Bile. Even if you don't know what it is, it sounds disgusting. If you know what it is — or if you just Googled it — then you know it's disgusting. Bile is, essentially, digestive fluid. It's excreted by the liver, stored in the gall bladder, and it helps your body break down fats. If you're in a remote northern province of Laos, it's also probably in all of the food that you're eating.
Of course, I didn't find this out until I took a cooking class at an upscale restaurant in the old city of Luang Prabang, by which time I'd probably consumed several animals worth of the stuff. Great. Things started off well enough, though: Our chef took us on a tour of the local market, where we watched a woman giddily manhandle dead pig fetus, then he whisked us away to an airy, outdoor kitchen set in the middle of a manicured field. Being polite, he waited until we were elbow deep in raw ox meat before admitting that—heeeyyy, guys—we were going to be cooking with stomach acid. Not just stomach acid, but a substance called "pia," which is the contents of animal intestines. To be more specific: the watered-down bile that's full of semi-digested grass.
The locals refer to it as ki aun which roughly translates to "soft poo."
If your gag reflex just jumped, you're not alone. Mine did, too. Except, whether I knew it or not, bile had already been a big part of my life for a long time. Chef told me all about it. For one, it's sometimes mixed into soap. It's also put into pills and sold as a cure for all number of common ailments: sore throats, fever, hangovers. (Check the ingredients listing next time.) It even shows up in some of our favorite words. Melancholia, for example, stems from the Greek phrase for "black bile," as it was believed that having too much of the stuff caused undue aggression.
But Laotian people are not putting bile in their food because they think they're correcting some spiritual imbalance or will turn into karmic superheroes. They put bile in their food because, according to chef, they're fully committed to whole animal eating. This isn't a trend, it's just the way shit has been done for centuries around here. When you don't have a lot of available food, you use the fuck out of whatever is around you. Pig fetus included. And, unlike neurotic America, the blood, guts, and acids of the animals are not the cheapie stuff — they're the coveted bits that go for twice as much as any of the other cuts.
When the time was right, chef pulled a white plastic bucket of fresh water buffalo bile from beneath his cooking station. He then unceremoniously hauled it from table to table, allowing people the chance to say "no" about adding it to their jeow mak keua — a sticky dip made from charcoal-grilled eggplant, onion, garlic, and hot peppers.
Most people deferred.
Believe it or not, bile can be a complicated and politically sensitive topic. Laos, like a lot of countries in southeastern Asia, has a problem with bear bile extraction factories, where bears are stuck in tiny cages and tapped for their fluid until they either stop producing due to trauma or, to put it gently, "expire." This fluid is then used for things like traditional Chinese medicine making and shampoo. Needless to say, there are many people who publicly decry the use of bile because its purchase may result in the perpetuation of this monstrous practice.
People at my cooking class were not deferring on political or moral grounds, though. (Bear bile produced this way is, thankfully, not used for cooking.) They were deferring because they found it disgusting. One petite French woman held her nose in a display of delicate horror. "Non," she stated definitively.
The stuff looks pretty innocuous—a typical saucy brown—but, admittedly, it smelled horrific. Kind of like puke. Because, let's be real, it's basically puke. When you have a vat of fresh bile and you pour it into a dish, it does what bile is supposed to do and it starts to emulsify the fats. This semi-digested concoction is the same sort of thing you'd ejectile after drinking too many cocktails at some shitty art opening.
Chef warned us to use a light hand. One spoonful of bile was enough for a full plate of laap, which is a pretty typical Lao dish of minced raw meat and spices. The dude standing next to me, who had declined the bile—but I could tell was regretting it—leaned over my shoulder as I swirled it into my salad.
"What's it doing?" he whispered fearfully. I tilted the bowl up so he could see: absolutely nothing. Everything looked exactly the same.
We both put a finger in and took an experimental nibble.
"Tastes like fish sauce," I concluded, as he simultaneously declared: "It's chicken-y!"
We both laughed. As instinctually gross as we found cooking with intestinal juice, we couldn't really tell the difference in the end.
In fact, it was pretty damn good.