Eating Asia

Food provides the point of entrée into local cultures for this husband-and-wife team, as they explore culinary cultures and traditions around the region

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Who Needs Plastic Bags?

Southeast Asia is drowning in plastic bags. This is the land of takeout meals and, in some parts of the region still, twice-a-day ingredient shopping. But once upon a time, prepared foods purchased to go were wrapped in leaves (banana, predominantly) or newspaper, while fresh fruits and vegetables were carried home in market baskets.

Today, one might come away from a trip to Warorot evening market in Chiang Mai with charcoal-grilled chillies, eggplant, and garlic to pestle into a nam prik (dip), a couple of fiery gaeng (curries), fresh greens to eat alongside, and a slab of sticky rice. Each item, purchased from a different vendor, will be deposited into its own clear plastic bag, and each of those bags slipped into yet another larger one. Customers leave the market with fingers dripping with yellow, pink, black and red plastic bags. (Casual observation suggests that fewer than one out of 20 of the market’s customers eschew larger plastic bags for their own carriers.)

Many of those bags will probably never see a second use. Often, they end up alongside roads, strewn over hillsides, on beaches, and blanketing land resting between crops.

I’ve been as guilty of this as well. Until this trip, I’d not thought to bring along something reusable to carry foods I’ve purchased at a wet market or the cans of Diet Coke I buy at 7-Eleven (hey – we all have our vices).

But having seen too many ugly rubbish mounds in remote northern Laotian villages and biking through plumes of smoke rising from too many piles of burning plastic, I’ve since vowed to make a cloth market bag part of my travel kit.

One bright spot: in Laos, at most markets that we visited (granted, in a very small slice of the country), plastic bags were but one means of food conveyance.

Fresh leafy greens and herbs accompany every Laotian meal. Pak salat, or lettuce, is the leafy green we saw most often. Several bunches strung together with a strip of bamboo or rattan, hung from bicycle or moto handlebars, arrive home in much better shape than if they were crammed into a plastic bag.

And how easy would it be to wash a bunch of strung-up lettuce? A good dunk and a swish in a bowl of water, or a thorough rinse under the faucet of a pump, and the bunch can be hung up to air and drip-dry. Ingenious.

The same minimalist packaging works for cabbage and cilantro, mint (these dainty little bundles, photographed at a noodle stall, are tied into individual servings but large bunches are similarly strung up at markets), bamboo tips, and strips of sun-dried fish.

But ultimately in Laos, as elsewhere, the allure of plastic is difficult to resist.

This blog entry was originally published by Robyn Eckhardt and David Hagerman on on March 25.

Morning Market in Luang Namtha

A scene from a morning market in Luang Namtha, a province in Northern Laos bordering China
(Photo by David Hagerman)

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