner you may first have a set of appetisers (kong kgaem / gkin len-len) which is then followed by the main dishes before finishing with sweets and fruit.
Unlike in the West, where one should have the courtesy to finish everything offered or else give the host the impression that her cooking was not tasty enough, in Asia not all the food is eaten. Instead, out of necessity for the family, and therefore out of courtesy from the guest, some should be left over. This is then kept under a fly screen on the kitchen table in consideration of whoever may get hungry later or arrive unexpectedly and, not least, for tomorrow's breakfast.
… and for the monks before that. Therefore extra quantities are produced as offerings during their ritual early morning rounds. In typically condescending western jargon this is generally called 'begging' which has led to the misnomer of a monk's 'begging bowl'. In fact, it provides a precious and convenient daily opportunity for the layperson to make merit by giving freely for a good cause, an act of charity. It is called 'giving alms' in proper English from which derives the 'alms bowl'; Now you know it. The laity looks after the bodily needs of the monks which permits them, in return, to fully dedicate their time and life to the spiritual world for the very benefit of the individual and community. Well, at least that's the theory.
… and by lunchtime another plate or two will have appeared to replenish what was finished. This process will go on delightfully and ever self-inventing, sustaining life and punctuating the time of the day.
A festive meal will last for hours, with participants coming and going … and reappearing. They will probably bring back another bottle of Whiskey and more food picked up at the street stall around the corner together with ice cubes sold everywhere in handy one kilo plastic bags.
Inevitably the cubes stick together so these bags are ceremoniously smashed on the table, banged against the wall or hammered with the pestle or Pepsi bottle – all part of the ritual.
Food is generally consumed at room temperature which, usually in the high twenties or low thirties Celsius, is certainly warm enough. Further north and higher up in the mountains this can pose a problem, though, during the winter months. A new trend is becoming noticeable where people like their food including rice and khao nio steaming hot when served. In the past it didn't matter; now it does.
A greeting, even to strangers, when enjoying a meal is inevitably an invitation to gkin khao (eat rice) accompanied by a gesture to sit down and join them instead of the usual sabaidee . And they mean it, join in. It can't get more hospitable than that!
The food described here is eaten with spoon (bouang / chohn) and fork (som) as is mostly the custom today. Therefore vegetables and meat should be cut small enough to conveniently fit the bowl of a spoon. Exceptions are whole fish or fish steaks where meat easily comes apart when worked with this extremely practical pair of tools or 'hand pieces' (keuang meu) .
A western acquaintance had, after many trips to Laos, finally adopted this sensible and civilized way of handling one's food. Upon his return to Germany his wife promptly called him a barbarian. Indeed! Who is civilized, the one who holds a spoon or wields a knife, a pen or a sword?
On this note, no Asian would ever dream of using a sharp knife for peeling fruit or vegetables by aiming it towards one's body. The proper method of doing the job is by aiming outwards, away from your body. If you are not used to it, this will take some practicing. It is easy when you have been brought up from a young age to do it this way, like sitting most comfortably with your legs crossed on the floor.
In upcountry homes food is most often consumed by means of a soup plate and a Chinese spoon which has a short handle and a big bowl. Tables set up for après- baci fortification, a wedding party, funeral wake or any excuse to celebrate feature these spoons together with chopsticks.
Each serving plate has its own spoon for the partakers to help themselves. Nowadays this custom is meticulously observed, even in the case of a soup. Previously one's spoon could freely dip into any communal offering.
The Universal Table Setting
A tool for everything
Who needs that stupid overload of eating tools on a western restaurant table which only serves to confuse and embarrass the uninitiated and succeeds to seriously annoy me. I'm ex-Lausanne Hotel School where we were taught all this nonsense as the expression of western sophistication. For enlightened simplicity take another look above.
Lao and Esan people love glutinous sticky rice (khao nio) as their main staple food which is eaten with fingers, delicious! Knead a big ball of it in the cup of your left hand. From this you tear small morsels to dip into and pickup bits of the various dry food on offer. A Chinese spoon is provided to help yourself to soups and stews like nam , tom, gaeng and or . The use of one's fingers to eat explains the prominent availability of washbasin, soap and towel in private homes and restaurants which allows you to wash your hands before and after meals.
Food is served on a low, mostly oval shaped, woven rattan platform (pha khoa) with people sitting cross legged on the floor. I am not invoking any privilege but old age to kindly ask for the mercy of a chair. Asians are brought up without unnecessary contraptions like chairs and beds, and are therefore totally at ease sitting around Buddha style. In western oriental romanticism this is mystifyingly called the Lotus Position.
Traditionally minded people, and not only the older generation, make a nop over their empty plate once they have finished eating by way of giving thanks for having been provided for.
Chopsticks are used in Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar to eat noodles and to transfer food from serving bowls onto your plate from where you proceed with spoon and fork. For the Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese chopsticks (mai touh) are the eating tools of choice together with the Chinese spoon for consuming soups.
The sauces in which food has been cooked are mostly discarded; they only serve to flavor the principle ingredient, to my great regret.
khao poun – khao jeen phoe – kwitio mee leuang – bamee sen lon – woonsen
(in Lao and Thai respectively) and khao soi in their vast choice have peacefully conquered south-east and fareast Asia millennia ago which has led to the universal adoption of chopsticks. One of these, bamee egg noodles, has ventured farther afield and has since beguiled not only the people of Italy but the entire world, Spaghetti! We owe them to the instant love affair of one Marco Polo of 13th century leisure travel fame who was unfortunately incarcerated in a Venetian (or was it in Genoa, I forget) dungeon as reward for his commendable inquisitiveness.
Rice as such is not eaten with chopsticks off a flat plate unless cooked rather wet, and thus sticky, like in Vietnam. Only tourists do this to show off and look utterly ridiculous in this hapless undertaking. Whatever morsel of food you have picked up with your chopsticks from one of the communal plates is put on top of the rice in your bowl which you then place at your lips, slightly tilted up. Proceed to shove this combination into your mouth, or put a morsel of food in your mouth which is followed by some rice in the same way.