Don't Yuck my Yum

Don’t Yuck my Yum!

On this balmy morning - bear in mind that it’s still 6 a.m. and the temperature is going to go way up later on during the day - we’re following Moonoy, our Retail Manager, through the morning market. A short stroll to get you acquainted with food that you might not be familiar with depending on where you live… A little introduction so you “don’t yuck (my) yum!” on your (next) visit to Laos!

Have you ever heard of the saying “Don’t yuck my yum”? If like me you love travel shows centered around food, culture, and identity, you most probably did. If not, it’s basically another way of saying that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure or that, what could be yucky for someone can be yummy for someone else.

A visit to the morning market is often on many visitors’ lists of things to do…

A stop at the morning market in the center of Luang Prabang is often on many visitors’ lists of things to do while visiting our beautiful Unesco town. So, let’s follow Moonoy, our Retail Manager, for a stroll through the morning market but let’s also get some insight from Vin, our Sales & Marketing Assistant Manager.

Let’s just say that Moonoy, who was raised in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, has not been exposed to what the majority of Lao living in the countryside consider staples in their diet. Whereas Vin, who’s from the Khmu ethnic group and grew up in the mountains of Phou Khoun, once told me “You know we eat everything, right?” Yes, yes I do.

Some people just have more adventurous palates than others when it comes to tasting foods from different cultures.

Disclaimer: This blog was written by a very picky eater who deeply believes that culture and traditions influence our eating habits and that some people just have more adventurous palates than others when it comes to tasting foods from different cultures. Sadly, I’m not one of those people. Lao cuisine is very (very) spicy and often very sour when it comes to taste and quite soft, chewy, and gooey in terms of texture. So, regarding how the foods listed below taste, we will rely mostly on Moonoy’s (in the video) and Vin’s (in the blog) descriptions…

Without any further ado, let’s dive in!

1. Maeng Pherng in Lao (Bee Larvae)

opt laos blog food bee larvae - Don't

The bee larvae, which Vin describes as the “baby of the bee” look like a silkworm to me… Both Moonoy and Vin confirm that it’s a favorite among Lao people. How do you eat it? Vin explains that all you need to do is to put it all in a banana leaf and then grill your little “parcel” over charcoal.

It’s seasoned with salt, chili, and spring onions. And eaten with sticky rice. This is the most common way of eating it. But you can also crush it and make jeow (dipping sauces in Laos) with it. To my question of how does it taste? Vin replied, “Creamy.” He did add that some larvae are “older”, and then they have a shell which makes them crunchy on the outside and creamy inside. 

2. Aen in Lao (Eel)

opt laos blog food eel - Don't

This is a river eel, from the Mekong, smaller rivers, ponds, and rice fields. Vin explains that during the rainy season, which is also rice planting season, there are plenty of eels in the rice paddies. They love a muddy environment. How do you eat it? “In Tom Yum or Pad Ka Pao”, drops Vin with a sly smile. He knows I love both so maybe I tasted it without knowing… Vin explains that it has the same consistency as the catfish, “a bit grainy.”

Eels are rare, available mostly during the rainy season, so it makes it even more “special”. Vin adds that “some people are scared because it looks like a snake and they don’t want to eat it.” It’s the case for Moonoy. While her husband who’s from Oudomxai loves it, she doesn’t eat it. Even during the rainy season, it’s not easy to get so it’s sold at a higher price than fish.

3. Pak Nao (Leafy Green Veggie)

opt laos blog food pak nao - Don't

This one is an herb. And grows in trees. “A favorite of Lao people”, according to Vin. It’s mostly used in mushroom soups and bamboo soups. Vin explains that it doesn’t have a taste, but it has a very strong fragrance. “If the neighbor cooks it, you can smell it”, he laughs.

He’s not sure if it’s something foreigners will like. Vin thinks the smell might be too strong for their palate. But it does make mushroom soups and bamboo soups – two quite bland veggies – very fragrant, so maybe give it a try and judge for yourself.

4. Mak Lin Mai

opt laos blog food mak lin mai - Don't

It’s very difficult to describe and quite impossible for us to find its name in English… It grows on a tree – a rather big one – and Lao people eat the flower and the fruit. Mak Lin Mai is also used for natural dyeing. It gives an olive green color.

