Traditions, Diet, and Ritual
Laotians, the inhabitants of Laos (country in southeast Asia, population in 2002: 4,533,000), share cookery traditions among 56 ethnic groups, some of which are small hill tribes. Many Lao, the principal ethnic group originating in Laos, actually live in China and Northern Thailand. The following discussion will encompass the Lao conception of eating, customs, and diet.
The Lao, omnivorous and resourceful, were for many years characterized as 'unhealthy' and 'malnourished' by international health organizations (WHO). Not so; because many Lao enjoy sources of protein that lie outside of the Western culinary tradition (lizard, snake, insects), earlier studies simply misquantified their dietary intake.
The staple foods of Laos include: rice, preferably sticky or glutinous; fish, one of the most readily available foods, found abundantly in rivers, ponds, and irrigated fields; padek, chunks of fish in a fermented fish sauce; a wide variety of meats, especially beloved are water-monitors, but more typically duck and chicken; vegetables, and fresh fruit -- lots of it. When chicken and pork are not available, padek becomes the most important source of protein. The presence of breads and diary products is comparatively minimal.
Time Structure and Food
Recent studies have revealed a culinary culture of great diversity and creativity. The Lao have a preference for peaceful human interaction and a relaxed time structure. Activities of daily life revolve around the natural rhythm of the dry and rainy season; to the movements of the sun and moon; and to the revolutions of the Buddhist calendar.
As a result, the Lao consume food in moderation; take great care in the application of spice and herbs; and tend to eat at a slow pace with enjoyment. Feasts occur once or twice a year (for the well-off), but generally the slow pace is intended to garner maximum enjoyment from minimal portions of food.
The Meal, The Ritual
For the Lao, the number of meals-per-day varies widely based on hunger, work responsibilities, and availability of time. The number may be anywhere from one large meal to five smaller snack-like meals.
In a typical family meal, the cook will lay out prepared food (such as meats, fruits, and roasted or grilled vegetables) on a large table. Though a Lao household most often possesses plates, cutlery, chopsticks, and the like - they are rarely used. Instead, morsels of meat, fish, and vegetables are wrapped in fragrant leaves. Sticky rice (served in little baskets) are used to absorb the juices and broth from meats. Eaters are free to help themselves informally, though the elderly approach the table first and may take larger portions.
When meals are taken outside the home - with another family, a formal acquaintance, or in the public sphere - elevated attention is paid to the observance of ritual. Prestige (Laos: piep) is a social currency that is paid and made during the eating ritual. In a study by food historian Amphay Doré (1980), the concept of piep is ever-present: in the informal family gathering, to some extent; and in public, on a larger scale. Lieng - meaning cultural responsiblity (to one's friends, colleagues, elders) with nourishment - is demonstrated by bringing food to others before feeding oneself and by observing social status in the serving of food. If someone should eat before an elder (often an accident), the result is a loss of piep.
Laos, a country of extraordinary physical and cultural beauty, is a model of resourcefulness and creativity. Its traditions and rituals warrant extended study.
Doré, Amphay. Bulletin of Laos Research, December 1980. Saint-Germain en Laye: Copie Express.
Unger, Ann and Walter. Laos: A Country Between Today And Tommorow. Hirmer Books, 1999.