There are a few markets in Thakhek for food and household items. For food, there’s Naboo market, which is busiest in the mornings and then there is KM 2 market, called Lak Soong, which is better in the afternoons. I usually go to KM 2 as it is bigger and has more variety. At the entrance, there are girls and women without a regular stall or stand who sell a few home made goods like pickled greens, vegetables from their garden or products gathered in the forest. I try to buy from them now and again, but sometimes their produce is just not fresh anymore or frankly, I can hardly bring myself to look at the meat products let alone buy and eat it. But sometimes they have intriguing fruits and vegetables that I don’t know and I gladly give it a try.
So one of these days I saw them selling bunches of something that looked like green flower heads. Now that I think of it, I actually might have seen something similar sold in florist shops in Switzerland. As I approached and inquired, a girl broke one of the heads apart, pulled out a green pod, peeled it and handed me the white, soft, inner kernel to try. I cautiously nibbled at it, to the glee of all the women watching me. It tasted very raw and green and slightly bitter, but not unpleasant. The lack of my Lao language skills prevented me from asking what it was and if it could also be cooked and how. The market women seemed to eat them raw while waiting for customers. I bought a bunch and thought I would figure it out at home.
I sat down to shelling the white kernels. It took a lot of patience for very little reward. The big bunch whittled down to about two handfuls of kernels after a lot of work. Mind you, that comes from someone who actually enjoys shelling green peas and finds it in a way almost satisfying to peel the skin from chick peas. At least I had time to think about what to do with them. The taste reminded me of fava beans, though maybe a bit nuttier. I got on to cooking. On one of my favourite food blogs I found this idea of coating them in breadcrumbs, seasoned with garlic, chili, salt, lemon juice and olive oil. The result was underwhelming, which was certainly not the fault of the recipe. I even tried it twice, because I thought the recipe was so good, it just had to work. I bought another couple of bunches and added them blanched to a salad. Thinking they need more cooking and seasoning and might live up to their potential when paired with local ingredients, I stir fried them with greens from the market and ginger, garlic and soy sauce. I added them to a vegetable curry. Hoping they would melt into a velvety consistency, I pureed them with toasted sesame seeds, ground coriander, salt and olive oil.
Honestly, I tried. I wish I could report that I’ve discovered a culinary treat only available in this region (or maybe South America as well, it looks very South American to me), going on and on about the complex and subtle flavours, creamy texture, versatility of use and what you guys in Europe or wherever you are, miss out on. Unfortunately, I just can’t get excited about it. It might be ok to help pass the time when you’re sitting all day at the market, waiting for customers or I imagine the villagers shelling and nibbling them during long participatory village meetings organised by well-meaning development agencies or NGOs. The white pods also look a bit weird, like small eyeballs. When you have a bowl full of them looking at you, it gets slightly creepy. As I still don’t know what it is, I’m hoping for it to be some “super food”, even though I’m not into the super food hype. But that’s about the only reason I can think of that might justify the trouble in my opinion. Anybody out there who knows what this is, what it is good for, what to do with it?