My Starring Roll in Laos
I once invented a dessert sushi, in Laos. It was made of bananas, peanut butter, sticky rice, sesame seeds, and honey. My then-girlfriend Lauren and I created it spontaneously one December afternoon in 2002, while dining on the deck of a restaurant in Muang Ngoi, a rural fishing village on the Nam Ou River in northern Laos. Scores of backpackers lay up in Muang Ngoi, so we called it the Falang Roll, using the Lao word for “foreigner.” The owners indulged us by providing the ingredients, and we promised them that the roll would be a sensation. They added it to their menu.
One evening, two years after that visit, I sat at my desk in California and wondered about the fate of the roll. Google pulled up a blog entry by a German backpacker about “an interesting dish called the ‘Falang Roll’ made by some falang who stayed for weeks in Muang Ngoi and taught them how to make this sort of dessert sushi.”
The roll lived! And it had even acquired an imprecise lore: We had stayed in Muang Ngoi for only three days. Over the years I sought updates from backpackers. In 2007, I posted to Thorn Tree, Lonely Planet’s online forum, asking if anyone had tried the roll. One reply: “YES I SAW THIS!… We thought it was hilarious but didn’t give it a try!” From another: “I actually have a picture of the sign!” The next year, I asked again. “Virtually every restaurant in Muang Ngoi has the Falang Roll,” said one. “Not sure how many people order, I certainly did not. Last thing I want is falang food in Laos.” And another: “Andy—you posted this same script last year. Yawn.”
I let it be.
In 2009, I found myself thumbing through a Lonely Planet guidebook on Laos at a friend’s house, and flipped to the “Eating” section for Muang Ngoi:
Nang Phone Keo Restaurant
(Meals, US $0.50–$1.50)
The ‘Falang Roll’ of peanut butter, sticky rice and veggies lures ravenous travelers to the open-air deck of this restaurant on the main street. Also whips up good foe.
I felt both honored by the Falang Roll’s immortalization and offended. Veggies? Evolution is natural, but this was metamorphosis. I felt like my legacy—let’s face it, at 32, the only one I could claim—was being hijacked.
I had to return to Laos.
Backpacker trail—a beaten path from Cuzco to Kathmandu filled with dog-eared Lonely Planet guides, Canadian flag patches, and discharged Israeli soldiers growing out their hair—is saturated with Western comfort foods. Banana pancakes are a guesthouse standard. Israelis have successfully transplanted shakshuka, a Middle Eastern egg-and-tomato breakfast, to backpacker haunts worldwide. And then there’s the phenomenal, spreadable, not-quite-chocolate Nutella, which now reaches far beyond the Eurail network.
The Falang Roll came from the same spirit of transplanted food: If Lauren and I created our own dish in Laos, could it catch on, even travel to Thailand or Malaysia or Goa? This was the thought that arose that afternoon from hammocks above the Nam Ou River. We had left careers in San Francisco, discovered a shared spirit for adventure, and set off for six months in Southeast Asia. The first month in Thailand we learned how to scuba dive and consumed street food with abandon. We crossed into Laos, trekked into hill tribe villages, and journeyed long days on bad roads with cheerful locals. We boated south down the Nam Ou to Muang Ngoi, eager to kick back for a few days and do laundry.
Rugged karst formations surrounding Muang Ngoi have kept the village isolated from roads, cars, motorbikes, and power lines—but not from Nutella. Some time after Laos opened up to foreigners in 1989, backpackers got word of Muang Ngoi’s relaxed pace and quiet, and the village’s single dirt road was transformed into a modest strip of guesthouses and restaurants.
Nang Phone Keo, the restaurant we went to, was run by a friendly couple with a cute 5-year-old son. The menu included peanut butter and honey sandwiches, French toast, waffles, and, of course, shakshuka. Lauren and I still argue about which one of us received the touch of inspiration for the Falang Roll after an afternoon meal there. Riffing on ingredients we knew the proprietors already had, we asked for a hunk of sticky rice, a banana, and peanut butter, which had to be ground fresh at the table with a wooden mortar and pestle. We used a water glass to flatten the rice, then spread a line of peanut butter and banana across it, and rolled the whole thing into the cylindrical shape of sushi.
The owners looked on, bemused, while we conducted our experiment. I asked to have a look around in the kitchen, where I found sesame seeds, which are used in Laos as a topping for dried river seaweed. We sprinkled seeds over the rice (in a nod to the Japanese original), cut the roll into bite-size pieces, and poured honey into a bowl to use as a dipping sauce. This one dish packed the nostalgia of an after-school snack, the density to stop the runs, and enough familiarity to sate culinary homesickness: a perfect backpacker food, we said. The price of 10,000 kip (less than $1) seemed about right—the same as shakshuka. Pleased with our creation, we left the village the next day.
