I was half way into Tom Waits’ Swordfish Trombone when our bus abruptly stopped. Up ahead, huge flames leapt up onto the road as the entire lower half of the mountain was ablaze. Fire, as it happens, is not one of my fears, so I slip my headphones back on and waltz back into my daze. Fifteen minutes later, I resurface and find that we’re still there. Looking around the bus, I realize not everyone is as accepting of our current position and that the flames have moved in behind us, torching the pavement with a golden fury. A black smoke seeps in through the windows, as a few frightened backpackers scurry to shut them. It quickly becomes a sauna and the panes of glass are hot enough to turn your cheeks red. I did a little slash burning when I was a kid -- talk about an exhilarating experience; running through the clear-cut mountains with barrels of kerosene, torching everything in sight. The fire here, while most likely begun intentionally, now seemed to be a bit out of control. As I learn later, the Laotians don't really differentiate between the two; doing that would mean having to put it out. The driver, realizing that his prudence was actually putting us in greater jeopardy, floored it and we sped through the flames and around the bend to encounter, of course, more flames. The perilous road was dangerous without the fire: speeding old Citroens, military jeeps and decrepit buses all racing down the ribbon of blacktop that looped through the mountains.
Hours later, our ash covered bus rolls into the ancient royal capital of Luang Prabang. Its thumb-like peninsula protrudes at the confluence of two main rivers, the Mekong and the Nam Kahn. We're dropped where the “finger” meets the “hand” at the base of the Phu Si hill. 320 fractured steps lead up to a lofty summit, perfect for gazing out over the tranquil town. I find the Villa Santi, a 120 year old mansion that used to be home for Princess Khampha and now is converted into a small hotel. It's only $50.00 a night, but still well out of my humble price range. Nearby are cheaper accommodations featuring a bare room with a shared bathroom down the hall. It smells of urine and mold. I change and leave quickly.
A stroll along the Nam Kahn River takes me by trays of flattened rice and fish drying in the sun. Travelers with ample time sit placidly reading books and sipping Beer Lao in cafes, which were converted from old French-style houses. The streets are wide and encroached by brawny old trees and overgrown forest brush. Making the turn at the fingertip, you come upon Wat Xiang Thong. Built in 1560 by King Selthathilat, it's pavillions, stupas and gardens are a sanctuary of Therawada Buddhism. It is impossible to go anywhere in this town without being in or within close proximity to its 32 historic temples, most of which are active with monks wrapped in saffron colored robes. They are the pulse of Laung Prabang and each morning they file through the streets while followers gather to pay alms.
I'm a restless person, tranquility drives me crazy. I used to be the John McEnroe of the kitchen, throwing tantrums to keep myself engaged. I had a girlfriend once who loved to take long walks in picturesque parks; she'd bring binoculars to stare at the birds and I'd pack the radio to listen to the game.
The serenity of LP can no doubt be blamed on Buddhism, the humble holiness that imbues the culture like a mist from a magic wand. I befriended a few young monks outside of an art school under a gangly tree. They were both from a village further north and had come for an education, hoping to relocate someday to a temple in Thailand. I asked them if they'd ever felt like just taking the afternoon off to do a little swimming and they smiled in affirmation. We chatted about a lot of stuff from the karma of eating or killing bugs to reaching Nirvana through meditation. Curious, I ask how you know when you've reached it, they just shrugged. I tell them it may be easier to just drop a pill and head for a concert. I share my favorite punk rock tale of seeing Black Flag in East L.A. Two guys flanked the stage holding shotguns, as the insurgent skinheads flailed violently over the polished concrete floor. I remember standing in front of the stacks of beat up black speakers, my head stuck inside the throat of the woofer and being swallowed by the vortex of a three chord progression. Music is an amazing vehicle which has captured me on several occasions. I've never seen god or had any revelations, but it's as close to a spiritual occurrence as I've ever come.
