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The Tale of the Nang Fish

Why does the Pa Nang have only one ribcage?

It’s just one fish among many in the traditional cuisine of Laos, but the Pa Nang has one physical characteristic that sets it apart – just half a ribcage.

And while there is likely a convincing scientific explanation for this arresting detail, the folklore that has sprung up around the Pa Nang – which translates directly as “Lady Fish” – is far more interesting.

What would you do if you knew that you were the only one who could stop an impending war between two rival kingdoms? This was the quandary in which one fabled princess found herself so long ago, whose noble but tragic decision not only brought peace throughout the land, but also gave birth to an entire species.

Long, long ago, our ancestors spoke of a beautiful and magical princess, whose comeliness and virtue were reminiscent of those of the legendary Nang Soumountha. It was said that whoever was honorable enough to wed the princess would bring tremendous prosperity and richness to his people. Her beauty spread far and wide across the many kingdoms, finally capturing the hearts of two valiant princes of two of the most powerful kingdoms in all the land.

Upon hearing of the other’s intention of courting the princess, each prince fervently mobilised his army to wage war against the other in the name of love. No side could bear the shame of losing the princess to the other without a fight.

Realising that neither side would yield, the princess, in a selflessly heroic move, sacrificed her own life to save the thousands that would die in warfare. Before her untimely death, she instructed her trusted aides to halve her body and offer one side each to both princes.

“I wholly (and/or half-ly) give myself to both of you, whom I adore and love equally. My last request is to throw each half of me into each of your respective Kingdom’s rivers. This way, I shall bring richness to both your lands.”

The princes woefully did as they had been instructed. Once each half had been submerged into the water, it magically became a fish, and like the form from which it came, had only half of a ribcage.

While neither prince had intended to bring harm to the princess, they were most certainly blinded by love, each galvanised by his own interpretation of the infamous ‘if I can’t have you, no one will’ mantra. In the end, the princess had lived up to what she had promised. The fish replenished the rivers and provided sustenance to the peoples of both kingdoms and the land was showered with prosperity for years to come.

In her last moments, the princess must have thought to herself “if neither can have me, at least everyone else will.

This is how the fish got its name, Pa Nang (translated literally as “Lady Fish”). And that is why this particular species of fish has only half a ribcage, because of the fabled sacrifice so long ago.

The Pa Nang has been enjoyed by the Lao people for generations. It is generally prepared boiled or fried and can be had on any occasion. A fresh dish of fried Pa Nang is available at the famous Kualao Restaurant. Don’t forget to take a look at the half ribcage!

 

Originally Published in: Champa Meuanglao

Magic Matsutake

It can be hard to say goodbye to a place, especially when you’ve uncovered a special, life-lengthening secret along the way. In 1945, when World War II was ending and the Japanese ended its occupation of Southeast Asia, one Japanese soldier was left behind in Xiengkuang Province.

Maybe he chose not to join his fellow troops as they returned to their home country. But the stories that have been told since are certain of one thing: he stayed in Laos for decades. And when he finally made his way home to Japan and reconnected with his fellow war veterans, he couldn’t help noticing that time had not been kind to them.

He, on the other hand, was strong as an ox, with the vitality of a man far younger than his advancing years. His friends were amazed, and demanded to know his secret.

It was simple, he told them. He had, for all these years, been feasting regularly on the matsutake mushrooms that grow in abundance in Xiengkuang. The same mushrooms that are, even today, considered a delicacy in Japan, purchased as shavings in a side dish, rather than harvested freely under the pine trees.

The story – possibly embellished – has become part of local Lao lore when it comes to the restaurant and dining trade. But when Xiengkuang native Manola was setting up Kualao Restaurant, five decades after the Japanese left the country, she had no recollection of matsutake – also known as “pine” mushrooms – being anything out of the ordinary when she was growing up. Nor did her own mother. But in her mission to promote the finest Lao cuisine, and out of a love for her home province, she included the mushrooms on the Kualao menu.

Eventually, a Japanese film crew made its way to the restaurant, where they filmed a Japanese tourist feasting on a plate of matsutake.

“I feel like a king, being able to munch on a whole matsutake mushroom like this,” he said. “In my country, we only get to eat very, very thin slices. It’s very rare and very expensive in Japan.”

But the film crew was not the first sign of interest from the Japanese. Years before, a Japanese researcher had happened upon an online review of the restaurant, and travelled to Laos to learn more about the origins of the mushroom, already well-known for its medicinal qualities. He travelled with Manola to Xiengkuang and took some soil samples home to Japan, where he determined that these were the exact same species as the ones grown in Japan.

Today, matsutake are known to grow in China, Japan, Korea, Laos, Canada, Finland, Sweden and the United States. In Laos, a steady stream of Chinese and Vietnamese traders travel to Xiengkuang to buy up the sought-after and readily-available mushrooms.

Down in the capital, the mushroom is still widely popular, especially when served infused in traditional Lao whiskey. Kualao is famous for its own version of bottled matsutake whiskey, and was among the first restaurants to promote the mushrooms for their rarity and medicinal qualities. Many wealthy diners will order it to impress their guests, especially senior business and state official.

The restaurant is also, not surprisingly, the Japanese Embassy’s first choice when introducing visiting dignitaries to Lao cuisine; the Crown Prince of Japan and four different Japanese prime ministers have dined there over the years, no doubt regaled by the legend of the youthful World War II soldier who lingered in the north, knowing he was onto a good thing.

 

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Originally Published in: Champa Meuanglao