Gastronomical adventuring has never been high on my list of travel motivations. In fact I have been known to become ever so slightly cynical when somebody carelessly mentions the latest season of ‘Master Chef’ or ‘Whatever cooking sellout plays prime-time this week’. However, my distaste at the culinary tastes purveyed by our popular media does not extend to my personal love of food. Sampling the cuisine of whichever country or region I visit is very much an important part of my travel process and perhaps that is why I am so agitated by the homogenization of travel/cooking shows that seem to boil every location down to a quick recipe and a clichéd one liner
I would absolutely die without food! In fact my craving for new tastes is as tied to my urge to travel as is my hunger for new experiences or the adrenaline rush of taking a risk off the beaten track. Despite my claims of gastronomical experimentation, there is one dish that I struggle to leave off my journeying menu regardless of its cultural irrelevance. The humble burger is a staple that I can never go past on any menu anywhere in the world. It is and has been the default order in my culinary quiver since I can remember – perhaps since we ran a fish and chip shop (that built a mean burger) in the late 90s.
Despite the idea that the burger is a uniquely American idea (or perhaps as an argument to support global homogenization), I have sampled burgers in every single country that I have ever visited. There have been times when I have lamented the insidious spread of such a simple method of ingestion, but invariably, I cannot resist wrapping my laughing gear around a bun filled with meat, cheese and all manner of other foodstuff. Today however, I’d like to share the one occasion where the burger did not come off second best.
My trip to Laos in 2014 was not my finest hour when it came to eating abroad. As usual, I tried everything that was put in front of me (and a few things that weren’t) – keeping an open mind has never been the problem – this time (and strangely for the first time) the issue was keeping things down. I am always careful about ensuring I eat safely when I travel to ensure I do not see a disproportionate amount of porcelain while away from home, but while I was being enchanted by Luang Prabang (which will, as I have said before, be a future blog topic in its own right), I momentarily forgot myself and enjoyed a fantastic meal in the night markets which left me (as the image below should attest) far from my best.
After five days of agony, which lead to us abandoning our plans to drive the treacherous road from Luang Prabang south to the Laos capital of Vientiane, I was still loathe to venture too far from the safety of modern plumbing (although I now most fervently believe in the wisdom of the crouch toilet). Despite my ailment, I could not bring myself to languish in a hotel room while travelling overseas so we managed to see the sights the Vientiane had to offer and to investigate the fascinating political history of Laos (honestly, it’s an awesome read), and in so doing we came across a restaurant linked to Green Discovery Laos – the country’s ever-present eco-tourism behemoth (This should in no way be taken as an indictment of this 100% Laos-owned enterprise which appears dedicated to supporting financial development in the region which must be applauded. Perhaps I will post in more detail about the company in future http://www.greendiscoverylaos.com/).
Xayoh Grill House is situated not far from the centre of Downtown Vientiane and caters (as does most of the Green Discovery Empire) to the stream of tourists that pass through the city. The restaurant offers a mix of western and Asian dining and a clean environment that sort of makes it feel slightly out-of-place. We walked in, as I was specifically looking for something bland and forgiving to speed my recovery, but I was met with a temptation that I could not resist despite my ill-health: The Mammoth Burger Challenge! The deal was that I would receive my burger for nothing if I could eat it within 60 minutes – simple right? I started to doubt this fairly quickly when I was informed that I would need to book 24 hours in advance so the restaurant could source the required materials. Naturally I could never turn down such an opportunity once the gauntlet was thrown before me, and at the insistence of my partner we made our booking and ate elsewhere that night (in the end we dined at one of Xayoh’s sister restaurants down the road; Khop Chai Deu).
The next day we rode our hire scooter to Xieng Khuan, a park about 30km outside Vientiane filled with over 200 cement statues. This was a bizarre experience most worthy of further discussion in a future blog, however a significant portion of my mind was preoccupied with tackling what I increasingly felt was a battle I was destined to lose.
That afternoon I spent some time reading up on how best to attempt some extreme eating (I even watched an episode of Man Vs Food), but as the time of our booking neared, I was less than confident that (considering my condition) I could do this challenge justice. That said, I was not going to back down – especially seeing as I had paid my deposit of about $15AUD (of the total cost of $30AUD).
The agreed hour arrived and I fronted at Xayoh for a briefing and was met with a burger of such magnitude that I almost turned tail on the spot. Before me stood a 1 kg beef patty, 5 thick slices of cheese (probably about 350g), three whole tomatoes, a whole raw onion and a bun that would have easily consisted of a full loaf of bread. I was in trouble. I remember being told to never attempt to eat anything larger than your head and I was about to well and truly break that rule.
Armed with my novelty Crocodile Dundee sized knife I made a fairly good start. I demolished the patty and most of the greens within about 10 minutes, but the bun was an impenetrable wall of doughy agony. By 25 minutes I was ill and by 35 minutes I was verging on delirious. I knew I had been beaten. My face was destined to be hoisted onto the overflowing wall of shame. By this stage I could not have cared less about failing the challenge; I was preoccupied with trying to stay conscious. Unsurprisingly, only five photos adorn the wall of fame at Xayoh, and they can have that glory. Gluttony has its benefits and food tourism is all very well, but I can confidently say that tackling the Behemoth is best left to the pros!