Saturday, March 24, 2007
From Vientiane we flew north to Luang Prabang. Surrounded by mountains and nestled between the Mekong and Khan rivers, it was the capital of Laos until the Communist take over of the country in 1975. Designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1995, its colonial legacy, French influence, and Laotian tradition, have been woven into the fabric of a town that is a perfect reflection of the Lao culture. Luang Prabang is small, and just about everywhere worth checking out can be reached on foot.
"So pretty!" was our first reaction when driving into town from the airport. Seemingly frozen in time with its quiet beauty and tranquility, Luang Prabang is both relaxing and serene. The entire town is the epitome of "zen," no surprise since the town center is dominated by about 33 temples, home to nearly 1,000 monks and novices. They are so ubiquitous that it is nearly impossible to go anywhere without the sighting the familiar saffron robed devotees of Lord Buddah strolling or sitting by the temples.
Mornings begin very early in Luang Prabang, where locals are awakened by the bells and gongs from the temples, and a procession of monks and novices circuits the town to collect rice for the daily meal. The first gongs sounded at 4AM waking the normally somnambulent Hiroko . When they resumed their call at 6AM from the Wat Xiengthong, Hiroko was already standing on Sakkarine Rd. to witness the endless stream of saffron.
Hiroko's return and Rick's hunger motivated the early morning trip to the morning market by our guest house. By sunrise merchants had lined Manthatoulat Rd along the Mekong River, their intricately designed hand-loomed textile cloths spread before them filled with vegetables, fruits, chili, fish, and meat. There were numerous stands offering cooked food too. Flies were everywhere, particularly attracted to the meat and fish however, this seemed to bother no one... the merchants simply make a practice of waving their hands to keep them from alighting on the food. We were very tempted to try some of the delicious looking sandwiches or grilled chicken, but we had another mission in mind for our breakfast....kao soi noodles!
So we set off in the intense morning sun from the town center to visit a famous kao soi noodle place. It was about 30 to 40 minutes walk from our guest house, and even before 8AM, it was quite hot. The road leading out of town, although relatively empty, was still quite dusty and once outside of central Luang Prabang, there were only a few small guest houses along the way. We finally arrived at what we hoped was our destination, a shop where the tables were filled with people slurping away their faces buried in bowls of spicy noodles. There was no sign (which we wouldn't have been able to read anyway but this sight confirmed for us what we knew without asking....that we had reached our destination!
We sat and ordered "kao soi," but weren't certain that our server understood us. But a few minutes later, we were thrilled to see her arrive with two bowls of kao soi noodles and a plate full of local basil and bean sprouts. We squeezed the juice from the accompanying limes, added a copious quantity of basil and bean sprouts, and immediately began to eat the noodles before they cooked too long in the broth. The Thai version of Kao Soi has coconut milk in it, but the Lao variety instead uses a sort of local spicy miso-like paste similar to that used in pho, the Vietnamese beef noodle soup. It was so addictively spicy that our faces remained buried in our bowls until nothing remained.
After breakfast, and visit to a nearby wat, we picked up the sandwich at the market for a picnic lunch at Kuangsi Falls. These gorgeous waterfalls are about 16 miles (a one hour drive) from Luang Prabang. We hired a driver who adroitly navigated the dirt road to the waterfall. It was extremely hot, and the van's air conditioner hadn't worked in years. And, as badly as we wanted to open the windows, the "dust storm" kicked up on the dirt road was so severe that we didn't dare open the windows for fear of asphyxiation.
Having survived the sweltering drive, our joyful foray into the wooded area near the falls brought us face to face with several young tigers which were kept in a fenced-in area. We were told that this was a sanctuary for tigers which are still illegally hunted. Following the signs to the waterfall, we came upon a clearing where the silky water of the river flowed into a beautiful turquoise pool. Too inviting to resist, we took off our shoes and waded in. The water was cool and refreshing and a welcome relief after the ordeal of our "sweat box" van experience. We just sat on the rock and luxuriated in the tropical paradise-like surroundings as the cooling effect of the pool reinvigorated us. Refreshed, we picked up the trail again and followed the stream uphill where in another clearing we encountered the majestic waterfall directly in front of us. We found a bench nearby and unpacked our lunch. As we sat there in the spray of the falls eating our freshly made sandwich we drank in the surrounding scene which was as idyllic as anything in our previous experience .
After returning to town, we strolled the streets, then climbed Phusi mountain to view panorama of the surrounding countryside from its peak. It was a breathtakingly beautiful view in the dusky haze of twilight. Sunset was near, so we strolled down by the Mekong River to enjoy the spectrum of blazing color as the sun seemingly dipped into the river.
Laos, as experienced in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, was our favorite country of all that we visited on our month-long trip to Southeast Asia. Because of its rural economy and lack of industrialization, it was the country that seemed most untouched and unspoiled. We loved its tranquility, warm, friendly people and of course, the amazing food!
Thursday, March 22, 2007
We rented bicycles for a day for 20,000 Kip, approximately $2 ($1=10,600kip) to visit temples and shops. Since the climate was very hot and humid, we kept our sightseeing activities to a minimum during the midday hours and took the opportunity to rest at a cafe, eat, and drink some of the delicious freshly squeezed local fruit juice.
We found a wonderful sandwich shop, Nampou Coffee near our hotel. During breakfast hours, local people were eating a noodle dish like Vietnamese Pho, which we decided to give a try. We also found that in Laos people eat Vietnamese Banh Mi like sandwich as well. The sandwich was filled with pork, cucumber, and sauteed onion and carrots with mayo and was perfectly matched with Beer Lao. We tried three different sandwich shop, and concluded that Namphou Coffee's sandwich was the best.
