The day begins with urgency in Luang Prabang, the capital of Northern Laos.
Monks scoot about in saffron, annatto and tangerine robes. Schoolchildren ride two or three to a bicycle. Markets rise like mini cities in parking lots, on the banks of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers and in the dusty dirt roads at the center of town. Local women barter vigorously over produce with sellers who have often walked three or four hours in the dark to hawk their goods. And, as the morning light settles in and things begin to calm down, the toasted and nutty scent of kafae lao and yeasty baguettes on grills draws attention to another daily tradition: the beloved local breakfast of khao jii.
Served at coffee shops and street stalls, adored by Lao, Vietnamese, Chinese and the small expat community, khao jii is one of the prime edible examples of French influence (Laos was a colony from roughly the 1890s to the 1950s) on the local food culture. Along with colonial architecture and an unconscious and natural sense of style, baguettes, paté and sandwiches are some of the most visible holdovers of the French occupation. Khao jii combine almost every one of these elements. You’ll find similar foods in Vietnam and Cambodia, but, because of its non-entry policy to foreigners and small population, Laos has probably the best preserved traditions.
Khao jii is no different. One finds the best khao jii at morning markets and street stalls before noontime — after that, they are sold out if they’re any good. Look for tables with well-constructed landscapes of baguettes, a smoldering grill to toast the bread on the ground nearby, and a small crock (filled with pate, you’ll discover) guarded closely by the oft-female vendors. The sweet- toothed may want to order their khao jii simply toasted and drizzled with sweetened condensed milk. The bread wears the sweetness well and the flavors are gentle, an ideal entrance into the day.
But greater heights are reached by khao jii pate, a style of sandwich making unto itself — bread-based architecture, if you will. First the baguettes are toasted. Then they are smeared with pate — its flavor deep and memorable thanks to the use of lime, fish sauce,and other local flavorings in the forcemeat — and there the choices begin. Depending on taste, one can adjust the amount of shredded vegetables (daikon, carrot, spring onion), pickled vegetables (cabbage, mostly), cilantro, fish sauce, chili jam and head cheese (1)applied to the sandwich. No matter the personal construct, the end result is dynamically hot-sour-salty-sweet, warm and soft, crunchy and
cooling. It is yin and yang. Whether you are accustomed to panini or grinders (2), it is a damn fine sandwich.
If only every day could start this well!
1 – A type of rough sausage made from boiling the whole head of a sheep (to render gelatin). Then the meat is cut off and mixed in.
2 – A big sandwich, usually served hot.
Rob McKeown writes about food, travel, and culture for Food&Wine, Saveur,
East, the Boston Globe, Gayot’s/Gault-Millau, and many other publications
around the world.
Photo: a woman making khao jii pate http://whitney.bcoe.butte.k12.ca.us/Poplar/Laos/Food%20Photo%20Gallery.html