At Banana Tree, we believe that in order to truly appreciate a country’s food, it’s important to develop an understanding of the people who cook it. This means that when we eat at a Vietnamese restaurant in Chelmsford, we might read up on how and why the Vietnamese people incorporated French influences into their cuisine, to help us identify and savour every flavour. With a bit of background knowledge, the experience of enjoying a country’s traditional dishes is infinitely enhanced.
When it comes to the food of Laos, learning about the country’s primary religion, Theravada Buddhism, is crucial. In Laos, the intersection of cuisine and religion is at the heart of everyday life. Each morning, monks dressed in saffron-coloured robes walk through the town with a bowl to receive offerings of food from villagers. These offerings are usually comprised of dry biscuits, fruit and steamed sticky rice; the women of the town are typically responsible for cooking the rice and other dishes that are given to the monks.
Why has this tradition lived on? It all traces back to the earliest teachings of Buddha, which Theravada Buddhism is based on. The religion’s three main concepts are dharma, the guide to right action and belief; karma, how a person’s actions affect their fate; and sangha, how a person can improve their actions. After many cycles of births and deaths, a person may achieve enlightenment and nirvana, the freedom from suffering – but until then, people must earn merit through good deeds.
Monks seek out food from townspeople because they do not believe in keeping earthly possessions for themselves. Instead, they must look to other people to sustain them. For the women who feed them, this presents the opportunity to improve karma and thus attain a better life in their next reincarnation.
Most Lao villages centre around a temple called a wat, where people gather daily to worship. These wats are also home to the village’s monks, who lead the town’s religious ceremonies, and they usually contain a guesthouse and a school, as well.
Another characterising aspect of Lao religion is the belief in animism, which embraces the idea that spirits live within everything in the natural world, from animals, to homes, to plants. In many parts of Laos, especially in more rural areas, animism and Buddhism go hand in hand. Some people think that monks have the power to exorcise negative spirits, and many wats are believed to have their own benevolent spirits. Spirits are also thought to cause illness and disease, and rituals are performed to cure or heal people when these spirits affect the body.
Theravada Buddhism is known for its tolerance, which is why it has married so well with traditional animist beliefs and rituals. For Lao Buddhists, such tolerance is another step in improving karma, just as the daily sharing of sticky rice helps believers on the path to enlightenment. The next time we sit down to eat a steaming bowl of sticky starch, we’ll remember the dish’s deep spiritual meaning for the Buddhists of Laos and its role in the journey to nirvana – and we’ll enjoy it even more!