Baking in the tropics

When I was working in Laos as a voluntary teacher with the British Voluntary Service Overseas (similar to the US Peace Corps), I had the bright idea of treating a number of friends to a British Christmas dinner. I lived in a town on the Mekong, miles away from the nearest Sainsbury’s, so I pondered how to source my ingredients. Fortunately, the British Embassy was a mere few hundred miles away where occasional treats like Chivas Regal for next to nothing (duty free) were available.

My first challenge was the bird. Not many turkeys around SE Asia, but there was a gaggle of belligerent geese in my compound… No, I opted for help from Yen, one of my students, who promised to get me a goose. I just had to pick it up in town. And there he was on the street corner with the bird. In a basket. Still alive, because that’s how you keep meat fresh in the tropics. Yen got on the back of my trusty Honda 50 with the goose in the basket squeezed between us, occasionally commenting on the people and houses we passed on the way to my house with loud “honks”.

Mike, the other volunteer, and I spent the next hour hotly debating how to dispatch the bird: “With chickens you chop the head off.” “Yes, but then they often run around for a while before dying.“ “I thought you just wrung their necks.” “I’m not even trying, He’d hack me to death before I got a good hold. Anyway, I’ve never done it before, nor have you!” We continued for ages, not wanting to “hurt” the goose, just kill it and eat it…

Our kind, sarong-clad neighbour was the solution, but not before she laughed herself silly at the thought of two grown men who couldn’t slaughter a goose. No, we didn’t watch. She teased us for weeks after.

The Diplomatic Bag proved a godsend for supplies. Normally used for highly confidential messages for embassy staff and secret packages, it was the means by which my mother conveyed to me a jar of mincemeat – the essential sweet filling of mince pies eaten toasted at Christmas, not to be confused with minced meat, which is what Americans call hamburger – and a genuine Marks and Spencer Christmas Pudding (mistakenly referred to as Plum Puddding, it is a mixture of flour, breadcrumbs, butter and a lot of sugar and dried fruit. No plums.)

Mince Pies

While I was a reasonable cook, I had never actually baked anything before, so mince pies were a new venture. I made the pastry one evening to the tried and tested recipe my mother had sent. Our town was subject to frequent power cuts, and that evening was no exception. I had gathered the ingredients on my desk, not having any other available surface, and warded off the voracious ants that appeared from nowhere. I haven’t mentioned I lived in a teak house with the luxury of electricity and mosquito screens in the windows. Insects and even small scorpions nevertheless managed to break or squeeze and enter on a regular basis.

I was about to get the pastry going when the lights went out. I continued like a good boy scout by the light of a candle strategically positioned for such “emergencies”. After a while it struck me the dough was a bit runnier than I would expect to make pies. I consulted the recipe in the candlelight again and came to the rapid conclusion that I had used cups instead of tablespoons for the liquid… I was OK at maths at school, so I did a quick calculation and added a pile of flour. And a bit more. Until I could roll it out with a wine bottle (the Chivas Regal was not round enough). Once satisfied I cut out circles of pastry, spooned in mincemeat and topped them off with a pastry cover, pinching the edges together. Quite professional, actually. Baked ‘em next morning.

On Christmas Morning  – that’s the 25th December – I had placed the goose in a neighbour’s oven – we didn’t have such luxury items – and turned to the Xmas Pud. The instructions were very clear. Unambiguous, in fact. “Simmer in a saucepan of water for three hours.” Which I did.

Plum Pudding

After an hour or so there was a dull “Phtoooooooom” from the kitchen, which on inspection was now decorated with dark brown shrapnel/goo. There was pudding everywhere. I had left it in its cellophane wrapping and apparently it had eventually exploded under pressure. (No mention of removing the wrapping on the instructions.) You can imagine how much fun it was cleaning up. Sweet, though.

The goose and veg were a success and a wonderful time was had by all. The mince pies were not quite a fitting substitute to the Christmas Pudding. They were rock hard. But my friends didn’t forget that Christmas in a hurry.


2 thoughts on “Baking in the tropics”

  1. Ah yes, and 50 years and 12 days later, the memories of the goose, the mince pies and the pudding on the wall are as vivid to me as ever. All part, you might say, of introducing our customs and culture to our Lao friends, but with local substitutions as needed. Cheers!

    1. Thank God you can still remember it! At our age… I bet the locals still talk about the falang who couldn’t kill a goose.

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