The next day, determined to be more productive, I get myself up early and head to the Talat That Luang Market at the other end of town. It's quiet along the Mekong and it moves so slow you can't tell which direction it's traveling. I pass a grade school of kids neatly dressed in their uniforms doing calisthenics. Further along is the Royal Palace, where, outside, an elderly lady stretches candle wax over a long wick attached to an iron bar. A dozen or so guys rest up against some three-wheeled vehicles halfheartedly offering me a ride. Getting a fare would mean losing an opportunity to shoot the shit. I'm not a history buff (that must be painfully obvious by now, but sometimes I can just kinda feel a place). Here, you just sense that however peaceful it may seem, this red-tinted soil has seen its share of struggles. As I near the market, the Sawngthaews (pick-ups trucks with benches that serve as taxis) swirl around carrying villagers with burlap bags of root vegetables, kitchen wares and live chickens trussed together at their feet. It's bustling with villagers, as I break into my routine, camera and notepad in hand.
As I head for the perishable foods, I pass some unusual looking dry goods. There's Si Kahn, a branch used to flavor soups and stews; it's soaked in water, then used like a bay leaf and gives off a peppery-ginger flavor. Next to it is Mah, a seed from a fruit; both the outer shell and the seed are chewed as sort of a recreational activity for the older folks. Wrapped in small bundles are Nang Mi and Nang Moor and, according to the monks to whom I showed the pictures, these barks are used for medicinal teas.
I neared the wet market and a slaughter house smell wafted through the air. It was dark under the shack-like roofing; long wooden tables lay end-to-end, filled with pigs on my left and cows on my right. It was carnage, pure and simple. No hooks, no shelves, no trays, no refrigeration, just meat, blood, hooves and snouts laid conveniently on the tables with flies swarming above. For those of you who are now gasping, this is not an unusual sight. Hell, you can see a version of it in most ethnic markets in the US. What made it a little different is there was no omission -- they sold it all. Fergus Henderson (the London chef famous for cooking off-cuts) would be in heaven. On the pig side, you could get the tail fully cleaned or with the skin and hair still on it. Blood came two ways too: fresh in plastic bags or congealed in large blocks. Even in the drab lighting, it was devil red and glowing. You could purchase the head whole or parted out; ears, snout, eyelids and tongue, not to mention the best parts, brain, intestines and stomach. In the Water Buffalo section, they had Sin Sawan, sun-dried buffalo meat in rectangular sheets. If you weren't in the mood for jerky, then maybe some hooves would appeal, which they sold from the calf down. Behind the table, a few vendors were grilling them skin-on, the hair flickering as it burned away. I told them their stock would be much clearer if they skinned it first and washed the dirt off the hoof. The guy answered by telling me that it's not used for just stock, but for eating too.
Oh great, I'll make sure I stay out of that line. On the cow side of things, it got even more interesting. For some reason, their cows produce more stomach than meat, because they were piled up like they were headed for Baboo. The animals are slaughtered nearby the night before and the bulk of the butchering is done by these stall owners; so, all the by products are on hand. We've all eaten the by-products – they’re called hot dogs and hamburgers. As they butcher, they toss it all into bowls: sinew, tendons, innards, etc. In the middle of all this was a twisted heap of bloody meat, bones and eyeballs. It looked like they had turned the cow inside out. My inquiries lead to an explanation that it was a miscarriage calf. We've included the picture and stuck it down at the bottom, just in case you'd rather not look. I recently received a few e-mails from friends informing me that I was turning them into vegetarians. I'm sorry. We're all just used to eating meat in more sanitized forms, away from the death and carnage. But think of a lion as it captures the antelope; it's all part of food chain, which I've become more in tune with. There's a great piece by Thomas Keller in the French Laundry book where he kills some rabbits so he would understand fragility of life. From this reverence, he felt obliged to cook with more care, wasting nothing and appreciating everything. In many ways it rings of the teachings of this religious land: harmony, balance, birth and rebirth. They consume all parts of the kill and eat it sparingly. They live side-by-side with the animals and, in the case of the chickens, it's hard to tell sometimes whose house it is.
