Even at 6:30am, the temperature was approaching the 90's rapidly at Luang Prabang's morning market. Women lined the sides of the stone street, sitting on the ground, fish spread out on tarps or newspapers in front of them. Despite the early hour, the flies were awake, crowded all over the glistening skin of fish and mobbing the helpless meat butchers. Some women made feeble attempts to shoo them; some didn't bother. I can't deny being disgusted. My upbringing did not include food with vermin crawling on it. I couldn't look past my prejudices and see the market. It wasn't until Paige and I ate a beautiful bowl of fish soup at a nearby food stall that I had a revelation. In a town so small, the fish we were eating came from that fly-infested market.
Locals seem not to notice the bugs that flirt with their bowls of noodles or land on the backs of their necks. A rat may scuttle by and it’s business as usual. With that in mind, we returned to the morning market the next day. It took effort, but I relaxed, relinquished my judgment and just observed. Many of the fish were still struggling for breath. And they were indigenous: snakefish, frogs, catfish, tilapia, eel, straight from the Mekong, less than half a mile away, to the market at daybreak. The meat was fresh too. The produce was perky and beautiful. I kind of had to laugh at myself. Did I really think that people were eating rotten food? On that note, we sat down for our first meal in the market; an excellent bowl of Lao khao soi. That was one of many mornings to come that Paige and I got our breakfast and lunch at that market.
Despite the beauty of ingredients when they are brought to market, poor storage conditions still make them degrade quickly. The hot, humid climate and exposure to bacteria gives fresh fish hours, not days. Morning after morning we saw the same faces at the market in Laos. They would buy a few things, grab some breakfast and leave. Soon the smell of wood smoke was thick in the air as families prepared their meals for the rest of the day. Once food is cooked, most harmful bacteria dies off, giving the ingredients new life. In Luang Prabang, it would likely be a basket of sticky rice, a fragrant soup, jeow (dipping sauce, usually thick and chili-based), fried cured fish and crudités, including a big plate of herbs and greens. The food would then be covered and kept somewhere cool and shady. Where lack of refrigeration and exposure to flies could translate to poor sanitation and rotten food, in Southeast Asia, it means fresh, home-cooked meals every day.
Another way that cooks protect precious calories from spoilage in SEA is by preserving them. Fish meat is salted and dried in the sun. The guts are brined and aged to make fish sauce. Foraged river weeds are dried and crushed into powder. The salty, pungent flavors that these ingredients add to dishes are balanced with fresh herbs, lime juice and chili. Together they create flavors that are becoming world-recognized. Though originally, I imagine it wasn't about fine cooking but nutrition and necessity. In times when a fisherman ate only what he caught and tomorrow's meal was not guaranteed, waste was not an option. So, if his haul was ten fish, he kept two fresh for that day and cured the other eight. By using the guts and bones to make fish sauce, they extracted nutrients and flavor from otherwise unusable parts. Chilis, lime and herbs serve to make odiferous preserved fish more palatable, all together making the rice flavorful. Through ingenuity, a poor fisherman's family found ways to survive with less.
In contrast, "the average American consumer discards 10 times as much as the average Southeast Asian" according to Dana Gunders' 2012 report for the Natural Resource Defense Council. Despite our superior infrastructure for storing foods from the source to the consumer, we somehow find a way to waste 25% at the consumer level, and 40% overall. It’s no surprise that American consumers waste. The way we shop and are encouraged to shop is wasteful: two-for-one deals, bulk sales and entirely overstocked supermarkets basically shove extra food into the shopper’s cart. Surpluses from overproduction of single ingredients like dairy, corn and soy are marketed to the individual in the form of processed foods. But too much is just too much. That food just ends up in our garbage cans at home.
The way Americans shop is not just wasteful, it encourages diets with less fresh ingredients. The SEA method of buying and cooking for that day ensures that vegetables are being eaten at the height of their freshness, which also means at their most healthful. Many American families shop as little as once a week. The wilting spinach from last week that sits in the fridge as a result is a visual representation of nutrient degradation. Once finally prepared (if not thrown away), it has little of the nutrition that was paid for left. Buying and eating fresh vegetables therefore becomes unrealistic, and very inefficient from a budgeting standpoint. It is much easier to justify buying processed foods that won't go bad and become a waste of money. Unfortunately, the ingredients used in those highly efficient processed foods are often very un-nutritious. But honestly, how can a working parent find time to shop for food everyday? Who has the time to cook wholesome meals for their families? Apparently poor families in Laos do and middle class America does not.
This started with flies and an assumption about their presence: flies are synonymous with filth; the food the flies are touching is therefore filthy. So, the meals prepared with those ingredients are dangerous, not nutritious, not healthy. We assume that our cans of low-fat soup and bottles of salad dressing will keep us vital. Why then are so many Americans dying of heart disease and cancer? Why so many youths with diabetes? That's not normal. That usually doesn't happen to people who choose fruits, vegetables and whole foods over processed ones. That's what happens when breakfast is cereal and milk, lunch is chicken nuggets and dinner is pizza and cola. But, our markets, with their bright colors and nutrition facts, guarantees of 40% less fat (than what?) fool us. They deceive us into feeling taken care of by our food, knowing that someone else is looking after our nutrition for us. Then there is this fly-infested market in Laos. Food lying on the street. No fanfare. No advertisement. Just fruits, vegetables and fresh fish. Healthy food. The type of food that holds the key to vast reductions in death from disease for Americans. And, I have to think, it's not pretty, but at least it's honest.