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Vegan (kin j) in Laos – reinventing traditional Lao recipes

“If we could live happy and healthy lives without harming others, why wouldn’t we?”
(Edgar’s Mission Farm Sanctuary, 2019)1

There is a growing popularity of veganism all around the world.2  In affluent western societies, more and more – especially young – people are making the decision to consider and live a vegan lifestyle.

Being vegan on ethical grounds means that the consumption of animal products such as meat, fish, dairy products, eggs, and honey are avoided. It also includes avoiding the exploitation of animals for cosmetics, entertainment, and clothing. The Vegan Society2 defines veganism as “a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude – as far as is possible and practicable – all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment” (The Vegan Society. “History”, 2019).

Eating animals and animal by-products was the regular way of life for homo sapiens for millions of years. More recently, however, there has been a growing number of organisations and individuals who are bent on doing something against this. The question why vegans would choose to live this way is still a socially controversial subject. Also, not everyone is able to live a vegan life because it requires many behavioural and lifestyle changes and also some research in order to make this shift. There are several intriguing reasons to choose this lifestyle – for those who are able to do so.

Animals have been exploited for our survival, but there is evidence that roughly 2,000 years ago humans already started avoiding animal products (cf. The Vegan Society. “History”, 2019). The first and main reason is the animals themselves, which are divided into two categories: Those that we eat and those that we love. The one key factor for becoming vegan may be an emotional attachment to all living beings. Every living being should have the right to its own choices, freedom, and the right to live. According to the biological food chain and natural selection depicted in Darwin’s “law of the survival of the fittest” (cf. C.R. Darwin, On the origin of species, 1859), eating animals may be a necessity for many animals and some plants, but humans in the 21st century have alternatives. By avoiding animal products we can make a stand against animal exploitation and animal cruelty (cf. The Vegan Society. “Why go vegan”, 2019).

A second important aspect which one might consider is dairy and dairy products. Many people assume that cows need to be milked, but this is not the case: they only produce milk during pregnancy and after giving birth to their young. This milk is made for calves in the first place, for nourishing and breeding them. To sell cow’s milk, the mothers’ milk has to be taken and used for human purposes. The farmers therefore separate mothers from their calves, which causes confusion and can lead to a depressive state. In this sense, the large (unnatural) quantities of milk are produced by ill-treatment.

Thirdly, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a plant-based diet that is nutritionally adequate may provide health benefits. It can prevent diseases such as hypertension, cancer, obesity, and heart disease, and it can also reduce the risk of certain health conditions. A plant-based diet has high intakes of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and a low intake of saturated fat. As it provides all nutrients necessary, we do not depend on animal products for good health (cf. Vegan Australia. “Health”, 2019).
Of course, the milk that comes from a cow generally has more nutrients and fewer unhealthy additives than plant-based milk alternatives. It contains a lot of calcium, potassium, riboflavin, and protein, which is especially important for infants, and is additionally fortified with vitamin B12, A, and D (cf. MedicalNewsToday. “All about milk”, 2019). However, cow’s milk is also high in cholesterol and saturated fat, and the steroid hormones and growth factors in mass-produced dairy products may be factors in osteoporosis, heart disease, and cancer (cf. Nutritionfacts. “Dairy”, 2019). Plant-based milk products also contain protein and calcium, but vitamin 12, a key nutrient, cannot be found in plant-based milk products naturally. This is why vegan milk is fortified with vitamin B12. It needs to be supplemented in a plant-based diet because the amount of vitamin B12 in vegan products is not enough (cf. VeganHealth. “Calcium Part 2“, 2019).
Whether a plant-based diet is the only diet for optimal health remains under discussion – nutrionists and doctors hold different views on this topic.