That afternoon, I ran into Tess while sipping mulberry tea at the tea-used book hideaway nestled at the foot of the Phu Si hill. She told me about a night market of prepared Laotian food off of the evening textile and craft bazaar. She was reading a National Geographic from 1972 with an article about Hoi An. Having been there myself, I gave her more recent account.
The night was cool with a nice mountain breeze. The food market was a long and narrow lane off of the main road. Rows of tables were set up on both sides with poles between them, each dangling a light bulb attached to an extension cord. The tables were lined with ugly, folksy ceramic bowls filled with a plethora of dishes. It reminded me of a college Asian social, where a bunch of homesick students got together to make bad renditions of traditional foods, with the multicolored plastic tablecloths, the cheesy canned music. I gotta tell you, I may never learn to like Asian music -- all those whiny noises and clanky sounds. There were guys grilling whole river fish, chicken, small-ish wild birds and glistening pork sausages. Each vendor had a small stick with a plastic bag tied to the end, which they shook methodically in the air to frighten the flies away. At the very end of the market were a few tables set up for Farlang (foreigners). They were inhabited by mostly backpackers gorging themselves on the platters and bowls of food placed out like a huge picnic. After scouting it out, I realized that the food being served to the backpackers was very different from the rest. But, up above where the Laotians were, there were no plates or tables for eating. The locals all took the food to-go. I was determined to eat the real deal, so I went back to the backpacker table paid a dollar for the use a plate and headed up the path. By this time, a few of the Laotians were curious -- they'd never had someone come with a plate. I just sorta helped myself, then parked it at the corner of a stall where a lady was smiling and serving three different salads. I asked her if I ate her salads, could I sit at her table? She brought me some strange drink, a napkin (toilet paper) and a spoon for my soup and helped explain all the things I was eating. It was quite a list: Saa, a salad of finely julliened cow’s stomach, peanuts, bean sprouts and a dressing made from macerated cows bladder, lemon and Pak Pam, a minty herb; Som Teen Qui, pickled buffalo tendon, which is boiled, pickled and tossed with shallots, chilies, fresh garlic and, I'm guessing, fermented fish sauce; Gaeng Kute, an unusual soup with funny-shaped boiled eggs, potato, rice noodles and bitter greens; the traditional Oh Lam, a stew of eggplant, wood ear mushrooms, pork and dried squirrel, the main flavoring agent being Si Kahn and some bitter greens. There were dishes of lightly cooked bamboo shoots with chrysanthemum flowers, sautéed morning glory and soured fish heads. One of my favorites was braised buffalo skin with garlic, chilies and Mah Ken, a spice that for me resembles coriander. These are tastes I'd never come across before. Eating uncommon cuts of meats or offal isn't new, but having a cuisine with so many new flavors was fascinating.
I ventured back out onto the main street where the craft market was winding down. Farlangs were hastily bartering with vendors that just smiled and repeated the next-to-nothing price. I just hung back and soaked in the absolute beauty of the women of Laos. Their alluring eyes and calming demeanor filtered through the shimmering moonlight, with skin so perfectly smooth and sensual, it's like they bathed all day in Kiels products. At the mouth of the market, I found dessert. A mother and daughter sat on stools, delicately wrapping petite pouches of sticky rice paste in fresh lettuce leaves. Each was flavored differently, from the colorful display of sliced green figs, minced lemongrass and chilies and a puree of sweetened eggplant. Two gals from Manchester, who I had met two days prior, joined in and we kept them busy for about twenty minutes. It was a study in texture and balance, clinging sour mush, sweet soft puree, bitter tough surprises, a touch of heat and the cool refreshing wrapping. They were called, Miang.
The girls were off to a pub, but I couldn't see putting beer into my already bloated tummy, so I wandered back through the alleys in the direction of home. I felt like I was camping -- darkness lurking around every corner, trees that bring shade by day were now on the prowl. The air was still filled with the scent of fire as I made my way for the Mekong along an ancient stone path. Darkness is a fear of mine, so I move briskly and hunt for the comfort of a crowd.
