In January and February this year, myself and my friend Katy spent some time traveling in Xishuangbanna, Southern China and in Northern Laos. As well as being a feast for the senses in many other ways, the trip was particularly rich in culinary adventures.
We started these adventures first in Xishuangbanna, at the very southern tip of Yunnan. About as far away from Beijing as you can get in the People's Republic, Xishuangbanna is in many ways entirely different to the rest of China – with it's tropical climate, Dai minority people and exotic fruits, it has a very South-East Asian kind of vibe. This was especially evident in the area's markets; at the huge airport hanger-style market in the regional capital Jinghong, I saw lots of foods that I've never seen elsewhere in China, including this mysterious green stuff.
I also saw for the first time many different varieties of foods I already knew – these neon chillies...
...and these scarlet pumpkins being just a couple of examples.
After such a tantalizing start, you can imagine that our expectations for Laos were pretty high, but sadly the food there turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. This was not, I don't think, due to any less an appreciation of food in Laos than in China, but rather due to Laos' relative poverty. The markets here were rather sad affairs compared to China's, where abundance is characteristic; in Laos' markets, the neatly arranged piles of vegetables were pitifully small, and there was not much in the way of variety either. Outside of the big towns, there also seemed to be less of a culture of eating out than in China – the restaurants we usually ate in were almost solely patronized by tourists, and the quality was accordingly pretty poor.
It wasn't all bad though! (she hastily types). We lapped up the delicious Laos coffee like there was no tomorrow...
...and in a little town called Nong Khiaw ate a fantastic local snack called 'river weed' on the menu. Wandering along the river, you would frequently see people knee-deep in the water collecting the grass, and then bashing the water out of it on a flat, slanting slab of stone. Here are a couple of photos of the river weed drying out in the sun, sprinkled with sesame seeds, garlic and tomatoes; when we ate it had been deep-fried, and was totally moreish.
Lastly, a mention should most definitely be made of what has been called Laos' national dish, foe. These rice noodles are usually served in a pretty boring clear soup, but are saved from banality by one's adding of a whole range of condiments and seasonings to taste, including freshly-squeezed lime juice, fish sauce, dried chillies, fresh mint and lettuce leaves and a whole load of others. Foe stalls, usually very basic places, are found in every town, village and market, and are often the cheapest meal in town. I ate a bowl of foe almost every day while I was in Laos, and the picture below is of one of the best, at the market in Udomxai.