There is scientific evidence, though, that there are many benefits for our planet if renounce meat. Animal agriculture is a growing sector that “is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, more than the combined exhaust from all transportation” (Kip Andersen. Cowspiracy. “Facts”, 2016). Thirty-two million tons of carbon dioxide per year are released due to livestock and its by-products. Raising animals will exceed our limit of 565 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide by 2030 even without using fossil fuels. Eighty to ninety percent of our water is used up due to livestock. “Two thousand five hundred gallons of water are needed to produce one pound of beef and one thousand gallons of water are required to produce one gallon of milk” (ibid). The leading cause of dead ocean zones, water pollution, species extinction, and habitat destruction is animal agriculture (cf. Cowspiracy. “Facts”, 2019).

All in all, “plant-based diets are more environmentally sustainable than diets rich in animal products because they use fewer natural resources and are associated with much less environmental damage” (Vegan Australia. “Health”, 2019).

I am a vegan myself and have been living this lifestyle for five years. Veganism has influenced my life in many aspects. The reasons above are just a short summary of why I made this decision when I was 17. Although it is definitely easy to live vegan in European countries, living a vegan lifestyle seems to be more difficult in Laos.

Food and eating out is also a practice of social interaction. Being invited for lunch or dinner or getting to know your tandem-teachers over a shared meal helps strenghten your relationship and allows you to get to know another culture and its traditional dishes, because sharing the same food will acquaint you with different traditions and rituals.

Food is an important  part in daily life. Declining food that was offered to you – the guest – can implicit a cultural statement of judgement and rejection. Therefore, it is important to avoid such a misunderstanding. Especially on a first invitation, to accept and eat the food that is offered to you will show to your host that you accept this part of their culture. If you would like to keep your distance to this part, a respectful explanation why you will not eat a special dish needs to be given so that your host can understand that the values you stick are not meant to cause dismissal or judgment in any way.5

Laos has a huge variety of vegetables, fruits, and legumes. All of these foods can easily be used as vegan ingredients for plant-based dishes, so in theory, eating out as a vegan should not be difficult. Travelling as a vegan in general can sometimes be a challenge, of course, if you want to always maintain a healthy diet that suits your values without any exceptions. Therefore, living in Laos as a vegan needs some preparation.
The concept of veganism seems to be unknown to most of the people here. Having been invited several times by some of our tandem-teachers at Ban Phang Heng Secondary and Primary School, as well as at the LGTC where I now work, I noticed that the term “vegetarianism” is widely known, however.

In the Lao culture, Buddhism is the main religion. One of the Buddhist tenets, ahimsa, is the concept of doing the least harm. The concept of ahimsa implies that violence towards other sentient beings is avoided, and that all living beings are respected (cf. Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Ahimsa”, 2019). This concept is linked to vegetarianism, that one does not “hurt” animals. Lao Buddhist monks do not have to renounce fish and meat, but some choose a vegetarian diet. This seems to imply that “eating” has no connection to “hurting” in their culture.

Most Lao dishes are likely to contain “invisible” non-vegan ingredients. The following ingredients make it hard to eat out in traditional Lao restaurants: Oyster or fish sauce is often used in vegetable dishes, and soups are usually based on meat stock such as chicken, beef, or pork. Shrimp, fermented fish paste, or animal-based seasoning are used for seasoning.

The “good soul of Ban Phang Heng“, Ms Saysamone Singhalath, went to the market in Ban Sikeud with me and showed me the huge variety of Lao vegetables and fruits. With her help I was able to create an overview of traditional Lao dishes that can be veganised. There are some traditional Lao recipes that can be adapted very simply, and – even better – some recipes can be enjoyed as they are because all ingredients are vegan.

Here comes my list:

Fresh Spring rolls (Phun yor khao) is a perfectly vegan-friendly dish that can be found easily in Lao restaurants.  In Laos, spring rolls are made of rice paper usually filled with fresh vegetables, herbs, tofu, and rice noodles. Rolls filled with meat and fish can usually be found on the same menu, too.