"The older you get, the wiser you get." Who believes that shit? The older I get, the more I realize how little I know and if that's wisdom, please make me naive again. The only thing age has bestowed upon me is grey hair, a pot belly and lots of regret. Mostly, I concern myself with the first two; the latter just results in a bounty of "what if's?" and "why not me's?" that manifests in a larger belly and more grey hairs. I reached a point in my life where I knew I needed to shake it up a bit. My relationship had plateau’ed and my work had become routine. Life does that to you -- it lulls you into a ritual where real experiences become more difficult to have. Around and around we go, like the covered wagon in the old westerns where only the background moves. I was scared. Doing something rash meant having to live with uncertainty, but the fear of watching the world pass me by was worse. Over a bottle of 1992 Woodward Canyon Cabernet, I came to the conclusion that I could just pack up and leave and, financially, be in just about the same place. That's a harsh reality in itself.
There's a crisp breeze running through the Vang Vieng as I finish up my morning banana, papaya and pineapple shake with just a drop of condensed milk. With my mountain bike and hand painted map, I head up river to explore the back woods of Laos and a few Hmong villages. Tess and Jocelyn had told me about an organic farm that grew elderberries, so I stopped there first. I met the owner and we toured his farm. He was very proud of his accomplishments. Unlike its surroundings of wild primary forest, it was a tidy, well-kept estate, with orchards, gardens and bungalows that house the workers. I wandered out back, following the noise of laughter, and found a shed full of ladies washing, drying and crushing elderberry leaves for tea. For such a monotonous task, they seemed pretty joyful. Back on my bike, I followed a sign to a Durian farm. The trees were fairly young, but were bearing the notorious fruit. From the river bank, I heard kids playing so I clamored down the rocks with the bike on my shoulder to get a closer look. I recognized the swimming hole from passing it the day before. The river was too tempting, so I pared down to my underwear and joined in the fun. As soon as my toes hit the water, the kids took off; perhaps, I was treading on unwelcome turf or maybe they were just giving me a little space. The cool water was refreshing, as the sun was now in full force. Still wet, I carried the bike back up to the road and peddled blissfully back to route 13.
It was a peculiar road, traffic moved like it was a major throughway -- cars and buses whipping by, pulling you into their fleeting vacuum. But, there were also villagers carrying bundles of wood stacked meticulously on their heads or men herding sluggish cows down from the hills. A group of elderly ladies pulled heavy carts full of watermelon with just a rope wrapped around their head. I pass a school where the kids were on recess, but instead of playing, they were carrying pails of water from a nearby well. There weren't many legible signs. I kept looking for the one that said "Authentic hill-tribe village. Cameras welcome". Just as I began to think I had traveled too far, I came upon a long row of watermelon stands.
The farmers sat contently on tables, chomping away with a spew of seeds shooting from their mouths. Not a bad way to spend a hot afternoon, so I joined in. I pull out my map for some help and they pushed it aside, while pointing to a small valley on the other side of the river.
Once off the main road, the path becomes rough. Shifting down, I clutch the grip tightly, my wheels churning over the reddish brown dirt. The fields were covered with watermelons and two ladies worked diligently at watering them by hand. After crossing a steel bridge, I entered the village of Tham Keo -- about 50 huts set against the mountains. I had imagined sitting down in a small cafe and eating some traditional Hmong food, but there's not much in the way of commerce. A sign in English pointed to a cave, so I went the other way.