For dinner, one evening we feasted at a small family run place, Vilayluc, which we found via a Japanese guidebook. It looked like someone's home turned into a restaurant. The proprietor was very friendly, and we ordered her recommendation of laap (like laab in Thai), spicy curry and a dish she called "waterfall beef" (also similar to aThai dish). Since their history is so intertwined it is no surprise that Lao food resembles Thai, though like Vietnamese food, not as spicy. Lao dishes are filled with herbs and fresh vegetables, and you eat them with sticky rice. Khao Niaw, as it is called , is eaten with your fingers, molded into a ball and used to mop up the juice of the dish. We still remember the dinner at Vilayluc as one of the best that we had in all of Southeast Asia.
57 Pangkham Rd., near the corner of Samsenthai Rd.
behind Wat Ong Teu
Other Restaurants & Sandwich shops:
turn left on Samsenthai Rd. on the road to That Dam
344 Samsenthai Rod.
Thursday, March 15, 2007
Nabe is the quintessential winter Japanese dish, which is prepared in a hot pot at the table. It is sort of like a healthy fondue in that the cooking medium is not oil, cheese, or chocolate but a type of Japanese stock made from water, kelp, and/or dashi depending upon the type of nabe. Popular types of nabe include the familiar Sukiyaki and Shabu Shabu, as well as lesser known (to U.S. eaters) dishes that are enjoyed in the various regions and families of Japan. The only rule for nabe is that you cook anything that you like in the pot at the table and that it be shared with your family and friends.
A nabe pot can be anything from ordinary to artistic. The "ordinary" variety can be easily found at Mitsuwa Marketplace in New Jersey or other Japanese grocery stores in New York area. We wanted something unique and special, so we waited until we were able to buy the beautiful black one that we had fallen in love with while looking through The Nabe Cookbook (purchased in Matsuyama on our winter '06 trip). Hiroko's always expert research located Doraku, the small family run pottery shop where it could be purchased.
"This is it!" we exclaimed after walking into the charming shop that was the first place we visited after our arrival in Tokyo. The Denenchofu area of Tokyo is an affluent neighborhood modeled after a similar section of London. Run by the Asami family, the shop was small and a little cluttered, and focused on artisan yakimono. Mrs. and Mr. Asami love yakimono and are quite proud of their shop's selection.
Mrs. Asami excitedly showed us the nabe that was the object of our visit. It is made by Shiro Yoshii in Kyoto, and is surprisingly light weight. She explained to us that this nabe was individually handmade and that it needs to be well cared for. She was ecstatic when we told her that we were from NYC and had learned about her shop and the nabe from the Nabe Cookbook. We happily purchased it, and told her how much we adored it. Our excitement made her even more excited so much so that we were thanking each other until we left the shop (in fact, they followed us out of the shop while continuing to thank us!).
Remembering our visit with the Asamis at their shop, we opened the long-awaited package from Japan. The nabe was wrapped meticulously and with lots and lots of padding. There was no damage to our nabe, no scratch or broken pieces, it is as beautiful as the first time we saw it. We were so excited to see our NABE finally sitting on our dining room table, and wasted no time in inviting friends over to put it to use immediately!
Saturday, March 10, 2007
More detail on the tasting, click here for the tasting note.
Friday, March 09, 2007
Saturday, March 03, 2007
Lately, we've been doing a lot of dining out so, deciding that we needed to go "light and lean" for a day or two, we visited Fish Tales, our favorite local fish store. There on display we spied some basa, or Vietnamese catfish. Sparking our sensory memory, we thought that a Vietnamese dish would be a perfect for our spice seeking palates! We then recalled how much we had loved the dill, tumeric, and fish sauce-perfumed dish, cha ca fish, prepared by diners at their tables at the eponymously named Cha Ca La Vong in Hanoi last winter. With the key ingredient in our possession, our subsequent search led us to a recipe on the Washington Post website.
With Hiroko's skillful preparation, we found the result to be so thoroughly authentic that we were momentarily transported back to the dingy but festive, smoke-filled restaurant in Hanoi. Only the owners' faded family portraits on the walls and 16 oz. bottles of Ha Noi beer on our table were missing!
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon chili-garlic sauce
3 tablespoons fish sauce
3 tablespoons water
Juice of 1 lime
For the fish
2 tablespoons fish sauce
3 tablespoons canola oil
1 tablespoon finely minced ginger
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 pound firm fish fillets cut into chunks
8 ounces thin dried rice noodles, softened in warm water and drained
2 cups coarsely chopped dill
5 scallions, cut into 2-inch lengths
3 cups shredded lettuce leaves
1 cup mint and cilantro leaves
For the dipping sauce: In a small bowl, mix the garlic, sugar and chili-garlic sauce to make a coarse paste. Add the fish sauce, water, and lime juice, stiring to dissolve the sugar. Set aside.
For the fish: In a bowl, combine the fish sauce, 1 tablespoon of oil, the ginger, turmeric, and salt, and mix well. Add the fish and toss to coat. Set aside.
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, add the remainig oil and heat, and add the dill to the pan to sizzles at once. Add the fish and cook on one side for about 2 minutes. Turn and cook 1 minutes. Add the remaining dill and the scallions and cook for another 1 mintues.
Divide the noodles among the serving bowls. Add the lettuce and mint and cilantro. Top each bowl with pieces of fish, and drizzle with the dipping sauce.