When I arrive in Muang Ngoi in July to defend my legacy, the Nam Ou is swollen from monsoon rains. I disembark and walk up the new cement steps that ascend the embankment—on my last visit the steps were mud—to the main drag. Locals stand under doorways and ask, in their nonpushy way, if I’m looking for a guesthouse. I want to say, “No, I’m looking for the Falang Roll.” I walk the whole strip, to the end, surveying the left side of the road, where I remember Nang Phone Keo to be. There’s no trace of the place. I begin to worry that the Falang Roll might be extinct.
Deciding to wait until the rain lets up before panicking, I head toward my old guesthouse. That’s gone, too. I ask two younger backpackers from Canada and the U.K. if they can recommend somewhere to stay. The place they’re at is decent enough, they say, and cheap—$2 per night. But back near the boat landing is Ning Ning Guesthouse, which for $5 a night offers sturdy bamboo walls, glass windows, and a bar of soap. It occurs to me that despite shouldering the same blue backpack I had with me in 2002, I am no longer the frugal traveler I was then, because without much hesitation I spring for the Ning Ning.
The next morning I head back down the strip. A worker at Ning Ning has told me that Nang Phone Keo moved across the street, which is why I didn’t see it the day before. In the light of day, toward the end of the road I spot a familiar yellow sign hanging off a thatched roof. In red lettering, it reads:
AVAILABLE EVERY DAY!
WELCOME FOR YOUR BREAKFAST SANDWICH
BAGUETTE WITH PENUT BUTTER
WAFFLE – FALANG ROLLS
Nang Phone Keo still exists, and from the looks of it, so does the Falang Roll. I peer in but the only sign of life is someone sleeping on the floor in the back of the dining room. I head into a restaurant a few doors down, where I find a local guy named Hompan talking with a British traveler.
I show him two photos of Nang Phone Keo from my visit in 2002. (After all, I need some proof of creation.) One is of the Falang Roll, presented on a plate the moment after Lauren and I made it—six bite-size pieces garnished by a slice of unpeeled banana. The other picture is of the owners’ son, standing next to the menu board on which Lauren and I had written the name of the dish.
“I remember you!” Hompan says, after I show him the photos. “I worked at a restaurant next to that place, and I asked you to teach me how to make Falang Roll, and you said ‘OK, OK,’ but then the next day you go.”
“Oh, sorry, man!”
“Now many people here know Falang Roll,” he says, sweeping his hand across the village. “Seven years—long time.”
I ask him what has changed. There used to be only eight restaurants in town; now there are around 20, he says, though it seems that during this low tourist season local residents have converted many of them back to domestic use. There are certainly more signs for tourist services (“Oui Parle Francais,” “Haircut/To Shave the Beard/Shose Repairing”), including several for trekking and fishing guides. Hompan says there are more than 25 self-employed guides in town; in 2002, he had been the only one. Electricity still runs off generators, and only a few houses have telephone lines, but a cell tower is being installed over the village. There are two small temples; there used to be three. Opium is no longer sold in the weekly market. I ask about Joe, an American from Brooklyn who was visiting Muang Ngoi at the same time Lauren and I were here. It was his second visit. Villagers seemed to be fond of him—they knew his name, anyway. Of the thousands of falang who journey through Muang Ngoi never to return, he seemed to have developed a connection with this place and its people. Passing through superficially, I had been envious of Joe.
“Joe? Spiky hair and squinty eyes?” Hompan asks. “Yeah, I don’t know, he never come back.”
Hompan calls out to a woman who is walking past the restaurant. It’s Sopjian, the owner of Nang Phone Keo. I immediately recognize her warm face and smile. She doesn’t remember me, so I show her the photos. She looks at the pictures, then looks at me, and back again at the photos. We all laugh, thinking of the absurdity of the Falang Roll.
Hompan, Sopjian, and I walk to Nang Phone Keo, and I greet Khan, Sopjian’s husband, who is gentle and soft-spoken. Hompan calls him Buon Dien (Mr. Cool) because of his calm demeanor. Their son, San, walks in, now 12 but as sweet as the 5-year-old I remember. He’s wearing a pink-and-white-striped T-shirt, and the nails on his left hand are painted red. He looks at my photo of him from 2002 and laughs shyly.
I sit down at a table and, for the first time ever, order a Falang Roll.
I am relieved to see that Lonely Planet misreported. Khan delivers more or less an authentic Falang Roll. The peanut butter is now Skippy, and the higher cost of honey means it is used sparingly and only inside the roll. The Falang Roll is no longer a “dessert” sushi, but listed on a laminated, four-page menu under “breakfast,” along with waffles, pancakes, baguette sandwiches—and shakshuka, now more expensive than a Falang Roll. Elsewhere I notice “Fried Banana Flambée with lào-láo.” Lào-láo is the potent national rice whisky. Khan says the flambée was introduced by a French backpacker.
