Cuisine Traditionnelle Lao– Tout le Rôti Jeune Femme Lao. Everything sounds tastier in French, doesn’t it? About a week ago I was given a rare opportunity. The neighbors were preparing to roast a young Lao woman over charcoal. I’ll have to ask my brother, Ray, who has a degree in Culinary Arts from Johnson & Wales University, but I doubt this kind of cooking is taught as part of the “Ethnic Foods of the World” curriculum.
Materials– bamboo bench, rare leaves and twigs, blankets, and lots of charcoal
Ingredients– young Lao woman, late twenties, preferably well tenderized
First, prepare the fire. Notice the large bag on the left-hand side of the photo. That’s charcoal. I suspect there’s something significant about the choice of charcoal. You wouldn’t want the type that crackles and pops, sending embers flying everywhere. Nor would you want a smouldering, smoky charcoal, as a smoky taste is not the desired end result. For a smoky version similar to this, there is an alternative recipe which involves a woman who has just given birth. Perhaps one day I will write about it.
The next step is to prepare the bamboo roasting bench. It gets a layer of hard-to-find leafy things. The emphasis here is on “hard-to-find.” I suggested lemon grass, holy basil, or maybe even much more common, simple, banana leaves, but no, these leafy things are hard to find, so they’re good. It reminded me of my Lao family, when Father caught a rare, probably endangered bird– probably the last of its kind. Everyone was so excited. He’s an excellent forager, fisherman, and bird catcher, and he said he was lucky to even see one once a year, no less catch one. I’d pointed at a fat Muscovy duck waddling by and asked if this rare bird, which was quite alive and seemingly resigned to its fate, was tastier than that fat Muscovy. Well, no, this kind of bird doesn’t actually taste all that good. So, why are you going to eat it, I asked. Because it’s RARE, you stupid foreigner! Well, he didn’t actually say that, but he had as much trouble understanding why I thought the bird should be released as I had about why it had to become dinner. I thought about buying it from him and releasing it, and then I thought about how the US government bombed these people to smithereens, relentlessly and illegally, for a decade, and then left 1/3 of the cluster bombs unexploded, and then tried to sue the manufacturer for bad product, and then I thought not. Anyway, being rare means being better, here.
And then, of course, comes the main ingredient. Unlike a self-basting turkey which bastes itself while cooking, this ingredient was of the truly self-tenderizing variety. This took place about 15 hours prior to the roasting. Drunk as a skunk and returning on her motorbike from some party that lasted until the early hours of the morning, her motorbike had a disagreement with a pothole. She landed chest-first on the pavement and was lucky not to have been killed. I must admit that, having watched her play cards and bingo on occasion with the other apartment-dwelling women, her breast meat didn’t seem to need any tenderizing at all. But I digress. . .
The last step is to cover and roast her for 10 days to 2 weeks. That may seem excessive, but Lao women taste better when cooked slowly. Sadly, and not that I’d be allowed to taste the results, she gave it up after one night and went to a hospital instead. The hospitals here are not as bad as you might think. Rich, developed countries donate X-ray machines and an assortment of devices that go “Ping!” It’s just that nobody knows how to use them, and that’s probably why they still practice this old-time healing method. Surprisingly, the apartment one door down from the roasting lady is occupied by an ethnic Hmong family. The grandparents were visiting while awaiting papers to emigrate to the US. They have eleven children. The grandfather watched what was going on with an expression that seemed almost like amusement. I asked him if the Upland Lao, which include the Hmong, practice this, and he said, “No, we just apply a poultice.”