In order to make any meal in Laos, you need to visit a market, to buy all your meat and vegetables as fresh as possible. It’s the traditional way of shopping and cooking that precedes refrigeration, and it’s what almost all Lao women do on a daily basis.
This morning my friend Vanh cooked us a Thai yellow curry, and beforehand, we visited Market 103.
It’s a strange name for a market but there’s an explanation. It refers to a section of the Lao army that used to be housed around here. Market 103 is next to Hospital 103, and though the road they’re both on is the Lao-Thai Road, that section of it is simply called “103”. You get the gist; Lao people are very pragmatic like that.
The outside of Market 103 isn’t much to look at; they recently moved the whole thing back from the street. I’m not sure if that’s because of the roadworks that have besieged Vientiane or because the roof is in better shape at the back. If it’s the latter, that was fortuitous as it rained this morning, heralding a possible early start to the wet season.
Inside, we headed straight to Vanh’s fish lady. On a wooden trestle table in front of her were three large metal bowls, two housing flapping black fish in murky water, and one with a netted covering under which squatted a dozen or so mournful greenish-brown frogs.
I felt suitably guilty at ending the lives of two fish to satisfy my palate whims. But I also reasoned that their fates were decided a while ago, and if not me, someone else would eat them soon enough. The frogs, at least were safe from me.
The women scooped out two fish, dumped them onto a small wooden chopping board and whacked the heads of both with the blunt end of her chopping knife. She then hacked the heads off and started scaling them.
We left her to clean them and moved onto the vegetables. The two women here, like many of the other stallholders, have been working at 103 for 15+ years. They buy their produce from local family farms around Vientiane and bring it here to sell.
Vanh picked out onions, potatoes, purple sweet potatoes, shallots, lemongrass, garlic, and green beans, and the side greens like mint, lettuce and purple cabbage. Unlike the usual habit of buying in ½ or 1 kilo bags, she just picked out what she needed for the meal. The women bagged it all up for us. It cost 25,000 kip ($A6).
Next up was the noodle stall. There are a variety of fresh and dry Lao noodles, each piled in bowls. Most are made from rice. There’s also some packets of dry Thai noodles; preferred by Thai customers, packs of fresh tofu and bags of chopped sausages (I'm not sure why).
They also had all the cooking sauces and other accompaniments such as fish sauce, curry powder and soy sauce.
On this side of the market there was a cloying smell and I realised that we were near the fresh meat section. Pork is perhaps the favourite meat of Laos and they eat the whole animal. The animals are adults (no piglets) and they are killed much the same way as the fish. The head is sold separately and considered quite special. It may be given as a lucky gift to the bride and groom at a wedding and is eaten grilled or BBQ'd whole. The bones are used for soup, the intestines for lunch packets and sausages, and the fat for cooking and flavour.
Fresh pork sells quickly so they can leave the meat out like this. It's well known that if you want pork for your dishes, it's best bought first thing at the market.
Not for us day today though. We’re done and we collect our bag of 4 fish fillets on the way out. The bones and skin would normally be made into a soup or stock but we’ve left them. It's time to head home to cook!
This is how our Thai yellow fish and vegetable curry turned out and very nice it was.
Market 103 is on the Lao-Thai road next to, and on the same side as, Hospital 103.