Sticky rice is the mainstay of a Laos diet. They eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner and when I was trekking later, saw children in the villages clutching handfuls as they walked to school. Sally had arranged for us to visit Mr Lee’s farm to see how it was grown and transformed into an edible product.
The farm was out of town and difficult to find. His venture was new, and he hadn’t had many visitors. We followed a rutted track with no signs but our driver and Sally managed to find it. Mr Lee and two of his brothers were there to greet us. As it was Saturday, the extended family was visiting although a number lived and worked on the property. Mr Lee was one of seven brothers and everyone had children. He had started the business after stopping in the nearby village one day and sampling the dumplings of a local lady who had a stall that was only open between 3pm and 5pm. There was always a queue. The dumplings were so delicious, Mr Lee suggested going into business together. He had since set up this ‘rice experience’ (for want of a better description!).
He gave us a tour of his productive organic vegetable garden and then invited us to try ploughing a rice field with a water buffalo. Most of us had a turn wading in the slippery, slimy mud whilst trying to hold on to the plough. No-one fell in which was a bonus! The next step was to plant the rice. Back into the slime we all went. I’m sure the mud was good for our skins and I’m equally sure Mr Lee re-planted all the rice. The plants start in a nursery field and are transplanted after two months of growth, anyway.
Before moving onto the threshing, we retired to a shady shelter for a respite from the heat and to watch the dumpling lady make the dumplings. However, we were soon outside again and threshing and grinding the rice. For these processes we used traditional old implements but there are farmers now that use machinery. Back at the shady shelter, the ladies were moulding and filling the dumplings with coconut or meat. Once they had been steamed, they were ready to eat. They were so moreish I had three (which I came to regret!).
Whilst we watched Mr Lee winnowing the rice and then grinding the rice into flour, the ladies fermented the rice noodle mixture, after which it was ready to pound with a pestle and mortar. They pummeled and kneaded the resulting paste. We each had a turn but our efforts were inadequate and the experts took over again. Once it reached the desired consistency, they pushed it through a sieve which expelled long strings of noodle into boiling water. The noodles were cooked when they rose to the top. Whilst this was happening, other family members were preparing vegetables and two men were squeezing sugar cane juice for us. It was with dismay I regarded the size of the bowls of noodle soup. I definitely should not have eaten three dumplings as I couldn’t finish the soup.
All the family members gathered round as we ate. They had also prepared papaya salad for themselves. This is another popular Laos dish but not for us as it is loaded with chilli and our taste buds would never have recovered!
After lunch, we took our leave, waved off by a multitude of men, women and children. It was a very large and welcoming family.