I found a path along an irrigation ditch where I could let loose a little. I imagined I was in Tour De France, high in some alpine village; a few kids waved from the other side, just reinforcing my hallucination. There is a special freedom associated with speed, an adrenaline rush that is fueled by fear. I lose myself until I come upon a group of naked Hmong boys lying on the hot cement at the edge of the ditch. We used to do that in L.A.: spray the pavement with water and then just lay there in the sizzling sun as the wet cement steamed beneath our skins. I pulled up, thinking the kids might want to hear about my trip down memory lane. They didn't care, but I told them anyway while they played with my digital camera. Recently, someone commented on my propensity for taking pictures of children. She went as far as saying that I may need to seek some professional help -- fuck you! It's my Web site and it's not a desire, it's an affection and the truth is, I just long to be a kid again. To have that careless freedom you only get once. For me, 8 to 12 were the best years of my life. You were old enough to cause trouble and too young to be pre-occupied with girls.
The boys abandoned the camera for a more engaging pursuit -- swimming. I quietly slipped away down the path and out of the village toward a valley to the north. It was so peaceful, not a person in sight and just the sounds of leaves rustling and birds singing. After climbing a small hill, I came upon an alluring valley nestled up against the dark precipitous mountains. It was a picture of serenity; on either side of the path were swathes of seductively green rice paddies with lucid streams of irrigation shooting through. On the side furthest from the mountains, a huge rock sat as if it had just fallen from the sky. I was so overwhelmed, I wanted to get naked and scream in sheer joy. I jumped off the bike and into the irrigation stream to cross to the other side. The view from there was even more spectacular. In the background loomed the sheer, darkened mountains. Sprawling down their base was a luscious forest of teak and bamboo trees, seemingly being consumed by gigantic eucalyptus. Through the forest twisted the Nam Song river and in the foreground, a patchwork of rice paddies. It was a collage of green -- every shade and nuance; the only intruders were a sprinkle of yellowish leaves and a few long thin white trunk trees.
With all this beauty, all I could think about is "where is everybody?" “Doesn't anyone else wanna take a look at paradise, and isn't there some weeding and watering to do?” There was nothing out there, just stillness, interrupted periodically by a slight gust of wind. So, I just stood resting up against a wooden fence, staring at a few butterflies that hadn't been told about the siesta and contemplated why I had come. Most of my life hasn't been too plotted. My parents weren't big on direction and guidance. They felt freedom and exploration were the cornerstones of a healthy life. I grew up happy and lost. I went to college because my best friend got a golf scholarship. My freshman year, I met a girl named Annie on the way to see The Clash and English Beat. She was a major in Rhetoric and Communications, so I became one too. I graduated, she didn't. I fell into cooking while working to pay my way through college. I'm happy cooking. There's never been a day in my career I didn't want to go to work -- not many can say that. But, I'd also be happy designing clothes, playing in a band or directing movies. Why food? It's hot, it's gone in a matter of seconds and the profit margins are nil.
Off in the distance, I see some movement down by the protruding rock. It's a few ladies, shaded by conical bamboo hats. They move leisurely into the field and begin dousing it with water. I wonder what they think about. Are they full of the envy, regret and the material desires that riddle my life? I know most are Buddhist and desire enlightenment and goodness. But, we all know better. Surely some are out there cursing the insects or coveting their neighbor’s southern exposure or maybe secretly wishing their ancestors had migrated further south, making them Thai. I'm of the belief that you put anyone in Saks for a two-hour shopping spree and they'll be grabbin’ Italian linens, fine porcelain and cashmere jimmies; then, most likely start dreaming about the beach house in the Hamptons to put it all in.
I guess maybe I did run away. And while I don't feel like I'm out shopping for a new way of life, I do think I'm able to see mine clearer. The rigor and sameness of the routine isn't so bad; in fact, I miss it. The paraphernalia of our consumer-driven lives is pathological, but so is an obsession with divine truths. Finding meaning in one's life is a daily chore. My job wasn't the problem, only a symptom. Yeah, there's nothin’ like climbing to the top of a rice paddy for a little perspective, and perhaps enlightenment.
