Somewhere in the Laos stretch of the majestic Mekong, a river weed grows. Some call it a moss. The locals call it khai paen. It gets eaten and, even though Laos is tightly landlocked by Vietnam, China, Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia, this local speciality is referred to as seaweed on the restaurant menus in Luang Prabang.
Laos riverweed is not nori (Japanese seaweed), though there are similarities in the sense that sheets of the stuff are flat and dark green. It is sturdier and thicker than the delicate brittle dryness of its Japanese counterpart, which is most commonly used to wrap onigiri and roll maki zushi. Rice plays a part here, too. In fact, sticky rice is the mainstay of the Laos diet.
At the renowned Tum Tum Bamboo Restaurant, the weed comes cut into squares, scattered with sesame seeds and briefly deep fried. Alongside these warped cuts of river tucker are the accompaniments: small heaps of thinly sliced lemongrass and roasted peanuts. The animal content comes in the form of oily, chillified strips of dried buffalo skin (jaew bawng). Sticky rico-carbo, housed in individual bamboo baskets, gives body to the dish.
Now, I'm not sure how the locals get all these bits from plate to cakehole but I know they use their hands. Chopsticks with sticky rice is always problematic and trying to cut the weed with a knife and fork would be just plain dumb. Handling sticky rice feels completely fitting. There's no other way. I rolled the clumps of rice dug from the basket into bite-size balls and dabbed at the other ingredients before roughly wrapping the lot in a bit of weed and popping it in the slot. A sexy little snack, don't you think?
A sexy, salty, tangy, crunchy, filling little snack, in fact. Washed down with a big bottle of the local brew and I'm on my way.
Check out Tum Tum's website. They offer the lot: accommodation, cooking classes, gallery, up-market handicrafts.