I will start this article by stating, for the record, that I like Lao food. The fruit and vegetables are fresh, tropical and delicious. The range of cuisines on offer in Vientiane is a gastronomic delight. The prevalence of grilled chicken, crispy pork, sizzling duck and hot pot beef is any meat lovers dream. The national dish, Laap, is a taste explosion, sticky rice is addictive, and I could wax lyrical for days about the wondrous joy of BeerLao.
But there is another side to Lao food. A side no doubt caused by the poverty and food shortages that the country suffers from. Lao people will eat, literally, anything. No part of an animal goes wasted; no road kill goes ungrilled; there is not limit to either the cruelty or the grossness of what the animals here endure in the name of nutrition.
Let us start with the intestines. If you’re lucky, you simply end up with some intestines pretending to be noodles in your soup, which you can gently pick around. Sometimes you catch a glimpse of the whole large intestine of some poor beast, uncooked, and sometimes uncleaned, for sale in the market. Do not mistake it for sausage and try to eat it. That would be wrong.
The most pleasant way to eat intestine is lightly shredded and served in a delicious rice salad, with fresh herbs and vegetables. But still it is not for the faint hearted.
We are familiar with tripe in the UK, so intestines might not shock you too much. Insects, on the other hand, are firmly the fare of fame hungry celebrities in the jungle. Here, however, they are a much needed, and cheap, source of protein, and apparently taste like dry roasted peanuts. I have yet to put this to the test.
The next level of grossness is reserved for the live wasp larvae. Photos do not do justice to how gut wrenchingly wrong it is. They pulse. They writhe. They make an odd sucking and squelchy noise. They hatch and little wasps come out. The men here apparently eat them as a natural Viagra. However, given the extremely relaxed pharmaceutical laws here, and the bargain basement prices for meds, you have to wonder at the logic of it.
If you are feeling adventurous, another popular snack is steamed duck eggs. Doesn’t sound too bad, huh? It isn’t, until you get to the steamed fetus in the egg yolk. If you can feel feathers tickling the back of your throat you know you got a good one!
A trip to the wet market here is one you are unlikely to forget. The smell alone will be unpleasantly etched into your memory forever. On various trips I have seen dead squirrels and lizards (looking at least a couple of days old) for sale; I have watched a little old lady snap the legs of live frogs to stop them escaping; I have been offered a range of organs I didn’t even know existed; and I have seen people relishing sucking the juice out of fish heads, chewing eye balls and pickling live wasps.
Now, where did I put the BeerLao to go with my chicken feet?