Dec 022018

Today is a National Day in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic marking the anniversary of the victory of the Pathet Lao in the Laotian Civil War that was an adjunct of the Vietnam war. Let’s talk about the country’s name before I get into the heart of things. The country was called Laos (with an /s/) by French colonists, but both the people and their language are known as Lao indigenously, and they refer to their country by the full name, sometimes, or as Muang Lao (ເມືອງລາວ) more commonly. After independence from France in 1953 until 1973 the country retained the French colonial name, Laos, but subsequently it has been called Lao. I will use the name Laos here for the country prior to 1973.

The First Indochina War (1946 – 1954) was centered on Vietnam, but involved Laos and Cambodia as well, and eventually led to French defeat and the signing of a peace accord for Laos at the Geneva Conference of 1954. In 1955, the US Department of Defense created a special Programs Evaluation Office to replace French support of the Royal Lao Army against the communist Pathet Lao as part of the US policy of “containment” of communism in Asia.

In 1960, amidst a series of rebellions in the kingdom of Laos, fighting broke out between the Royal Lao Army and the communist North Vietnam-backed, and Soviet Union-backed Pathet Lao guerillas. A second Provisional Government of National Unity formed by Prince Souvanna Phouma in 1962 was unsuccessful, and the situation steadily deteriorated into large scale civil war between the Royal Laotian government and the Pathet Lao, backed militarily by the NVA and Vietcong.

Laos was a key part of the Vietnam War since parts of Laos were invaded and occupied by North Vietnam for use as a supply route for its war against the South. In response, the United States initiated a bombing campaign against the North Vietnamese positions, supported regular and irregular anticommunist forces in Laos and supported South Vietnamese incursions into Laos. In 1968 the North Vietnamese Army launched a multi-division attack to help the Pathet Lao to fight the Royal Lao Army. The attack resulted in the army largely demobilizing, leaving the conflict to irregular ethnic Hmong forces of the “U.S. Secret Army” backed by the United States and Thailand, and led by General Vang Pao.

Massive aerial bombardment against the Pathet Lao and invading People’s Army of Vietnam forces were carried out by the United States to prevent the collapse of the Royal Kingdom of Laos central government, and to deny the use of the Ho Chi Minh Trail to attack US forces in the Republic of Vietnam. Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. dropped 2 million tons of bombs on Laos, nearly equal to the 2.1 million tons of bombs the U.S. dropped on Europe and Asia during all of World War II, making Laos the most heavily bombed country in history relative to the size of its population; The New York Times noted this was “nearly a ton for every person in Laos”. Around 80 million bombs failed to explode and remain scattered throughout the country, rendering vast swathes of land impossible to cultivate and killing or maiming 50 Laotians every year. (Due to the particularly heavy impact of cluster bombs during this war, Laos was a strong advocate of the Convention on Cluster Munitions to ban the weapons, and was host to the First Meeting of States Parties to the convention in November 2010.

In 1975 the Pathet Lao, along with the Vietnam People’s Army, and backed by the Soviet Union, overthrew the royalist Lao government, forcing king Savang Vatthana to abdicate on 2nd December 1975. He later died in prison. Between 20,000 and 62,000 Laotians died during the Civil War. On 2nd December 1975, after taking control of the country, the Pathet Lao government under Kaysone Phomvihane renamed the country as the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and signed agreements giving Vietnam the right to station armed forces and to appoint advisers to assist in overseeing the country.

Larb is probably the best known Lao dish and I covered a version of it here. This recipe is for a common beef version, but there is also a fish version which is popular. It resembles ceviche a little, in that the fish has a lime juice dressing, but it is parboiled, and other herbs and vegetables are added. The greens preferred in Laos, and SE Asia in general, are not easily found outside of Asia, but you might find a friendly Vietnamese market. When I lived in New York there was one near my work. In Lao the fish used is local fish from the Mekong. You can use any white fish, but remember, the more you substitute ingredients, the farther you get from the taste of Lao.