The most interesting things in life usually come unexpectedly. Midway between
Vientiane and Luang Prabang is the little boomtown village of Vang Vieng. I
stopped there only to take a break from the 240 mile mountainous journey up
Route 13. Entering town, you pass over a torn up parking lot; a scruffy German
guy tells me it was an air strip used by the CIA during the "secret war". We're
dropped off in the center of Vang Vieng, a bustling haven for backpacker-types
with guest houses, open-air restaurants and adventure tour shops all in a
four-block radius. The restaurants look more like a hippie’s living room with
raised platforms, tatami mats and over-sized pillows. Instead of menus posted
out front, they have the night’s featured films listed -- it's obvious where the
I find my prison-like room, dump my bag and head for the river. Just a few blocks down the dusty road, I can hear the scuttle of water moving gently over rocks. Having lived on a river as a kid, that sound resonates deeply with me. I followed the sign to the Sunset Bar and stumbled upon a most beautiful sight; down through the mountains came a meandering river flanked by small meadows of overgrown brush and magnificent trees, their arms reaching gracefully to the sky and out over the moody green water. In the background, a stark canvas of karst mountains rose, as if the meadows were falling. Like towering giants, they cast a surreal mist over the valley. I waded out between some Laotian kids who found a few large rocks to jump from. The slimy algae from the smooth stones tickled the bottoms of my feet as the water rushed to confiscate my knees. Long wooden canoes carrying boys with javelin-like fish spears passed languidly by and a few backpackers on inflated inner-tubes drinking Beer Laos floated to shore. I took a walk over the precarious suspension bridge, made up of tightly stitched together branches and a funny toll booth hut set in the middle. On the other side, nestled up against the mountains, was a smattering of 20 huts. Chickens and a few pigs roamed freely, while old women chewed on Betel, slivers of Ca Palm nut and a touch of lime paste, wrapped in a leaf of Betel pepper vine. It releases a mild stimulant and an anesthetic that suppresses your appetite, as well as relieves tooth aches. It also turns your bloody teeth brown -- a look that appears to be desirable. As the sun went down, I returned to the village, strategizing the best way to explore my new surroundings.
Booking tours is a complicated transaction, especially more difficult being just one person. Luckily, there were a few others around that wanted to go kayaking. As we headed for the drop off point, I recalled that while employed in Seattle by the Kimpton Group, the Company Shrink once suggested that I take on a hobby, "get away from the restaurant, it'll do you some good" he said. So, I took a white-water kayaking course – four classes in a pool and three in a lake, before you ever even saw the river. When we arrive at the riverbank, our guides, Yep and TJ, unload the boats. There are four of us: two Irish guys, myself and Brian, and two lovely girls from Sweden, Tess and Jocelyn. We're each handed a paddle and told to line up for a little lesson. TJ, the cockier of the two, begins the class with "okay, put the paddle out in front of you like this". He pauses for a moment, "have you guys used a paddle before?" Brian answers yes and before anyone else could respond, TJ says "good, lets go".
It was dry season and the river was pretty low. We ask Yep what it's like
during the rainy season and he just chuckles. We come around the first bend and
a few water buffalo wallow out to greet us -- they seem to actually swim. It's
quiet, just the sounds of a few paddles stirring the water and the morning birds
discussing what’s on the agenda. A few men dressed in army garb trample out of
the brush to see who's coming down the river. They look happy to discover us, or
maybe it's just the Swedes. Two carry rifles and one a machine gun -- I'm not
sure what you hunt with a machine gun, but they head back into the woods towards
Our first rapids spring upon us. I look for the guides, but they've both gone through. I straightened my boat and dart into the whitewater. As the river punched its way through the valley and along side the sheer mountains, it began to unveil itself. We came upon a family, the mother doing the laundry pounding the clothes against the rocks with fervor. Young girls with wicker baskets strapped to their hips wade in the knee deep water holding small nets; hunched over, they stared intently, then plunged the nets into the river and snagged a few tiny fish. The boys seem to have it the easiest -- they sat just off a rapid a few feet from the shore picking small water bugs from beneath the rocks.
