VIENTIANE, Laos (MindaNews/11 June) — A plateful of raw mint, basil leaves, cabbage, sliced string beans and lime was served on my table ahead of the rice noodle (feu) soup that I ordered.
Then small bowls of raw bean sprouts and suki, a sauce made of ground peanuts and garlic cooked in oil with a dash of chili powder, arrived before I finally got my noodle soup.
It was my first day after arriving in Vientiane a month ago. My colleagues from the Vientiane Times, Pou and Samly, took me to a popular noodle restaurant here.
I needed a heavy meal at the time, but eating those raw vegetables piqued my appetite. I already knew though that Lao people eat raw vegetables, either with noodle soup or any dish. Despite my strong desire to try everything they eat here, it was totally different when you’re about to actually do it.
Lao people eat raw vegetables and leaves that we don’t usually eat in the Philippines, or at least in Davao City.
They wrap dumplings with wild betel leaves aside from cabbage and lettuce. They eat raw morning glory, string beans, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, dragon-bone beans and young leaves from mango trees.
Some people also eat bergamot leaves, which are often cooked with fried meat or insects. Most Lao dishes contain raw garlic, along with other seasonings.
The first time that I ate them, I was worried that my stomach couldn’t digest all those raw vegetables. I grew up thinking that meat and vegetables have to be cooked for good digestion and to kill the bacteria with the heat.
Eating my first raw vegetables with a supposed “delicious” noodle meal was nostalgic—I felt like my mother was staring at me when I was a kid, chiding, “Eat your vegetables!”
As they say, “There’s always a first time.” But, after a month, I have been craving for raw vegetables every meal everyday. They really taste so good, especially if dipped in a variety of sauces or mixed as salads.
I learned from reading online and health tips from friends in the medical field that eating raw vegetables allows one to consume more nutrients. They said cooking the vegetables destroys vital nutrients and kills enzymes that aid digestion.
Most vegetables that Lao people eat without cooking contain folic acid (vitamin B9), which is an important nutrient to prevent many types of cancer, fetal deformities, Alzheimer’s disease, and depression, among other mental conditions.
Dr. Somchine Singharaj, head of Food and Drug Division of Vientiane Health Department, said folate, the form of folic acid in food, is essential for the brain and nervous system to function properly as it is needed for cellular growth and regeneration.
The health expert said uncooked vegetables contain higher amounts of folic acid and antioxidants, including lycopene, beta-carotene, and vitamins C and E.
Many varieties of tropical fruits that are also rich in antioxidants and folic acid are sold in the streets here at reasonable prices.
As a city girl, I badly need detoxification from the processed and junk foods I eat almost every single day for lack of time and creativity. Surely, I will need much folic acid!
But, Singharaj said, you cannot get all the folic acid you need from food alone. If you badly lack folic acid and other nutrients, it is important to seek your doctor’s advice. But you may still want to experience Lao food while you can.
You will not only regain your sense of wellbeing while enjoying a calm and stress-free life in the countryside, but will also restore or reinforce your good health and youthfulness.
With the way people here eat their vegetables, Laos is indeed “a place for healing.”
(Lorie Ann Cascaro of MindaNews is a fellow of the FK Norway (Fredskorpset) exchange programme in partnership with the Vietnam Forum of Environmental Journalists. She’s currently in Laos and hosted by the Vientiane Times.)