Fish Larb


¼ cup fresh squeezed lime juice
1 tbsp lemongrass, white parts only, finely minced
1 tsp fresh ginger, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp fish sauce
2 tbsp shallots, thinly sliced
¼ cup scallions, green part only, thinly sliced
¼ teaspoon sea salt
1-2 red Thai bird chiles, chopped (or Prik Bon chili powder)
3 cups Asian greens, whole leaves, coarsely chopped
¼ cup cilantro, fresh, whole leaves, coarsely chopped
½ cup fresh mint leaves, coarsely chopped
1 lb white fish, sliced
1 stalk lemongrass, cut into 2” pieces
1 ½ tablespoons ground roasted rice (optional)


In a small bowl, mix together the lime juice, lemongrass, ginger, garlic, fish sauce, shallots, salt and chili. Set aside.

Put the watercress, cilantro and mint into a medium bowl.

In a small saucepan, boil 3 inches of water with 1 stalk of lemongrass, place the fish into the boiling water, turn off the heat. Let sit 3-4 minutes.

Toss the greens with lime-lemongrass dressing plus the roasted rice (if using). Drain the fish and mix in gently. Serve immediately.

Jul 252016


Today is Día Nacional de Galicia (“National Day of Galicia”), a public holiday in the autonomous region of Spain. It is also called informally Día da Patria Galega (“Day of the Galician Homeland”), or simply Día de Galicia (“Galicia Day”). The celebration can be traced back to 1919, when the group Irmandades da Fala (a Galicianist organization) met in the Galician capital, Santiago de Compostela. It was then decided to celebrate the National Day on 25 July the following year. The date was chosen as it is the feast day of Saint James, — — patron saint of both Galicia and the Galician capital city.


Galicia Day was celebrated openly until the Franco dictatorship (1939-1977), when any display of non-Spanish nationalism was prohibited. During that time the National Day was still celebrated by Galician emigrant communities abroad. In Galicia, the Galicianists gathered under the pretext of offering a Mass for Galician poetess and literary icon Rosalia de Castro, and Franco was fine with that. Curiously enough, the Franco regime institutionalized the religious celebration of Saint James as the patron saint of Spain even though his veneration is focused on Galicia.


From 1968 onwards Galicianists attempted to celebrate the day in Santiago de Compostela, even though they were still under Franco’s dictatorship. The Partido Socialista de Galicia (“Galician Socialist Party”) and the Unión do Povo Galego (“Galician People’s Union”) called for public political demonstrations every 25 July. These demonstrations would invariably result in clashes with the Spanish police. Even during the first years of democracy, after 1977, any demonstration organized by the Asemblea Nacional-Popular Galega and the BN-PG (later transformed into the Galician Nationalist Bloc) was still forbidden. It was only during the mid-1980s that the National Day started to be celebrated again as it had been before Franco. However, the events from the late 1960s onwards had transformed the National Day into an event with political ramifications. The day is now an official public holiday celebrated with solemnity by the Galician government, but also with a number of festivities that take place from the night of the 24th until the early hours of the morning of the 26th.


Galicia is located in the North-West of the Iberian Peninsula. It was first inhabited by humans during the Middle Paleolithic period, and it takes its name from the Gallaeci, the Celtic people living north of the Douro River during the last millennium BCE. Hence Galicia is part of what is known as the “Celtic fringe” — Western European coastal regions (such as Brittany, Cornwall, Wales, and Ireland)  that are the remnants of a larger European Gallic area that was conquered and assimilated by Romans. Galicia was incorporated into the Roman Empire at the end of the Cantabrian Wars in 19 BCE, and was made a Roman province in the 3rd century CE. Thereafter Galicia has been a part of a succession of empires and kingdoms with a few limited periods of autonomy. Eventually Galicia passed the Statute of Autonomy in 1936 but this was frustrated by Franco’s autocratic government. After democracy was restored, the legislature passed the Statute of Autonomy of 1981, which is still in force, providing Galicia with self-government.

Two languages are official and widely used today in Galicia: native Galician, a Romance language closely related to Portuguese, with which it shares Galician-Portuguese medieval literature, and official Spanish, usually known locally as Castellano (Castilian). 56% of the Galician population speak Galician as their first language, while 43% speak more in Castilian.