We stopped at a waterhole to jump off a rickety bamboo platform that was much scarier than the actual leap. I found watching Tess jump more enjoyable, anyhow. All around the river the vegetation was lush: bright green algae, water morning glory lilies graced the river, while a myriad of ferns, colorful blossoms and spiny plants lay along the shore. Yul Gibbons would have enjoyed this fertile land.
Further down the river we stop again, this time for lunch and a trek up the mountain to a cave that passes four miles back into the mountain. The ground is treacherous -- wet and slippery, with occasional black holes that disappear into god-knows-where. You move from ballroom-sized spaces, large enough to fit Grammercy Tavern and their wine cellar to attic-sized spaces with just enough head room to stand. I find myself tiptoeing, as if I was in a strangers house and didn't want to wake them. It's so eerie: the cool dim, the pervasive stillness, the smell of wet limestone. The group began to get away so I quicken the pace; it's not something I need to experience on my own. It's an amazing feeling being two miles into the middle of a mountain. I ask Yep what happens when our flashlights stop working, he just shrugs. My Boy Scout mind races for a contingency plan and I decide we could use my camera flash.
Back outside, Brian explains to us the geological significance of what we just witnessed and Yep tells us about the Sleepy Cave a mile away where villages lived while the US showered the area with bombs. It puts a whole other spin on my restaurant idea. As we climb back down the steep mountain, we pass a guy armed with a slingshot and blow pipe; slung over his shoulder are three wild birds, their heads dangling and oozing blood -- they looked like grouse.
As we drifted gently into Vang Vieng, the sun drenched backpackers lay leisurely on the raised platforms that lined the outdoor bars. We say our goodbyes to Yep and TJ and head up the dirt path that leads to the center of town. All along the way are Laotians squatting behind their daily catch -- all things foraged, hunted or fished: small piles of red ants and their eggs, a bloody iguana, (its rear legs and torso already sold). The list goes on: small river bugs called In Nil set in bowls; Kai Nam, the semi-dried river algae that’s eaten over rice; Dok Kay, an extremely bitter yellow wild blossom; Live Toon, plump moles caught in the hollow trees; Si Kahp, a bark that is used to flavor soups and stews. A young girl twists the neck of a squirrel and then submerges it in a pot of boiling water to loosen its skin. With just her fingernails she tears its skin off and places it on the mat in front of her. With the others long gone, perhaps trying to preserve their appetite, I continue on, observing more: a few Pa Lat, tiny river fish that are eaten whole after being grilled or fried; some dried rodents, sandwiched between two sticks and Si Wa, long strands of dried cow intestines.
What I found interesting wasn't the unusual foodstuffs, but the absence of anything else. There weren't any farmers selling bushels of long beans or fish mongers with tanks of catfish. There were herbs and vegetables, but all from someone's backyard. Why else would you sell one bundle of lemongrass or two bunches of pennywort? What ever you gathered, killed or plucked from your garden, you brought and hoped that someone was in need of it. There was as much trading going on as money being exchanged. I passed through a few times to soak it all in. One lady sat proudly behind her freshly made rice noodles, another behind an array of buffalo products: pickled tendons, hoofs cut off at the ankle and sheets of dried meat. The lack of refrigeration has them creatively fermenting, drying and preserving all sorts of things. So much of the character of the cuisine comes from the layering of flavors brought on by these methods.
I guess the idea of catching your meal each day is one that most of us just romanticize about. I think there are some dude ranches that can help you live that experience, if you find it necessary. I'm happy going to the farmers market in Brooklyn, Murry's in the village and Russ in Daughter's on the Lower Eastside. As a cook, though, I do find it fascinating how this process defines their cuisine and that they have a cuisine at all. Let's face it, the English have had a well-stocked refrigerator for a long time and they’re just now figuring out how to cook. The techniques, balance of flavors and textures and incredible knowledge of edible plants and their medicinal properties is really remarkable. The modern-day chef should take a look at this place -- just the multitude of dishes that are created out of a minimal amount of ingredients. It may stop us from always blaming the purveyors for our lack of imagination. Well, nix that idea, that's one of the best parts of the job.