Buffalo Skin

Buffalo Skin

Category : Food

 

One of the things I love about local produce markets is the amazing variety of things on sale that are completely new to me. In Laos, it was clear that buffalo skin was the front runner in terms of amount and variety on display. Stall after stall had up to a dozen different types, yet I had not seen this on menus or even being eaten from the bag.

It turns out that you need to do a fair amount of preparation before you can reach the point of tasting buffalo skin, which as you might expect is very thick and hard. You can roast it over an open fire until it is charred black, then pound it until it softens and the charred bits have fallen off. You can boil it up in a stew or soup, or you can marinate it with fish sauce and bake it slowly until you have something resembling jerky. You can even deep fry it.

Always game, I bargained for a small bag of pale white strips, but was not prepared for the appalling stench that greeted me as I opened it. There are limits. Not wanting to waste it, I sent samples to daughter #1, whose dog did eat it but promptly threw up. (Daughter #1 already treats my souvenir parcels with suspicion, now I am really in her bad books…)

Whilst part of me is sorry I failed to sample what is clearly a Laotian speciality, it appears I may have had a lucky escape!


War Spoons

This is a story about war and peace…

Between 1964 and 1973, the United States fought to stop the spread of communism across Indochina, a ‘war’ which wreaked devastation yet has largely been forgotten. Except by the people still living with the consequences.

In Laos, recorded statistics show that between 250 and 260 million bombs were dropped over that 9 year period, of which a horrifying 30% did not explode. Many of these were cluster bombs, tennis ball sized and easy to overlook, until you dig one up whilst ploughing, or stumble on one in the undergrowth.

Forty five years later, dedicated teams are still working to clear fields of lethal unexploded ordnance, and a steady stream of famers and children are killed or crippled by bomblets. In the Mines Advisory Group centre in Phonsavan, the chalk board notice of ‘this week’s casualties’ makes devastating reading.

The locals, however, are making the best of things, and a whole new industry has grown up based on recycling the debris. Scrap metal from the salvaged bomb casings is being turned into all manner of useful things, from spoons and chopsticks to souvenir bottle openers, bangles and beads.

There are half a dozen stalls at Luang Prabang night market devoted to these, and whilst the recycled metal is a strange, silvery and fragile material, it is a real feel-good thing to buy  – not just as a cool gift or a fascinating souvenir, but also as something that will help the community.

Even better, if you head up-country to the heart of the devastation, you can not only see the mine clearing in action but also try your hand at making some of these souvenirs yourself.

At Ban Napia, or ‘War Spoon Village’, in the region of the Plain of Jars, hut after hut has an area at the back where a small kiln is constantly in use melting down bits of wartime scrap. In the most low tech way, ladles of shimmering molten metal are poured into wooden moulds – by the time you’ve done the third, the first is ready to remove and you start the process over. A small but very efficient little production line was going on at the one I visited, with the son pouring and unmoulding spoons, the mother filing off the rough edges once the metal had cooled.

It did not take much persuasion for them to give me a chance to try this myself, although it soon became clear that it is way less simple than it appears. I am not going to be invited to make spoons again any time soon, and the one specimen I did finally produce is something I am hanging on to but will probably never dare use in case it collapses and pours soup into my lap.

All the night market stalls have the slogan: Buy Back the Bombs. I certainly did my best!


Bee Larvae

Category : Food

Wandering through the early morning farmer’s market in Luang Prabang, I was tempted by the honey stalls. I love honey, and always try to buy some interesting new variety on my travels. One of these stalls, however, had something I’d never seen before.

Roasting happily over a small charcoal stove on the ground were pieces of what looked like honeycomb wrapped in banana leaves. Closer inspection revealed that this was honeycomb long before the stage where any honey is involved – this was the structure, but each section still contained the grub which would grow into the bee.

It looked fascinating, it cost pennies, and I have tried various bug like things before without ill effects, so I decided to give it a go.

The banana leaves are supposed to make the larvae aromatic, and prevents them from drying out as they roast. They also make for a handy wrapping and keep the whole thing from falling apart in your hand. So far, so good. Trying this very local snack, however, was a bit of a challenge. The roasted honeycomb cells were very soft, and broke away from each other into individual tubes. Each of these was gooey and squidgy with the cooked larva inside, and I found the texture to be deeply unpleasant in my mouth.

Let us say I shall chalk that down to experience. An experience I will not care to repeat…


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