Tuesday, June 25, 2013

On Laap and "Travel Writing"

Laap, a Lao dish known in the west as larb, is not a pretty food, but a simple and flavorful one. I was reminded of my first laap experience the other day as I wrote a story about the growth of luxury travel in Laos, specifically in the tiny city of Luang Prabang, for the website I work at. When I went to Laos two years ago, it was quiet, friendly and un-corrupt; it was my favorite of the countries I visited on that trip. Recently, I felt excited to write about Luang Prabang at my job because I thought it would be a refreshing change from writing about places I'll never see or experience. Really it just left me feeling conflicted.
When I wrote about Laos this time, it was a totally different experience than when I wrote immediately after my trip to the country two years ago, because not only have I grown into a different writer, but also because now I'm trying to take my backpacking experience and make it relevant to a luxury audience. Writing about luxury in Laos is conflicting because I remember how beautifully naive and magical the country was when I was there and I can't help but feel like my words are indirectly promoting the over-development that is so characteristic of the rest of Southeast Asia. I'm telling people to visit Laos and support luxury resort chains, purchase rice to un-sustainably feed the monks while exploiting them through camera lenses, eat at expensive, up-scale restaurants and fly into and out of Luang Prabang without understanding its surroundings. I'd rather tell travelers to rent a bike off a local and go get a sartorially risky hair cut at the non-english-speaking market on the outskirts of town. When I encourage people to visit Reese Witherspoon's honeymoon spot on the Amalfi Coast, or the Maldives it's different, somehow, because these places are already tourism meccas. Laos is not, yet.
Writing about Laos this time encouraged me to revisit my Laotian memories through food. Also fueled by a body-image meltdown on Sunday, I pledged to eat healthy this week. In my head I told myself "no bacon, sausage or pasta for 7 days -- I can do this." (This weekend I ate bacon three times and sausage twice, k?) Laap, a traditional dish in Laos includes none of these banned foods, and even though it looks ugly and smells like fish sauce, (sorry colleagues, I brought leftovers for lunch!) it's so flavorful and healthy.

The only ingredients in laap are ground meat, shallots, scallions (I refuse to call them spring onions,) red chili peppers, cilantro, mint, lime juice, fish sauce and toasted rice powder. Toasted rice powder is a biotch to make but apparently you CAN'T leave it out. Toast some rice in a dry pan on the stove, then let it cool and grind it into a fine powder. This is really hard and loud when you're using the end of a wooden spoon and a coffee mug -- mortar and pestle would suffice. Make sure yours is more finely ground than mine, above. 
Cook ground meat slowly in a pan without browning it or letting it dry out. I went with chicken for the health factor, but I really wanted pork! You can add water to keep it moist, if needed. When it's just past salmonella-status, remove it from the heat and immediately toss with raw sliced shallots, chili peppers and scallions. The heat from the chicken should help these things wilt a bit. Start seasoning the mixture by adding 1 tablespoon of fish sauce and 1 tablespoon of lime juice. Taste, and add more to your liking. I suggest purchasing more than one lime, as I did not but wished I did. Add whole cilantro and mint leaves and about two tablespoons of your ground toasted rice and toss. Serve with lots of cucumber and lettuce cups! Fresh baby bib lettuce works. Cucumbers are a must because laap is spicy shiat yo.


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