One of my electives way, way back in undergrad was called “Anthropology of Food” or some such thing. We explored the evolution of cultures in terms of the foods they eat, one of the highlights of the class being the day everyone brought in dishes from various parts of the world.
I was most impressed by the ancient Egyptian recipe for cream of wheat bars that someone found. I can’t remember what dish I brought, but it should have been sour green mango with spicy dipping sauce. Having grown up as that weird foreign kid who eats smelly things, I guess I was worried that Western noses would turn up at the ingredients:
sugar, fish sauce, heaps of dried chili pepper flakes, and roasted, ground up rice.
There are variations that include shrimp paste, shallots, and fresh chilies. Even the former princess of Laos finds this sauce delicious, and she probably has a more refined palate than my fellow college mates.
When I learned that Southeast Asians have a proclivity for savory, rather than sweet, snacks – that this is an actual THING, and that it doesn’t always indicate pregnancy craving – suddenly, my obsession became validated. I decided I would no longer apologize for enjoying my beloved snack. As Mom would say about eating smelly things, Who care? Who gonna kiss you, heh?
One of the most magical things about Laos is Mr. Khaling Man.
All the ladies scream for him. All the men want to be his best friend. They cry out in unison,
Mr. Khaling Man, bring forth your savory treats!
He is a man who rides around on a contraption that can only be described as a bicycle with a sidecar; and in that sidecar is a glass case lined with ice. Sitting atop the ice is an assortment of sour fruits: gooseberries, tamarind, green mango, starfruit, and June plums. I’m probably leaving something out; there are just so many options. If heaven is a food cart, let me be saved!
To go with all these sour delights, he has the spicy fish sauce in a tub OR if you prefer, a spicy salt dip (garlic, chilies, salt, and a pinch of sugar, ground together in a mortar). You just put the fruit in a baggie, add the salt dip, and shake it up. Instant finger food, on-the-go. Makes it so easy to eat while weaving in and out of traffic on your motorbike, without splashing spicy fish sauce on your blouse.
One day, I made my cousin Lan drive all over town to find the Khaling Man.
WHERE IS HE?? I cried in panic, as my two-month adventure was coming to a close, and I knew that Mr. Khaling and I would be breaking off our vacation romance soon.
We drove a while longer, stopping at every alley Lan could think of. For if anyone could find him, it was she, who grazes on street food 24/7. I clung desperately to the back of the motorbike, hope slowly fading.
Finally, we heard it…
“Khaling, khaling, khaling…”
Behold!! The faint tinkling of his namesake bell!
THANK YOU, BUDDHA. I made Lan buy every last green mango on that cart.
Of course, there isn’t just ONE Khaling Man. There are many of them, but not all are created equal. There was one guy we hunted down, whose fruit was either wrinkly or overripe. He sheepishly offered us a discount – he had a bad day; the only fruit he could afford from the market that morning wasn’t very fresh. We bought a good amount, purely out of compassion, and gave up looking that day.
Sometimes, when I hear the ice cream man coming down the street in my American neighborhood, I stare longingly out the window… yearning for the Khaling Man.