C celebrated her birthday last week…twice. She had a party for family and friends at a restaurant on the day and on Saturday she hosted another party for the same family and friends at her home.
Our Lao colleague T offers to drive us to the Saturday party. On this occasion, T also serves as our penguin, the local person who is able to bridge cultural gaps. Today, he advises us to buy a gift basket to take to C in honour of her birthday. Naturally, these gift baskets are on sale everywhere but when it’s time to actually buy one you can’t find one. Eventually, however, we do. Ours is filled with containers of “beauty broth” and, despite my reluctance to suggest to C that she is lacking in the beauty department, T says we will tell C that our gift is so that she stays as beautiful as she is. You have to trust your penguin!
We present our basket to C on arrival at her house. Our message to her is similar to those of other guests who arrive with gifts: good health, wealth, happiness, a long life, success in all endeavours and… beauty. I note as more and more guests arrive that we could also have brought fresh fruit. Dress on this occasion is casual and most of the women have chosen to wear Western style skirts or trousers instead of the workplace sinh. Some people have brought their children as often happens at these festive gatherings and babies are being passed around.
From the courtyard where awnings have been erected with tables and chairs placed beneath them, we can see into the kitchen which is bustling. Grills have been set up outside and meat is being prepared. A sound system is being connected, big fans are plugged in and men are arriving with musical instruments.
We start nibbling our way through snacks like smoked saba, a type of Pacific mackerel. Other food follows: barbecued duck, platters of fresh greens and baskets of sticky rice. C’s husband has made a duck larb. While larb (meat salad) is one of the national dishes of Laos, I’m really not that fond of it. But this duck larb? More please! Apparently I like it because the meat was grilled before it was chopped. Aha! When you dine at a friend’s anywhere in the world, you get to quiz the cooks on their secrets.
I’m invited to fill a bowl with Lao laksa, a rice noodle soup with the addition of coconut milk . I recognize the huge pot from where it’s being served because I saw it being unloaded from a car earlier in the afternoon. C. explains that she had the soup prepared by a lady who has a food stall along the Mekong River near C’s office. It’s outstanding although I avoid spooning blood cubes into my portion. To my bowl I stir in a selection of bean sprouts, lettuce, coriander and green beans from those platters which decorate the tables.
We’re served some of the fresh fruit which guests have brought. Slices of watermelon and segments of a fruit which looks like an enormous grapefruit and indeed is a variety of enormous grapefruit. And then one of those special Lao desserts appears.
Mak eu khao, a pumpkin and rice cooked down with sugar into a very more-ish custard. My portion is still quite warm but it can be cooled and one of my table companions drops a chunk of ice into the bowl. That works.
As food and drink are consumed, the light fades, conversations grow more animated and compete with the music being pumped ever more loudly through the speakers. My Canadian colleague and I smile across the table at each other. We’re savouring these special moments and creating memories. I lean across the table and tell Ian that backyard barbecues at home will never be a match on this Lao outdoor dining experience. He agrees and admits that he was quite indifferent to Southeast Asian music initially because of its newness but now lum vong music, like Beer Lao, is requisite to any festive gathering here. As well, the music becomes an excuse to move at the end of the meal, to dance with your friends.
It is revealed that C’s husband is also an accomplished singer. After he serenades C with a special birthday song, he invites everyone to dance. I flex my wrists and get ready to move my hands in the mysterious patterns of lum vong. Lao ladies grow up coached in these arts and they’re happy to impart the secrets to foreigners. It doesn’t mean I know what I’m doing but I'm guessing the young man bowing before me doesn’t mind so I accept his invitation to dance and we join the swaying circles on the dance floor.
A very happy birthday to you C and thank you for your friendship! Suk San Van Koed