RONAN O'CONNELL imbibes the Khmu people's culture
I am having flashbacks which are both pleasant and horrendous.
In one favourable memory I’m in my early 20s dancing with uncoordinated abandon on a Phuket beach as my mates laugh at me.
A far less positive recollection, of the following morning, sees me prone on a rickety bed staring at the ceiling fan in my beachside hut wondering why I drank so much from giant buckets being passed around between my friends and I. That incident some 15 years ago was the last time, until this very moment, that I had drunk alcohol from a communal receptacle.
I consider using this story to explain to my host, Phengkeo, why it is that I’m reticent when she hands me one of several bamboo straws protruding from a huge jar of Lao rice wine. Then I think again.
This story probably won’t translate well through my interpreter and I don’t wish to offend this lovely 65-year-old hilltribe woman who has welcomed me into her home.
I’m in the jungle-draped outskirts of the beautiful Lao city of Luang Prabang learning from Phengkeo how to make Lao Hai, a fruity and potent wine.
In the space of two hours Phengkeo teaches me the ancient recipe for alcohol which has helped liven up Khmu hilltribe celebrations for centuries. These secrets are now being opened up to tourists for the first time, with villagers welcoming travellers into their homes to learn the simple but labour-intensive method of making Lao Hai.
As we sit beneath a basic bamboo shelter, upon which impossibly heavy rain is hammering, I ask Phengkeo about her earliest memories of Lao Hai. She says that, when she was young, Lao Hai normally made an appearance during local festivals and for the Lao New Year in April.
As per the customs of her tribe, the Khmu people, Lao Hai would be prepared in advance so it could be drunk during such events.
One of the three main ethnic groups in Laos, the Khmu tribe has its own language and traditions, several of which revolve around Lao Hai.
One such custom is the carving of the big, heavy stone jars in which Lao Hai is fermented and stored. One such jar is sat between myself and Phengkeo as we both take sips of the sweet wine she made the previous week.
It is morning, and I have another two stories to do in Luang Prabang later, so I’m wary of drinking too much. When I ask my host the rough percentage of alcohol of this wine she just looks at me and wobbles her head from side to side. I interpret this gesture as meaning both, “I’m not sure”, and, “Don’t worry, just drink”.
About 10 minutes later, with the torrential rain having stopped, I begin mixing a pot of rice with my bare hands. Phengkeo has poured a small amount of water into the pot and I’m trying to get each grain nice and moist.
The next step is to tip this rice into a large wicker basket and place it high above an open flame to slowly steam. Phengkeo wants the rice to become sticky clumps. Once this has occurred we mixed the rice with crushed rice husks, sugar, yeast and a liberal amount of water. This concoction is poured into a stone jar, stirred and then left to sit for three to four days to become potent.
The more time the Lao Hai stays in this jar the sweeter it becomes. Phengkeo tells me that it can last for up to one year and that she prefers the extra-fruity well-aged variety.
She has been drinking the wine since she was a little girl, when her parents would water it down so that she could have a sip.
“Wait, you’re allowed to water it down?” I ask her, my eyebrows raised. She nods her head and smiles. If only I had known that two hours ago.