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Lao lunch with new friends

During our first week at Ban Sikeud primary school in September, Hanna and I (Jessica) were invited by the school’s two English teachers, Ms Mittaphone “Mit” Sichampa and Ms Phovang “Noy” Inthavong, to prepare and have lunch together in the teachers’ kitchen. Hanna and I are both part of Team V; Hanna supports the two English teachers, and I teach the 85 preschoolers at Ban Sikeud primary school with “Mopsy” lessons.

The other team members work at Ban Phang Heng primary and secondary school, where they have lunch at the local canteen. Our common goal is to show the English teachers teaching methods and techniques that we were taught during our course of studies at the PH Karlsruhe to help create a more effective and motivating EFL classroom (English as a Foreign Language). In addition we try to improve pronunciation issues that Lao people naturally have with the English language.

At the same time it is of great intercultural interest to us to get to know the Lao people and their culture on a more personal basis. This is the reason why it was a pleasure on our side to watch them prepare a typical Lao lunch: Papaya salad with sticky rice.  Food and eating habits are always good topics for observation and conversation and a foolproof way towards contact.

Lunchtime at Ban Sikeud Primary School

Since the Ban Sikeud primary school does not have its own canteen, teachers cook their own lunches with vegetables bought freshly from the market around the corner. Some of the pupils bring their pre-cooked lunches (mostly sticky rice) from home, others are joined by their parents or grandparents, who bring over lunch, and they spend the long lunch break together. It lasts almost two hours.

In addition, the children buy themselves plenty of sweets around the corner and share it with their friends. Therefore the tooth-brushing ritual that takes places every morning at Ban Sikeud has become a very worthwhile tradition, which many schools in Laos have now adapted from this example.

The basic ingredients

When I first heard about papaya salad I thought of a sweet fruit salad with lots of colours and tastes. In fact it looked more like German coleslaw to me, though, and I learnt that there are two types of papayas sold on Lao markets: Green and orange. Both types come from the very same fruit, only picked at different stages of development. The green papaya is the unripe type, which has very little flavour (slightly sour) and firm white flesh.  The orange papaya has ripened completely, has a sweet flavour to it and a very soft and creamy texture.

On the side of almost every Lao dish there is sticky rice, the stand-out staple food of Laos. Sticky rice, also called glutinous rice, is distinct from regular white rice people mostly know from Thai dishes and owes its stickiness to its starchy content. It requires less water to grow than common white rice and comes in different colours, white (hulled), black, and purple (unhulled).  Traditionally, sticky rice is soaked overnight and steamed for 25 minutes in a steamer basket made out of bamboo, on a stove or a grill outside. Then it is formed into a little cup or ball by hand and finally dipped into the main-dish or a sauce.

Recipe of Tham Mak Hoong

Ingredients:

1 green papaya
1 tbs salt
1 tbs sugar
2-5 chilis (depending on personal preference in spiciness)
2 garlic gloves
1 tbs shrimp paste (for vegetarians: also works without)
2 tbs lime juice
1 lime (quartered)
6 cherry tomatoes (quartered)

All details are estimated by my visual judgement since Lao women measure the dressing by sight.

  1. First of all the papaya needs to be shredded. After peeling it from its green skin make a number of long, thin shallow cuts into the flesh using a large sharp knife, while slowly turning the papaya in your hand. Then shave it into crisp shards.
  2. Using a mortar and a pestle, pound the salt, chilies, sugar, and garlic until broken up and mixed well. Add the shrimp paste to taste and combine well.
  3. Add the shredded papaya and quartered tomatoes. Pound ingredients with pestle, using a spoon in the other hand to mix ingredients well.
  4. Once mixed, adjust flavours to taste for a balance of hot, sweet, sour, and salty.

You may have noticed that the amount of chilies is quite unspecific in the listing of ingredients. On the day that Hanna and I tried papaya salad for the first time, there were probably about five chilies in the mixture. That is the reason why this little bite was probably the spiciest experience of my life: I turned red immediately and could not speak for about 10 minutes because I was consistently shuffling sticky rice into my mouth to balance out my burning tongue.

Therefore I recommend 2 chilies (3 chilies max.) in the salad so the other ingredients are noticeable in taste.

However, I do not seem to be the only one who made this experience. A short feature film of this year’s Vientianale, an annual film festival, shows two young men eating papaya salad together, which seems to be rather spicy, because a fight develops about the only bottle of water left in the house. In the end, their mouths are not the only thing on fire… “Sinh Papaya Salad” won the award for best screen play (and some of the LGTC and Team III members who had also produced a film for this competition were present at the ceremony).

Looking back, this first traditional lunch in Laos is a good memory to laugh about, not only for Hanna and me, but especially for the Laotians, who, once more, witnessed a typical „Falang“ collide with the culture of REALLY spicy food – including someone who thought she was used to eating quite spicy as she has a Hungarian mother.

Of course, the best thing about spending this lunchtime together was having conversations about Lao food in contrast to German food, the daily school-life in Ban Sikeud, and what the teachers like to do on the weekends. The Lao people I have met so far are probably the most polite, friendly and immediately likeable people I have ever met in my life and I am very curious to learn more.

I would like to find out why Lao or Asian dishes are so spicy in the first place.

Text by J. Porscha

Photos by J. Porscha, H. Glass & Team III

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