Thursday, May 17, 2012

Laap in Leisurely Laos

Often dubbed the most laid-back nation in Asia, Laos is a country where people live by a very natural rhythm. Vientiane may be its capital city, but it remains as much a series of villages as a true metropolis. Lao cuisine shares much with that of Isan across the Mekong in northeastern Thailand, with a sharp and tangy palette of flavors typified by the dish known as laap.

While other Southeast Asian capitals have surged into the 21st century with swift economic development, mushrooming skyscrapers, jammed traffic, cluttered highways, and ever-spreading urban sprawl, Vientiane has set itself on a far more sedate path. Its leisurely spread along the northern shores of the Mekong River is still one mostly characterized by sparsely trafficked boulevards and quiet alleys.
The real name for the city is Wieng Chan – “City of Sandalwood.” It has endured a torrid history over the last two centuries, being overrun by both Burmese and Chinese marauders. In 1828 it was comprehensively sacked by the Thais, leaving temples smashed and broken, streets empty, and Lao nationhood in tatters.
The country rose again as a French protectorate toward the end of the 19th century, and it is their colonial-style buildings, together with magnificent Buddhist stupas and pagodas, that give the city its character, along with the slumberous movement of the mighty Mekong River that runs through it. The streets in the Chanthabuli district in the center of the city stretch back from the Mekong, intersected by the main boulevards of Samsenthai Road and Setthathirat Road. This is the heart of the city and the place to wander, linger, and eat.
Lao cuisine, like that of neighboring Isan in Thailand – whose inhabitants are ethnically the same people – is defined by fragrant fresh herbs, citrus, and pungent fish sauce, and laap, the flagship Laotian salad, has them all in spades. It is most often made using beef, chicken, pork, or sometimes fish, thinly sliced, chopped, or minced, with flavorings that vary from region to region and, indeed, chef to chef.
Typically, the meat or fish is stir-fried quickly over high heat with chili peppers, lemongrass, and garlic, then mint, lime juice, lime rind, pepper sauce, peanuts, onion, and cilantro are stirred in. The whole mixture is then spooned onto lettuce leaves. Roughly ground, toasted rice (khao khua), vital to the character of the dish, is added as a topping, garnished with mint leaves or heady Thai basil. Even when served with the meat still warm, and with the ubiquitous basket of sticky Lao rice on the side, the result is so delightfully refreshing that you’ll soon be ready to stroll the streets once more.

A reclining Buddha in the eccentric Buddha Park, constructed entirely from concrete by a Laotian mystic in the 1950s

Best Places to Eat Laap

Nang Khambang
For a no-nonsense taste of laap at its finest in genuinely authentic, everyday Lao surroundings, Nang Khambang is the place. The name means “Mrs. Khambang,” and it’s a family-run eatery that has been in the same location for three generations. Everything here is of the highest quality, and the laap is no exception. The restaurant offers air-conditioned and non-airconditioned seating and, in a country where service can be slow, the staff are very attentive and efficient. In addition to the laap, Nang Khambang offers excellent paa neua on, a kind of lightly grilled and seasoned freshwater fish.
Also on the menu are Mekong River fish and a sour fish soup, not unlike Thai tom yam, called kaeng som paa. Their tam mak hoong (green papaya salad) is also excellent; here it comes with tiny freshwater shrimp and baby tomatoes. Although Nang Khambang is now well publicized among travelers and tourists, it is still also heavily patronized by a Lao clientele – always a sure sign of quality. Nor have the prices been raised beyond the reach of local people.
Khum Bulom, Vientiane; open noon–9 PM daily; +856 21 217 198

Laap combines all the sharp and tangy tastes so characteristic of the region
Also in Vientiane
Amphone (+856 21 212 489; expensive) is a gourmet affair where Lao cuisine is given an international “makeover.” It is set in beautiful surroundings and the ambience is one defined by chic furnishings, subdued jazz, and a fine wine list. The laap here is one of many excellent renditions of Lao culinary standards, as is the steamed fish citronella in banana leaves.
Also in Laos
Luang Prabang is the ancient capital of Laos and is an exquisite little town in the mountains now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site. In addition to the plethora of ancient temples and the beauty of the French-era colonnaded streets, it is home to some very fine restaurants.
Tamnak Lao (; expensive), housed in an old French colonial villa, offers an extensive menu of artfully prepared Lao dishes including laap with pork, chicken, or fish.
Around the World
Given the colonial history of Laos, it is no surprise that the best purely Lao restaurants outside the country itself are found in Paris (although Isan Thai restaurants are found all over the globe and the food is hugely similar).
Lao Lane Xang (+66 1 45 85 19 23; moderate) is to be found in Paris’s bustling Chinatown district. It is hugely popular for both lunch and dinner thanks to its low prices, excellent service, and the authenticity of the Lao fare served. It is a good idea to make a reservation.
What Else to Eat
Lao cuisine is derived using ingredients mainly from the wild or from the rice field. Kop yat sai, or stuffed frog, is something of a delicacy.
Naem khao (rice-and-sausage ball) is a salad made with deep-fried rice balls, grated coconut, chopped peanuts, Lao fermented pork sausage, sliced shallots, mint, cilantro, lemon juice, and fish sauce. Foe (rice noodle soup) is very similar to Vietnamese pho (see pp238–9), and is the ubiquitous breakfast dish in Laos. Tam mak hoong (green papaya salad), literally meaning “pounded papaya,” is a sharp and spicy salad made from unripened papaya. Barbecued chicken, or ping kai, is a favorite in every street market in Laos. It is marinated in a delicious mixture of fish sauce, garlic, turmeric, coriander, and white pepper, then slowly grilled over low heat on a charcoal burner.
A Day in Vientiane
One of the wonderful things about Vientiane is that the sights can be covered in one day: a pleasure best punctuated along the way with stops for a cup of fresh filtered Lao coffee or a glass of Lao beer.
MORNING : Start with the Ho Phra Kaew Art Museum, a temple originally built to house the celebrated Emerald Buddha, later appropriated by Siam in 1779. Today it is a museum containing religious art. Then take in Wat Phra That Luang: this giant, golden Buddhist stupa is a defining symbol of Vientiane.
AFTERNOON : The National Museum, in a rambling old colonial structure, is a fascinating collection of artifacts from various eras of Lao history. Then take a taxi 15 miles (24 km) along the river to the Buddha Park, a fanciful sculpture garden full of Hindu and Buddhist statuary.
EVENING : Sunset over the Mekong is a show in itself. Back in town, if you’re not heading for Nang Khambang for dinner, there are many traditional restaurants lining the river to the west of the main riverfront promenade. One of the best is Sala Khoun Ta.
Getting to Laos
Wattay International Airport is a short taxi ride from the center of town. Alternatively, one can cross the Mekong from Thailand. Visa on arrival is available whichever route you choose.
Where to stay in Laos
Mali Namphu Guest House (inexpensive) is an atmospheric ocher-walled building constructed around a shaded courtyard.
Hotel Khamvongsa (moderate) is brand-new and is situated in a converted French villa near the river.
Settha Palace Hotel (expensive) is a renovated French colonial masterpiece with great charm and excellent dining.

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