Another common and traditional dishes is Morning Glory (Phak bang). This is a stir-fried dish that is made out of water spinach, which is a semi-aquatic plant with long leaves (cf. Wikipedia. “Ipomoea aquatic”, 2019). It is fried and served with mushroom sauce, soy sauce, garlic, and chili pepper. The traditional recipe consists of fish or oyster sauce.

Lao Fried Rice (Khao phad) is a dish mixing together a lot of ingredients, i.e. Thai basil, green onion, carrot, soy sauce, and hot peppers. Sugar can be added as well. It is most delicious when vegetables are added.

Stir-Fried Vegetables (Phad phak) is another great dish that can be found nearly everywhere and consists of broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, green beans, cabbage, tomatoes, and mushrooms stir-fried in sauce. It is likely that  fish and oyster paste are used for the sauce, but it is possible to ask for soy sauce which is less likely to contain those ingredients.

Cooked Vegetables (Phak tom souk) is served with a dipping sauce in the middle of the plate. It might seem like a very simple dish,  but it is absolutely delicious and obtainable everywhere.

One of the classic staples is steamed Sticky Rice (Khao mew). Lao people “often refer to themselves as “luk khao niaow”, which can be translated as “children or descendants of sticky rice” (Wikipedia. “Lao cuisine”, 2019). This can either be made out of black or white rice. “Sticky Rice” is served in restaurants and sold as street food. Lao people carry their sticky rice in baskets of varying sizes. The baskets  keep the rice warm and moist. Sometimes Sticky Rice is served with red beans, a great source of protein.

Sweet Sticky Rice (Khao kum)  is Sticky Rice sweetened with coconut sugar and usually wrapped up in a banana leaf with mango on side.

Papaya Salad (Tum mark hong) is a delicious option for people who like spicy food. Thinly sliced-up green papayas, four to five chilies, sugar, and vegetable broth is all that is necessary to create this traditional Lao recipe.

The perfect meal for tofu-lovers is Tofu Larb. The tofu is fried with mushrooms, lemongrass, garlic, and onions. It is common to serve it on a lettuce leaf. Fish paste can be inside, but asking the waiters before you order may bring you a fresh dish without it.6

Laotian Coconut Cakes is vegan by nature. Also known as Kek mark phraw Lao, these fried balls are made from rice flour, sugar, and coconut milk. They will definitely satisfy your sweet tooth!

On the market, boiled white and yellow corn, boiled pumpkin, and boiled bamboo can be grabbed and eaten as finger food.

Laos is also known for its fresh tropical fruits such as sweet and sour mango, sweet cucumber, watermelon, dragon fruit, bananas, apples, coconuts, papaya, pineapple, lemon, orange, mandarin, jackfruit, durian, melons, grapes, Asian pear, pomelos, mangosteen, pomegranate, tamarind,7 and sapodilla, to name only the best-known.

Personally, I think living and working in Laos as a vegan is easy. If you inform yourself about the main traditional Lao recipes and their ingredients, part of the Lao cuisine can be fully enjoyed by vegans, too. In addition, for going out to eat, you can also learn the phrase “I do not eat anything that comes from animals” – “Khoy bor kin r han thou yang thee het mar chark sat”. In my experience, Lao waiters and waitresses are always understanding and happy to oblige – they simply adapt the dish to your needs.

At the beginning of my stay, being invited to a meal at one of our teachers’ homes posed certain questions. Being open, from my western point of view, actually appeared to be disrespectful. Fortunately, none of the teachers took my announcement to heart or seemed offended – moreover, they even prepared a vegan dish for me in advance. It appears to me that although veganism might not be established in Laos yet, Lao people are open-minded about it – and anyway, they must count amongst the most hospitable people on this planet.9

 

Text & photos by R. Vogt

 

Notes

Edgar’s Mission Farm Sanctuary. https://www.edgarsmission.org.au (accessed 5 April 2019)

2 Wikipedia. “Vegetarianism by country” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vegetarianism_by_country#cite_note-:3-19 (accessed 12 May 2019)

The Vegan Society. 1988. https://www.vegansociety.com/about-us/history (accessed 12 May 2019)

4 For further information on this controversy: The China Study reveals and discusses this controversy in detail by referring to several medical studies. Dr. Michael Greger, the founder of NutritionFacts.org, provides information on nutrition research.