Galician cuisine is heavily dominated by seafood, even inland. Polbo á feira is an octopus dish that is favored in Galicia, and you are as likely to find it in the mountains as along the coast. I could give you a seafood recipe, therefore, and there are dozens of them. But I am always reminded of Galicia by its eponymous soup: caldo galego. “Caldo” is Galician/Castilian for “broth” and “galego” means “Galician” (spelled “gallego” in Castilian, and pronounced differently). Often it is simply called “caldo” in Galicia. You’re not going to make a good replica at home, because the soup does not contain anything special. It’s only distinctive when you have it in Galicia made from local ingredients – essence of terroir. At heart it’s a soup made of white beans cooked with ham or pork, with the addition of potatoes, greens, and chorizo, and spiced with paprika. With that knowledge (and a photo), if you are an experienced cook you have all you need to know to make the soup. Every Galician cook has variations of course, and I doubt that any of them follows a recipe, any more than I would. Quantities are not important as long as there is a fair balance.


Here’s your ingredient list, but bear in mind that you can vary everything:

2 cups dried white beans
1 lb ham knuckle, ham bone, ham hock, or pork bones
salt and pepper
2 tsp Spanish paprika
1 lb potatoes, peeled and diced (not too small)
1 bunch turnip greens, rinsed and coarsely chopped
2 spanish chorizos (6.5 oz total), cut into pieces

First step is the usual for dried beans. Soak the beans overnight in cold water. Next day, drain the beans, put them in a heavy stock pot with the ham or pork, cover with water or light stock, and simmer until the beans are tender (1 to 2 hours).

Remove the ham or pork bones, strip off the meat and return it to the soup, discard the bones.

Add the remaining ingredients to the pot and continue simmering until the potatoes are cooked to your liking.

Serve in deep bowls with crusty bread.

Oct 012014


Given that I am now living in China for a while (Kunming, Yunnan Province), studying Mandarin Chinese, this is the perfect day for a new post. I won’t be able to keep it up, but my faithful readers deserve something fresh. However, you can also go back to last year’s post as well and read about World Vegetarian Day. You guessed it; we will have a vegetarian Chinese dish today.

The National Day of the People’s Republic of China is celebrated every year on October 1. It is a public holiday in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The PRC was founded on October 1, 1949 with a ceremony at Tiananmen Square. The Central People’s Government passed the Resolution on the National Day of the People’s Republic of China on December 2, 1949 and declared that October 1 is the National Day.


The National Day marks the start of one of the two Golden Weeks in the PRC. A Golden Week is a period of 3 days of paid leave for workers and the surrounding weekends are re-arranged so that workers in Chinese companies always have seven continuous days of holiday. These national holidays were first started by the government for the PRC’s National Day in 1999 and are primarily intended to help expand the domestic tourism market and improve the national standard of living, as well as allowing people to make long-distance family visits. The Golden Weeks are consequently periods of greatly heightened travel activity.  I’m very excited to be in the middle of it and especially look forward to the fireworks.

The National Day is celebrated throughout mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macau with a variety of government-organized festivities, including fireworks and concerts. Public places, such as Tiananmen Square in Beijing, are decorated in a festive theme. Portraits of revered leaders, such as Mao Zedong, are publicly displayed.

Naturally, food plays a big part in the festivities. Until the late 1970’s Chinese food was largely unknown to Westerners except for a few Cantonese dishes that were pallid versions of the originals – and still very common in Chinese restaurants in the West. But, magically, a few regional cuisines, such as Szechuan, began showing up, so that people outside of China could get a glimpse of the immense variety there was to be had. A number of different styles contribute to Chinese cuisine but perhaps the best known and most influential are Cantonese, Shandong, Jiangsu (specifically Huaiyang cuisine) and Szechuan. These styles are distinctive from one another due to factors such as availability of ingredients, climate, geography, history, cooking techniques, and lifestyle. However, it is also important to realize that just as there are French restaurants in Germany, you will find Szechuan restaurants in Beijing. All provinces feature the dishes of the others, but local styles predominate. Given that I am now living in Yunnan, it seems right to focus on that province, especially because the cuisine is little known outside of China.

Yunnan is in the extreme southwest of China and borders Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar. As such it is ethnically diverse, and this fact is reflected in cooking styles. Yunnan cuisine is vastly varied, and it is difficult to make generalizations. Many Yunnan dishes are quite spicy, and mushrooms are featured prominently. Flowers, ferns, algae and insects may also be eaten. Here’s a little gallery from a recent trip to the local food market in Kunming showing some of the diversity of products, including live bee larvae.

