the nothing whatever...

The Pre-Dinner Entertainment

There is a place here in Luang Prabang that Nic and I found on our second night here called “yemLao”, a small family run eatery that has a friendly vibe and cheap food. Although the family run eatery is a common thing throughout SE Asia, yemLao was different in that those responsible for the front-of-house service were the younger generation, two girls of about ten and eight, and a small chubby boy who was the youngest of the three. The little girls were sweet, attentive and duteous, playing the part of waitresses as if they had been doing it for years (and at one stage coming round to each of the tables and pouring everybody a free shot, always a suspicious proposition in SE Asia, more so when its coming from a ten year old). But the boy, still yet to grasp the ideals and the protocols behind hospitality, he was a law-unto-himself, strutting around and loudly singing songs I didn’t understand, stealing pens from the desk and scribbling on the notepad that was meant for taking orders, just being an absolute menace, singlehandedly dismantling the charade that the girls were working so hard to maintain. To their credit, they handled him quite well, not fighting with him but instead at times directing his attention to an activity that did not involve the misuse or the destruction of an item that they were in need of. Misbehaving children in restaurants are almost something of a billboard for the testing of ones patience, and I think Nic and I would have found the boy to be painfully annoying if we didn’t find him so damn entertaining.

It wasn’t just us either, I could see the whole restaurant looking at this kid in anticipation of what subtle-but-engrossing thing he was going to do next; break out into a little boogie, reach for something beyond his grasp, move something that need not be moved then sit on it for a minute or two. He would make an appearance every so often at our table, point at something that we could not determine, and then strut away while we were trying to work out what it was. After his third time doing it we decided that he must be referring to the complimentary hot chips that had been laid on our table when we arrived, so on his next time around, I lifted one up as he walked past. He looked hesitantly across at his two sisters, who were in the process of escorting a group of five to their table, and with his index finger and his thumb he plucked it from my hand and held the chip closely up to his face, quivering with desire. But he didn’t eat it. Rather, he sucked on the end of it for a few seconds and generously returned it back to my open hand before I could pull it away.

I was, of course, pretty disgusted, but I was also curious. As he was quite a chubby boy, I didn’t know if it was just a remarkable act of self discipline from somebody so young, his unique way of getting the most of the chips flavor and none of the calories, demonstrating that he understood that his current weight situation needed to be addressed and was actively taking measures to fix it, even without the guidance of his sisters. But it didn’t stop him pointing at the table again on the following lap of the restaurant. As we were not eating the chips (we were saving ourselves for the BBQ dinner, which I will speak about further) I held up another to quench the thirst of this marathon runner, and he, again, cautiously approached, snatched, and held it too his face, slightly shaking. With all his strange eccentricity, it was like I was illegally feeding the wildlife. This time, though, the chip wasn’t so lucky, disappearing into his gob as he galloped away to another table, yelling something joyful at the top of his lungs. My theory on his motives had been disproved, and Nic cleared it all up for me when she told me that he is only eating the crunchy ones, and his little quiver of excitement was actually a test; if the chip stays straight, it stays off the plate, but if its a bender, return to sender. The cheeky little twerp had standards.

Soon, one of his sisters caught wind of what he was up to at our table, and snuck up behind him as he made his way past. He pointed his finger in our direction, and she tickled him under the same arm, scooping him up as he wriggled his round torso to escape her grasp. She was laughing at his grunts of distress and his little wails of disagreement, and they were actually pretty funny, but she eventually had to release him for the sake of professionalism. Then, while he stood in his place with our three sets of eyes upon him, she pointed her finger in his direction and said to us “six!”.

Although he looked very young for a six year old, Nic and I nodded with a sufficient amount of belief, both quietly assuming she had mixed up her numbers or something.

“Six!” she said again more fervently, deciding we weren’t suitably impressed.

“Six!” repeated the boy.

“Yes, six, six years old…” I said, affirming that I understood.

She shook her head, and her pointed index finger drifted lower, down towards the boys feet.

“See? Six!”

There they were. Six perfectly formed little toes were on the end of each of her brothers feet, astounding in their perfection, as if those with five were the abnormal mutation. I burst out laughing maybe a little too loudly, but it was more just at her assumption that by saying the word “six” she could not possibly be referring to anything else. Of course, six! What else could that mean! He seemed pleased to be the source of such a response, and then galloped off again on his quest for mischief, leaving Nic and I in stitches at the table. We both agreed that every restaurant should hire one of him, as he made for the perfect pre-meal entertainment.

Then came the food. The Laotian BBQ, like most BBQ’s, is something that is as much about the social dynamic and the gathering of people as it is about the eating. As with other traditional BBQ’s in differing cultures (Vietnamese, Japanese etc), all focus is directed towards the center of the table and the sizzling hotplate that almost looks like an upturned hubcap. The dome in the middle of the hotplate has a piece of pork fat placed on its top (as it renders it keeps the sides of the dome lubricated, so the protein can cook without sticking), and then around the base of the dome is a moat that is filled with stock and veggies and egg and chilli and garlic and noodles, basically whatever you can find. So the pork fat renders, makes sure the meat doesn’t stick, then drips into the soup. The meat cooks, seeps its delicious juices out into the soup, and then can be eaten immediately or added to the soup. The soup, gradually reducing and gaining intensity in flavor, amalgamates all the flavors into a salty broth that gets better by the second. And the heat source is nothing but a bucket of flaming embers that are probably taken from a fireplace around the back of the house and placed into a cemented cavity in the center of the table. Probably not a new concept, but ingenious nonetheless.

Our meal was so good, and just so ridiculously filling. We got two serves thinking that the 40000 kip ($5 – $6 AU) would not be enough to fill us both. We were wrong. We had pork and chicken and buffalo and squid and fish, the latter two we ate immediately, the former three we ate mostly with the soup. At one stage, when things started cooking a little too quickly, the mother of the children (I assume) came over with a pair of tongs and plonked a few pieces of ice in the ceramic bucket to regulate the temperature, and we were back in business. And when were were finished, she came back over, collected the bucket, and must have returned the embers to the fire from which they came. Simple cooking, great flavors, brilliant idea. It is those kinds of things that would be such a novelty to have in your home, such an inexpensive way to feed and entertain, and it is something I will definitely be looking into further (of course, I will first have to be in possession of a “home” to begin with).

Since then, we have eaten there a few other nights, and have always enjoyed the family dynamic behind the place. One thing that I only noticed about it recently (of which I might be mistaken) was that from the street you cannot see its name, I only really know it from the cover of the menu. I don’t think this is a deliberate tactic and I am sure it will be rectified, but, to anyone wanting to find this place in the future, remember, it is the place that has no name out the front and a fascinating little boy with a couple of extra digits.

And, just as an aside, look out for Laos in the 2020 Olympic games, I have a feeling it could be their year. Particularly in the swimming.

So, that about completes Week Eight, it all just feels like its going too fast. I write this on our last day of Laos, with the plan to heading almost horizontally across (if you are looking at a map, anything but horizontal on a bus) to Northern Thailand, unfortunately meaning we skip Cambodia. This is based on both the general recommendation of the masses (how much they all loved Northern Thailand) and from a cost perspective it works out to be quite cheaper. Of course, we are disappointed we don’t get to see Angkor Wat and hear more about the disturbing war history behind Cambodia (even more so than Vietnam they tell me), but that will have to be saved for a later date.

The world is just too big and amazing.