Gin khaow? Gin khaow.

In Lao, people don’t say “Time for lunch!” or “Dinner’s ready!” instead, they say “Gin khaow!” (Eat rice!) The word for the color white is also “khaow” meaning rice. The first part of the word for bread (khaowgee) is also rice. The international beer, that people drink more than water, and which practically sponsors the country, is rice beer. Pancakes are made from rice, whiskey is made from rice, you name it and rice is involved. Did you know there are over 40,000 varieties of rice? So far, my favorite is “khaow gai noi” (little chicken rice). Needless to say, I have consumed an exorbitant amount of rice in the past eleven weeks, and I have loved every grain.

Arriving in Laos I was a little nervous about food, I was not sure what the food would be like and how I would react. I had never been a fan of spicy food, so that was definitely a concern. Upon arrival, it became clear to me quite quickly that I was going eat a lot of rice, I was going to need to adjust to spicy foods, and that learning to love coconut would not be optional. On top of that, I realized that my mild shell-fish allergy, that I rarely think about in the US, was going to be a much bigger concern than I had anticipated. Naïve pre-Laos Abby thought, “it’s a landlocked country, how much seafood could there be?” the answer: a lot. I forgot to take into account the Mekong. I also had never heard of shrimp paste or crab paste or fish sauce, which are added to just about every dish. The result- goong (shrimp) and gha pee (crab paste) were worked into my vocabulary, and I was quite careful with my ordering decisions.

My first bit of time in Laos I was a very cautious eater. I stuck almost exclusively to “khaow paet gai” (fried rice) knowing that I enjoyed it and was intaking only a minor amount of fish sauce. However, as the weeks progressed, I became more courageous. I accepted all the offers my coworkers gave to taste their lunches, became much more accustomed to spice, learned that I sincerely hate cilantro, and that I absolutely love passionfruit. When I arrived, I never would have eaten a coconut-based dish, but by the time I left my favorite meal was red-curry with a coconut base and lots of eggplant (another pleasant surprise). I also ate and enjoyed numerous coconut cakes for Christina’s birthday.

Though I did not eat scorpions, I was glad I was able to experience new foods and bond with my coworkers through food. Pro tip: tamarin jam on a baguette. Absolutely incredible. I also loved learning about Lao food customs. Meals are very communal experiences, everyone shares dishes, and in lieu of utensils, you use khaow neow (sticky rice)! Simply grab a ball of khaow neow, roll it up in your hands, and use it to scoop soup, pinch chicken, pair with veggies, you name it. One of my favorite things to do for dinner was go downtown, get some chicken and khaow neow from a street vendor and eat my chicken-on-a-stick and my knaow neow while meandering the talat mud (night market). As I head back to the US, one thing I’m certain of, is that I am going to go through severe khaow neow withdraw.