|Lao Eating Habits and Attitudes to Food|
|Editors - Alan and Jennifer Davidson|
|The country of Laos includes about sixty ethnic groups, mostly hill tribes in the
north. The ethnic Lao who inhabit the north bank of the river Mekong and its attendant
plains and valleys are by far the largest group, and are also to be found in the south of
china and the north of Thailand. Indeed, even before the exodus of refugees following the
Communist takeover at the end of 1975, the majority of ethnic Lao lived outside Laos. When
we talk about 'the Lao' it is members of this ethnic group whom we usually mean (Laotian
being the corresponding adjective which refers to citizenship of Laos, irrespective of
Vientiane, the governmental capital of Laos, is on the banks of the Mekong and lies fair and square in ethnic Lao territory. Luang Prabang, which was the royal capital, lies up in the mountains to the north, with many other ethnic groups in or near it. Luang Prabang was where Phia Sing lived and worked; but, as befitted the person in charge of the royal kitchens, his cuisine was almost entirely Lao, and his recipe books contain only occasional references to the culinary practices of other ethnic groups and make only minor use of imported ingredients.
The Lao are famed for their amiable characteristics and tolerant, easy-going attitudes. The dominant religion is Buddhism, mixed up with elements of spirit worship in various forms. Until the last few years one of the most noticeable features of daily life was the morning procession of Buddhist monks around the towns, accepting offerings of food from the willing population. In this respect, food had an important role in the religious practices of the Lao.
Eating at home, the Lao give the impression of being completely relaxed; hospitable, informal, and free of any feelings of hurry, anxiety or ostentation. Such, at least, is the impression which an occidental visitor will receive. In fact, however, the relaxed atmosphere invests procedures which are surprisingly formal. These have been described to me by Dr. Amphay Dore, formerly of Luang Prabang, with the proviso that the concepts and traditions to which he refers are those of the older generations and would not necessarily be familiar to younger Lao (although still implicit in certain features of their table manners).
Briefly, one has to understand that two of the important concepts in Lao life are piep,which may be roughly translated as prestige, and lieng, which means feeding, giving nourishment. The concept of lieng gives rise to what might be called contractual obligations. Both concepts apply to Lao meals.
This means, in practice, that at a family meal the father and mother, being the persons of highest rank in the family unit, take the first mouthfuls, followed by the other family members in descending order of age. Once this 'first tasting' has been accomplished, the meal appears to be free for all, but in fact is still subject to rules, for example that no-one should help himself at the same time as anyone else or go in front of a person of higher rank, which would cause that person to lose piep.
A guest must observe the same rules, and also additional ones. If he begins to eat without first being invited to do so by his host or hostess, he will be deemed to have no piep at all. (The logic here is that it is only someone who has nothing who is entitled to appropriate what belongs to others.) He may not continue eating after the others have finished. If he is still hungry, it will be necessary for at least one member of the household to continue eating with him. However, even so, he cannot go on indefinitely, for custom requires that he should leave something on his plate. If he were not to do so, the host's piep would suffer, since it would seem that he had not provided enough.
It follows from this last point that the Lao practice is to prepare more food than will be consumed. This practice is not effected by serving a large number of successive 'courses', as in the west, but by laying out a wide variety of foods at once, in such abundance as to ensure that everyone will have as much as he or she may fancy of anything. This ideal situation may not always be achieved; but it is always the aim.
The Significance of Certain Foods
I am emboldened, and indeed, enabled, to touch on the matter as a result of the publication of an interesting comparison between the peppers (the fruits of the genus CAPSICUM), black pepper (the condiment), and ginger.*
It emerges from this study that all these three spices (to use the term in its broadest sense) have one thing in common, namely that they belong to the first of three classes of plants which the Lao distinguish for medicinal purposes. This is the class of 'hot' or 'chauds' plants, for which the Lao term is hon. The second class is that of the 'cold' (yen) plants, which produce a cooling and re-freshing effect instead of a heating and fiery one. The third class consists of those plants which are neutral in this respect.
However, although our three spices are thus classed together, they occupy very different places in Lao cookery. Pepper, the condiment, is used, but seems to have come to Laos as a result of Chinese and Thai influences. Pepper, the fruit, in contrast, is one of the essential elements in traditional Lao cookery, almost as important as rice and fish sauce. Ginger, according to M. Pottier, is the next most important flavouring, but is much more besides. Unlike the other two plants, it has a ritual significance and is an important element in offerings to the spirits. It is deemed, in the world of spirits, to represent gold; while its relation ZINGIBERZERUMBET is taken to represent silver.
I found for myself that there is a similar mystique surrounding the giant catfish of the Mekong, PANGASIANODON GIGAS,on which see Davidson, Fish and Fish Dishes of Laos. The fishery for this noble creature, the largest freshwater fish in the world if one excepts anadromous sturgeon, used to be attended by rituals of such complexity that it seems a wonder that the fishermen ever succeeded in catching any. Now, alas, the rituals are but a memory and the fish itself is in danger of extinction.
* See 'Le Piment, Ie Poivre et Ie Gingembre. Leurs Usages alimentaires et medicinaux au
Laos' by Richard Pottier, in Langueset TechniquesNatureet Societe,Tome II, Approche
ethnoIogique et naturaliste, Editions Klincksieck, Paris, 1972.
A baci is a highly informal ceremony which may be held to mark any important occasion, such as a birthday, a wedding, the start or conclusion of a major journey (e.g. if someone is going abroad) or for greeting a distinguished visitor. It represents a mixture of Buddhism and spirit worship; and the person officiating may accordingly be either a monk or a 'magic-man'. In either event the centrepiece is a 'tree' which is usually made from banana leaves and flowers but may be composed of artificial materials. Symbolic foods surround it. The monk or 'magic-man' intones prayers and benedictions appropriate to the particular occasion. Then, after the person being honoured has had some symbolic food placed in his hand, white cotton strings are tied round his or her wrists, to the accompaniment of further benedictions. After this, all the participants, who have been sitting round the 'tree', are allowed to tie more strings around his or her wrists, while expressing their own specific good wishes; and are also permitted to tie strings around each other's wrists, so that the whole affair develops into a free-for-all from which everyone emerges with at least some strings. These strings must never be cut, and should not be removed for three days. Many people leave them on for longer, to be on the safe side; some indeed until they finally disintegrate months later.
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