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Two of the province’s most famous products are the renowned pu-erh tea which was traditionally grown in Ning’er; as well as Xuanwei ham, which is often used to flavor stewed and braised foods in Chinese cuisine and for making the stocks and broths of many Chinese soups. The most famous dish is Guo Qiao Mi Xian or Crossing the Bridge Noodles. (You can find the legend of the origin of the dish and a recipe here: )The dish is served with a large bowl of boiling hot broth and the soup ingredients separate. The soup ingredients are served on a cutting board or plate and include raw vegetables and lightly cooked meats. Common ingredients include thin slices of ham, chunks of chicken, chicken skin, strips of bean curd sheets, chives, sprouts and rice noodles. Once added into the broth, it cooks quickly with a layer of chicken fat and oil glistening on top. The soup takes a few minutes to cook, and it is then spooned out into small bowls.


The noodle used in this and other soups is mi xian. The processing of mi xian in Yunnan is unique, involving a fermentation process. It is made from non-glutinous rice and is typically sold fresh rather than dried. At some street stalls in Kunming you can watch noodle makers at work as I did just yesterday.


Fresh mi xian smells fragrant, different from other kinds of rice noodle in China and Asia. Mi xian is served in various ways, typically either in broth or stir-fried. When mi xian is served in broth in Yunnan restaurants, it is common for a range of individual condiments to be presented for the customer to add to their bowl themselves. Condiments typically include chile pepper (diced fresh chlle plus at least one or two prepared chile pastes, often mixed with oil), diced fresh chile, cilantro, garlic, pepper (both regular pepper and powdered or whole Szechuan pepper), salt, spring onion, soy sauce, tomato, vinegar and zhe’ergen (a spicy root common to southwestern China). At noodle stands in markets, customers are given bowls and can pick the ingredients they want from a huge array of meats and vegetables. These are then added to boiling broth with noodles. Without doubt, soup noodles in general are my favorite food and Yunnan style is hard to beat. I am really in my element here.

Adzuki beans, known locally as hong dou, have been used in Yunnan cooking for millennia. Here is a modified Yunnan recipe for stir fried adzuki beans and mushrooms. Obviously you cannot get Yunnan mushrooms (he said with a touch of glee) but do the best that you can. I’ve found that quite often I could get a variety of Chinese mushrooms in barrio chino in Buenos Aires, so I am sure you can find something appropriate if you hunt around Asian markets.

Stir Fried Adzuki Beans and Mushrooms


1 cup dried azuki beans, soaked in water overnight and drained
4 tbps oil
4 green onions (both white and green parts) sliced into two centimeter pieces
1 red or green bell pepper, diced into two centimeter chunks
2 fresh red or green chiles, seeded and diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and minced
15 assorted mushrooms, thinly sliced
5 tbsps soy sauce
2 tbsps sesame oil
½ tsp Szechuan pepper (or to taste)
2 tbps sugar


Place the pre-soaked beans in a saucepan and cover with several inches of fresh water. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for 40 minutes or until the beans are tender and their skins start to separate. My usual test is to pick out a spoonful of beans and blow on them. If the skins split, they are ready. Drain the water off, and then crush some of the beans lightly with the back of a wooden spoon. Set aside.

Heat oil in a large wok over a medium high flame. Add the green onions, chiles, garlic, and ginger and stir-fry for 30 seconds. Add the mushrooms and peppers, and stir-fry for two more minutes until the mushrooms and peppers begin to soften.

Turn the heat down to medium-low and add the beans. Stir in the soy sauce, sesame oil, Szechuan pepper, and sugar. Simmer until the liquid has reduced enough to make the mixture fairly dry. Transfer to a serving dish.

Serve with plain boiled rice.

Serves 4

Jun 172013

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Today is Þjóðhátíðardagurinn (Icelandic National Day), a holiday in Iceland that celebrates the day in 1944 that The Republic of Iceland was formed. The date of 17 June was chosen because it is the birthday of Jón Sigurðsson, a major figure in Icelandic culture and the leader of the 19th century Icelandic independence movement.

