Luang Namtha isn't an obvious food destination. Most Luang Namtha dishes aren't gorgeous in the offhand way that a simple bowl of Malaysian noodles can be. The appetite rousing aroma of grilling meat doesn't hang in its air, as is often the case in Indonesia. And unlike Saigon, its streets aren't overflowing with vendors offering a staggering variety of tempting local specialties.
Yet we ate well during our visit to this remote province in northern Laos late last March. This was thanks in part to the restaurant at The Boat Landing, a laid-back riverside 'resort' (I hesitate to use that word lest it conjure images of the sort of luxe, isolated-from-the-real-world lodgings more easily found on true beaches elsewhere in the region) about 30 minutes by bicycle from Luang Namtha town.
The Boat Landing's little kitchen prepares specialties of Luang Namtha's numerous ethnic groups. Each night we dined on a variety of jaew (dips) made with unusual ingredients such as young rattan tips (creamy and a bit nutty, like sesame paste), sawtooth herb, and a local variety of Sichuan peppercorn (prickly ash, actually); soupy stews called aw lahm, packed with eggplant and snake beans and foraged leafy vegetables; toasted mak tua nao, umami-rich discs of pressed and dried fermented soybeans seasoned with chilies; and sticky rice. (Coming soon: my review of a cookbook inspired by this very kitchen and featuring recipes from around Luang Namtha.)
During the day we hit the streets, foraging as best we could -- up and out before dawn, biking first to a nearby market where we might snack a bit, and then further on into Luang Namtha town, for its relatively larger morning market. There we found a warming and delicious northern Laos-style kao soi, a good green papaya salad, some wonderful pickles, and a few other treats we'll tell you about later in the week.
In town we also discovered a restaurant -- admittedly grotty, though we never fell ill from eating there -- serving intriguing Chinese-Laotian dishes.
Cycling back to the Boat Landing mid-afternoon, we sometimes found a food stall or two open in the tiny village of lovely wooden structures up the road from The Boat Landing. Once we stopped for what was possibly the best tam mak hoong (green papaya salad) of our trip, pungently fishy with padek and made with wide flat strips of crispy papaya.
On another day a woman sitting behind a low table set next to the entrance of a shop house caught our eye. Before her was a tall container of clear liquid with a few red orbs bobbing in it, a jar of chili paste and another of MSG (a common table condiment in Laos), and a large enameled metal bowl draped with a cloth. Hung from a nail protruding from the wooded door frame were small bags of golden fried rice crackers.
We lowered ourselves onto stools so low we might as well have been sitting on our heels, and watched as she pulled bricks of rice flour jelly from beneath the cloth. She sliced each into cubes and dropped them into small ceramic bowls.
To this she added a ladle or two of liquid and a few of the red orbs, which turned out to be cherry tomatoes. A small scoop of chili paste went on top. Finally she pulled a package of rice crackers from the hook, slit it open with her knife, and motioned for us to break the crisps over our bowls.
The liquid was sour, probably from the tomatoes but also, I think, with vinegar. Combined with the cool and bland soft jelly it made for a dish to revive us after a long, unshaded bike ride at the height of a bright-white hot-season afternoon.
We're suckers for anything hot and sour, so the fiery cilantro-seasoned and slightly fishy chili sauce made the already pleasant treat even better. And the deep-fried crackers, which retained their crunch despite immersion in the liquid, contrasted nicely with the squishy jelly.
The next morning we spied the same dish at the Luang Namtha morning market, and found a woman making and steaming the rice jelly in its rear 'kitchen'.
Where else are these rice flour jellies eaten? We've tried something similar -- though not quite as dense -- in Chengdu and long ago, in Kunming. And Shan Burmese shave noodle-like strips from firmer, larger rice flour blocks for their version of kao soi. Not surprising, as northern Laos has long been a regional trade crossroads.