A shopping visit leads to unexpected and tasty surprises.
“What on earth is that?” I asked my Lao foster daughter, pointing to a small ovoid green fruit (it could have also been a vegetable) that revealed pallid pink flesh within. “It’s a Lao cucumber” she smiled. “Oh really.” Bending down I grasped one. Holding it under my nose, it did not smell like a cucumber.
I have been going to Vientiane’s Saturday organic market since its inception. I can’t recall an occasion where I didn’t spot something I had never seen before, reminding me of Lao’s biodiversity, matched only by the diversity and courage in food tastes.
Once held in the park next to the That Luang esplanade, it outgrew the location and relocated to the parking lot of ITECC Mall, conveniently accessible on city bus routes from suburban areas and from the Morning Market. For those only familiar with the historic downtown area, it may be a bit unnerving to travel out to, but take it from a cook, it’s really worth the effort.
If you want to learn about the huge variety of things Lao people eat, if you want to see a sea of ethnically mixed, happily gossiping faces, if you want a really uplifting social experience not to mention great photo opportunities, this is a must.
It’s not for the faint hearted or the judgmental. There are baskets and bowls of live frogs, eels, fish, and a huge variety of larvae, and things with multiple legs. Lao people are true omnivores, so if you tend to be squeamish, or think your food comes only from the supermarket, then stay in bed, have a coffee, or visit a temple.
I told a young Australian about the market, and she ranked it as her favourite Lao experience. ‘For once I did not feel like a tourist but was just hanging out being ‘normal’ with the locals, I got great photos of amazing stuff that really impressed my friends.’
Recently, I spotted what I thought were gooseberries. Northern Laos, enjoys cool and temperate weather, so grows strawberries, apples, nectarines, plums, and what I hoped were gooseberries. I began to gather some of the green spheres together. My daughter asked me if I had tried this fruit before, ‘Yes, gooseberries’ I answered smugly. ‘Are you sure?’ she smiled. I took a bite and the astringent taste puckered my mouth in. I quickly smiled at the giggling vendor and apologised, returning my mistaken gooseberries to the table.
On the other side I found huge ducks, tasty roasted sausages, medicinal herbs like turmeric and moringa, and rows of snacks. Rice noodles, locally made yoghurt, crispy pork, crusty breads, and a huge variety of river fish.
The market, being organic, is seasonal, so don’t expect broccoli or cauliflower or even carrots out of season. In September it’s a very green market, the tables piled with a huge variety of green vegetables, the only other color being the yellow bananas, mangoes and papaya. Expect to see edible flowers, ferns, water plants, great bundles of galangal, soft fresh spring rolls stuffed with omelette, bundles of asparagus looking slim and fresh, piles of freshly harvested beans, silk-based shampoo, fresh passion fruit juice. Pineapples, coconuts, pumpkins, and eggs are sold from the backs of trucks.
Strangely, few local expats bother going. I have never known why. Visiting the market is the highlight of my week, so I can make faces, laugh, and of course buy.
The organic market at ITECC is located on T4 Road, about 4 km
from downtown. It opens at 6am, and closes at around 11am only
on Wednesdays and Saturdays. There is another organic market
in Dongnasok village on Mondays and Thursdays.
Text by MELODY KEMP
Photos by PHOONSAB THEVONGSA