Vin recommends eating it while it’s still “young”. “We grill it and slice it into small pieces and make a salad with the same herbs as Goi (the cooked version of laap). The taste is bitter. For the flower, we steam it but we can also it fresh. It’s an accompaniment for Orlam and Laap.”

5. Sakharn

opt laos blog food sakharn - Don't

This one I tasted it and I’m sorry to say that I’m not a fan… Sakharn is the spicy wood that is used in Orlam, the famous Lao stew. It’s a jungle vine that grows up in other trees. Not a small vine though, one that reaches the size of an arm.

“We cut it into small pieces and put it in Orlam. We chew it to get the taste of it but don’t swallow it because it’s hard.” I can confirm that the taste is very strong. Vin even adds that “if you’ve never eaten eat it before, it can even burn your mouth. It has like a black pepper taste/feel to it.” It can indeed leave your mouth as if you just swallowed a spoonful of black pepper…

6. Padeak (Fermented Fish Paste)

opt laos blog food padeak - Don't

The main ingredient of Lao cuisine! Any kind of fish can be fermented. It is traditionally fermented in pottery jars but now most Lao people use more modern utensils, like Tupperware. They put together raw whole fish, rice skin, salt, and msg. It needs to ferment for at least 2 to 3 weeks. After that, you can use it for months.

“Usually we make padeak during the rainy season as it’s fish season and we’ll use it throughout the year until the next rainy season”, explains Vin. Padeak is used in pretty much all Lao dishes. “Except Orlam!”, says Vin. It has a very strong smell. It is after all fermented fish…

7. Nung Yum (Buffalo Skin)

opt laos blog food buffalo skin - Don't

As the name indicates, it is buffalo skin; fermented buffalo skin. The ingredients and method of preparation are quite similar to how you make padeak (rice skin, salt, msg.). But this one is not fermented for long. One week usually. It is then dried in the sun for a few days. It doesn’t need to be completely dry.

How do you eat it? “We burn it – yes, burn, not grill – on charcoal, and then, you can eat with jeow (lao dipping sauce) or suphak (leafy green). You can also add it to Orlam,” explains Vin. And how does it taste? Not like meat apparently… “You need to have good teeth to eat it though, it’s very hard, laughs Vin. But when you make Orlam, it becomes softer.”

8. Somphak (Fermented Chinese Cabbage)

opt laos blog food somphak - Don't

As Vin tells me what “somphak” is, I blurt out “Oh, like kimchi!” “Kind of like kimchi”, he confirms, but this one doesn’t have Gochugaru or any other kind of chili. “We add some salt and some rice (we soak the sticky rice). It makes it sour.” It doesn’t ferment for too long; 3 or 4 days. How do you eat it? “Usually with some barbecued meat or fish and rice. We can also cook it with scrambled eggs. It has a sour taste.”

9. Tin Kwai (Buffalo Foot)

opt laos blog food buffalo feet - Don't

As the name indicates, it’s the… foot of the buffalo! It only has a little bit of meat…on the bone. Vin explains that it can be fermented to make it sour and is mainly used in Orlam. “If it’s fresh, we boil it for about 5 hours to make it softer, and then cook it in a soup. We can cook it with some vegetables like pumpkin, cabbage, etc. It’s like a soup with bone marrow. A lot of good nutrients in there…”

Regarding the taste, it’s safe to say that it tastes the same as buffalo meat. Which in itself is very similar in taste to beef…

10. Tao (Tortoise)

opt laos blog food tortoise - Don't

And a last one for the road… You can sometimes find these Tortoises in rivers but mostly you’ll see them on land. “They stay in caves, or tree trunks, etc.,” says Vin. And how do you eat it? “We only eat the meat. There’s quite a bit of meat inside… We cut between the shell and the body to remove the meat. It’s a red meat.”

What does it taste like? “It’s quite similar to beef. But it’s a hard meat. It can be roasted, or used in clear soups, where you add some herbs.” Vin also adds that when they will eat meat like this – out of the ordinary, we’ll say – they usually add something sour to counterbalance the strong smell.

Should we do part two? Let us know at [email protected]! In the meantime, follow this link for some of our team members’ favorite restaurants and dishes. The videos are also available on our YouTube channel.

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