A Canadian couple sits down at the end of the table and looks over the menu. “What’s in a Falang Roll?” the woman asks Khan. I tell her she should try it and I explain that I invented it. She says that they had actually chosen this restaurant after reading about the Falang Roll in the Lonely Planet guide. “I also met a German guy in Thailand who said we had to try it if we ever reached Muang Ngoi,” she adds. Khan serves them a roll, and I observe them the way marketers scrutinize a focus group. They dip each piece in coffee, which they later explain is because the roll was a bit too dry. But otherwise, two thumbs up. My legacy feels secure.
I spend the afternoon getting to know the family I had never really met. I learn that 40 years ago, when Khan was a young boy, his family left for Luang Prabang to escape the bombs the United States was dropping on Muang Ngoi. Some villagers spent nearly a decade during the Vietnam War holed up in caves bored into the karst hills, Khan says, only venturing out at night to work their rice fields. In Luang Prabang, the U.S. Army paid Khan’s father to fight against the Pathet Lao, the homegrown Communist movement supported by North Vietnam. Most falang who visit Muang Ngoi—even those who swim in the caves, which are down a trail from the main strip—are unaware of this history. But the village is littered with remnants: Under Nang Phone Keo’s yellow sign lies a rusty, five-foot-tall bomb casing stamped with a U.S. seal. These days locals use the old casings as gateposts and planters.
One morning during my stay Sopjian invites me to her niece’s baby shower. I arrive with a case of Beerlao and join the men seated on the floor around bowls of sticky rice, spicy fish laap, and soup. Cups of lào-láo are passed around with toasts for “good luck.” The midday buzz, the greasy hands and lips, a room full of people talking ever louder in a language I don’t understand, a stereo that pumps out a singer’s crooning backed up by a synthesizer: It’s a scene familiar to travelers in villages across the world. A local man who once spent four months in Atlanta tells the others in the room how quickly the fire department there responds to accidents, and how it’s not OK to drink on the job. More lào-láo, group dancing with twirling hands, and a woman who insistently bops her rear end into mine. I’m given a thumbs-up after being introduced as the guy who made the Falang Roll. “My wife can make it!” says Vita, who owns Vita’s Restaurant on the strip.
Visiting Muang Ngoi this second time, I begin to feel I’ve gone a little deeper than a transient falang. Being here during low season allows me to witness the village’s natural rhythm, which begins each day at dawn with the crowing of roosters and the beating of the temple drum. Boys and men set off on boats to fish. From tables along the main strip, women sell $1 bowls of noodles, lemongrass, and banana flowers to families heading off to work their rice fields. Kids carry babies and etch a local version of hopscotch into the dirt road. Dogs, chickens, and cats wander here and there. People sleep when the day is hot or rainy. They joke and gossip. Dusk arrives and the last boats return to shore. In the evenings, young and old gather around television sets to watch Thai movies. Sounds and fluorescent light spill out of open doorways onto the dark main road. Despite the year-round influx of falang who arrive with their clicking cameras, the social fabric seems in place.
I had come to Muang Ngoi thinking that with one culinary creation to my name, and maybe a bit of credibility, I might introduce another dish—perhaps another local variation of a perennial backpacker favorite. Pizza seems doable, so one day before I leave I take Khan, San, and Hompan into Nang Phone Keo’s kitchen, a tin-roofed annex behind the dining terrace, past chickens and a washing tub. Against the wall sit two open clay stoves with smoldering pieces of wood. I locate a pair of tomatoes on the floor of the vegetable pantry and hand them to San to blend with garlic, which he then cooks down in the wok to a thick marinara sauce. I work waffle flour, baking soda, and water into dough, and sauté some onion slices. Then I pound out a round, personal-size pie and lay it into the base of the wok, adding the sauce and onions and clumps of Laughing Cow cheese, a remnant of French colonialism. For the local touch I sprinkle on top pieces of kaipen (crispy Nam Ou seaweed seasoned with sesame seeds, sundried tomatoes, and garlic).
We wait 15 minutes for the dish to cook in the wok, then reconvene in the restaurant, crack a Beerlao, and share what is likely Muang Ngoi’s first pizza. Khan and Hompan chew in studious silence.
“So?” I ask. “What do we think?”
“Sep lai—delicious,” Hompan says, “but maybe more food on top like buffalo or chicken laap.” I agree that the addition of Lao’s national dish, a marinated meat salad with fresh greens, herbs, and spices, would be an improvement. Khan voices concern about the long cooking time and impatient diners.
“Maybe some Israelis, they go away,” Khan says, waving his hand. A more pressing problem, though, is the village’s lack of a proper pizza oven. Hompan is hopeful. He is building a “jungle bar” on a plot off the main strip that he inherited from his family. There, he says, he will someday make our pizza.
I spend several more days in the village hanging out with Hompan, Khan, and San. By the time I leave Muang Ngoi it is with the understanding that sometimes travel is made rich not by what we take from the places we visit, but by what we leave behind. Even if that’s a dessert sushi or a Laughing Cow pizza, in Laos. A
Photographs by Andy Isaacson. Portrait by Jeff Minton. This appeared in the March/April 2010 issue.