For nearly 300 years from the arrival of the first permanent settlers (a combination of Nordic and Celtic seafarers), Iceland had been independent and isolated. However, through the signing of the Old Covenant in 1262, following years of bloody civil strife, Icelanders relinquished sovereignty to Haakon IV, King of Norway. Iceland remained under Norwegian kingship until 1380, when with the death of Olav IV of Norway the Norwegian male royal line ended. Norway (and thus Iceland) then became part of the Kalmar Union, along with Sweden and Denmark, with Denmark as the dominant power. Iceland remained under Danish control until the 19th century

Around the middle of the 19th century a new national consciousness emerged in Iceland (as in all of Europe), led by Danish-educated Icelandic intellectuals who had been inspired by romantic and nationalist ideas from continental Europe, chief of whom was Jón Sigurðsson. In 1843, a royal decree re-established a national parliament, the Althing, as a consultative assembly (named for a former parliament).

The struggle for independence reached its height in 1851 when the Danes tried to pass new legislation, the requests for which the Icelanders ignored. The Icelandic delegates, under the leadership of Jón Sigurðsson, passed their own proposals instead, much to the displeasure of the King’s agent, who dissolved the meeting. This caused Sigurðsson to rise up with his fellow delegates and utter the immortal phrase Vér mótmælum allir (“We all protest”).

In 1874, a thousand years after the first permanent settlement of Iceland, Denmark granted Iceland home rule. The constitution, written in 1874, was revised in 1903, and a minister for Icelandic affairs, residing in Reykjavík, was made responsible to the Althing . The Act of Union, signed on 1 December 1918 by Icelandic and Danish authorities, recognized Iceland as a fully sovereign state (the Kingdom of Iceland), joined with Denmark only as a personal union between the Icelandic and Danish kings. Iceland established its own flag and asked Denmark to represent its foreign affairs and defense interests. The Act would be up for revision in 1940 and could be revoked three years later if agreement was not reached. Union through the Danish king was finally abolished altogether in 1944 during the occupation of Denmark by Nazi Germany, when the Althing declared the founding of the Republic of Iceland.

Today, Icelanders celebrate this holiday on a national scale. The celebration traditionally takes the form of a parade through each urban area with brass bands. Riders on Icelandic horses often precede the brass band and flag bearers from the Icelandic scout movement traditionally follow the brass band. After the parade several speeches are held out in the open, including one from a Fjallkonan (woman of the mountains), dressed in Skautbúningur (traditional dress – see photo), who recites a national poem. She represents the fierce spirit of the Icelandic nation and of Icelandic nature: an inheritance from the period of romanticism that reigned when the first steps toward independence were being taken. After speeches and other official business is over, a less formal celebration takes place with musicians and dancing, lots of candy for the children, and helium balloons escaping their owners and flying to the sky. It is also traditional to expect rain on this day.

Icelandic cuisine is heavily dominated by fish and lamb (a favorite traditional festive dish is a whole or halved lamb’s head served on a platter with mashed root vegetables).  If you are not a half sheep head sort of person (I am, as it happens), here’s a simple, but delicious, Icelandic fish chowder.  You can use half and half instead of milk if you want a richer broth.  Personally I prefer fresh ground black pepper when I am eating this alone but white pepper is a bit more visually appealing.



1 1/4lbs (.7 k) cod, halibut or haddock
1 1/4lb (.7 k) potatoes, boiled and peeled
1 white onion
12 oz (3.5 dl) whole milk
2 oz (56 g) butter
3 tbsp (22 g) flour
salt and white pepper
snipped chives for garnish


Skin, bone,  break  the fish into flakes.

Dice the potatoes  and finely chop the onion.

Slowly heat the milk in a saucepan almost to the boiling point. Do NOT let it boil. Remove from the heat.

In a medium to large sized non-stick saucepan, melt the butter and sauté the onion over medium heat until just soft. Do not let it to brown.

Sprinkle flour over the onion, stir well and cook for 1-2 minutes. Do not let the flour brown.

Gradually add the warmed milk. Add a small amount at first and whisk vigorously. Keep adding more milk slowly stirring continuously. Simmer for 3-4 min, stirring often.

Add the flaked fish, stirring briskly so that the flakes are well broken up.

Add salt and pepper to taste.

Add the potatoes and stir gently until they are heated through.

Serve very hot with dark rye bread and butter.

Serves 4