5 As the decision not to eat certain food is linked to the “belief” of not wanting to hurt living beings, this provides a natural connection to the Buddhist culture of our Lao hosts.

6 Waiters in Lao might not be able to understand this request in English, so it is helpful to have someone at hand who is able to speak both Lao and English, or to bring a pre-written note in Lao.

Tamarinds are legumes used to make spicy dipping sauces.

8 Many other volunteers have been fascinated by Lao food and wrote about it. The easiest way to find their posts is via the tag list on this blog, e.g. by selecting the tags “Falang Friendship Feast” (4 posts) and “Lao food” (22 posts). Some examples: “Lao lunch with new friends by J. Porscha” (22 October 2017); “‘Foodie’s paradise’ – Lao food in pictures by Svea Roehm” (26 June 2018); “Intercultural experiences in Sri Lanka and Laos a comparison by Svea Roehm” (23 August 2018); “Eat, dance, laugh (and be sick) – our first weeks in Laos by Dilara Erdogan” (9 December 2018); “A day in the life of… a PH Kalrsruhe volunteer by Pauline Faix” (20 December 2018); “Interview with a Chilean expat in Vientiane – the Bacan Café by Malin Frahm and Jasmin Unterweger” (1 March 2019); “Spotlight on intercultural encounters – an interview with Ms Mittaphone Sichampa and Ms Phovang Inthavong by Meike Weis” (4 March 2019); “A day in the life of… a ‘Mopsy’ by Pauline Vaix and Cornelina Proels” (16 April 2019).

9 Understanding and respecting the Laotian culture has been an interesting learning process. An impulse was given to me by Prof. Dr. Isabel Martin, who opened up my awareness on this matter during her stay with our team in Laos and also helped by editing this post.

 

Websites

Darwin’s Theory Of Evolution. “Natural Selection” https://www.darwins-theory-of-evolution.com (accessed 12 May 2019)

Darwin, C. R. 1859. On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. London: John Murray. 1st edition.

VeganHealth. “Calcium Part 2” https://veganhealth.org/calcium-part-2/#fuss (accessed 12 May 2019)

Wikipedia. “Lao cuisine” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lao_cuisine (accessed 5 April 2019)

Wikipedia. “Ipomoea aquatica” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ipomoea_aquatica (accessed 5 April 2019)

The Vegan Society. “History” https://www.vegansociety.com/about-us/history (accessed 5 April 2019)

The Vegan Society. “Why go vegan” https://www.vegansociety.com/go-vegan/why-go-vegan (accessed 5 April 2019)

Edgar’s Mission Farm Sanctuary. https://www.edgarsmission.org.au (accessed 5 April 2019)

Cowspiracy. “Facts” http://www.cowspiracy.com/facts (accessed 5 April 2019)

Vegan Australia. “Health” https://www.veganaustralia.org.au/health (accessed 5 April 2019)

Nutricionfacts. “Dairy” https://nutritionfacts.org/topics/dairy/ (accessed 12 May 2019)

Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. “Ahimsa” https://www.britannica.com/topic/ahimsa (accessed 14 May 2019)

Geshe Tenzin Zopa (2007). BUDDHIST TENETS. Commentary on Jetsun Chokyi Gyaltsen’s “A Presentation of Tenets”. Malysia, Losang Dragpa Buddhist Society

MedicalNewsToday. “All about milk” https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/273451.php (accessed 20 May 2019)

 

Further information

Campbell, T. Colin & Thomas M. Campbell (2004). The China Study. The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever. Dallas: BenBella Books.

Greger, Michael  (2015). How Not to Die. Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease.  UK London, Gene Stone.

Scully, Matthew (2002). Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy.  New York. Macmillan Publishers.

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