At some time or another, pretty much everyone who travels in SE Asia takes a cooking class. Our hotel in Chiang Mai, for example, had brochures for no less than 10 culinary outlets, each offering the same basic itinerary: choose 2-3 dishes you would like to make, visit a local market to learn about various ingredients, and then return to the kitchen — sometimes at a restaurant, sometimes at an organic farm, sometimes in a pavilion overlooking a river — to learn how to make your chosen dishes. And then you EAT them!
We ended up taking our cooking class at Tum Tum Cheng, a restaurant in Luang Prabang that specializes in traditional Lao cuisine. For a while, it looked like it wouldn't happen because I was the only person signed up and they won't hold a class unless there are at least two students. Luckily for me, however, Tim was game enough to sign up too, even though he was ambivalent about the whole cooking class idea.
Our morning began with an a cup of coffee and a list of dishes to select from. If there had been more students, we could have chosen three dishes to make, but since it was just the two of us, we were allowed to choose just two. I chose two very traditional Lao dishes, Ho Mok Kai (steamed chicken wrapped in banan leaf) and Aw Lam (Luang Prabang beef stew.) Tim chose Nem Juen (fried spring rolls) and Kai Kua Sai Si Kai (lemongrass chicken). Chef Linda, the instructor for what amounted to a private class, complimented our choices and then sent us off to the Phosi Market, accompanied by a team of expert shoppers and our own personal tour guide (whose name I have since forgotten).
The Phosi market was a quintessential locals' market, selling everything from shoes to blankets, hardware to cookware, fresh vegetables to pickled crabs. Our guide walked us through the maze of stalls, occasionally stopping to identify various ingredients or to offer us a chance to sample some of the wares.
These are banana flowers.
Dried chilies, chili powder, and a variety of dried fish parts.
Small eggplants, about the size of a tomato. Not to be confused with what the Lao call baby eggplant which are bright green, a little bigger than a sweet pea, and both hard and bitter.
Stainless steel steamer pots. Along with a woven bamboo basket which fits on top, these are the most basic and vital cooking implements in the Lao kitchen. Without them, it would be impossible to cook sticky rice, the foundation of any Lao meal. It is impossible to underplay the importance of sticky rice to Lao culture. Lao for “breakfast,” for example, is “khao sao” which means, literally, “morning rice.” When the monks gather in the morning to beg alms from Luang Prabang's residents, they are given morsels of sticky rice. If you pay close attention while walking around LP, you will notice balls of this rice placed on the roots of especially old or beautiful trees or in front of statues of the Buddha or in the mouths of the sculpted nagas that guard the temples.
This is curdled blood, a very traditional Lao ingredient, but one that was thankfully absent from our cooking class.
These are not French Fries. These are cut up pieces of water buffalo fat. To prepare them for eating, they are either soaked in water until soft and then cooked, or simply deep fried. The smell is an unimaginably gamy combination of leather, meat, and feet.
Catfish, probably caught in either the Mekong or the Nam Khan.
This is Sakhan, aka chili wood, another traditional Lao ingredient. A vine that grows in the jungle, this wood provides a peppery, smoky and slightly sweet note to a variety of dishes (including the Aw Lam that I chose to make.)
A variety of fresh greens, some familiar — cilantro, basil, spinach — and some untranslatable. The recipe for Aw Lam, for example, calls for 1 handful of local edible leaves. These are usually wild-foraged in the jungle.
Not only are these markets places to buy your daily necessities, they are social centers for the local community. The sounds of laughter, gossip, yelling, and conversation fill the air. As Tim and I passed, enormous and clumsy falang that we are, the vendors would often stare, comment to each other, and smile conspiratorially.
Wen we got back to Tum Tum Cheng, Chef Linda gave us a quick rundown of the staple ingredients that form the foundation of Lao cuisine: galangal, lemongrass, ginger, spring onions, and of course, sticky rice. She also taught us how to make a rose-like garnish using a tomato peel and a carefully sliced cucumber.
We then ventured into the kitchen area where we learned how to make our dishes. In all fairness, it should be said that we did not prepare these dishes from start to finish. Rather, the restaurant's team of sous chefs did all the preparatory work — washing, slicing, chopping, and organizing the ingredients — and we simply assembled, mixed, and stirred.
This is the Ho Mok Kai. It was extremely aromatic, providing a complex layering of flavors and textures within a custard-like suspension.
The Kai Kua Sai Si Kai and Aw Lam. The chicken, according to Tim, was “infused with lemongrass flavor…delicious, moist and succulent.” The beef stew — thickened with mashed eggplant and roasted sticky rice and flavored with chili wood and local greens — tasted both unfamiliar and yummy.
Fried spring rolls wrapped in rice paper. OMG!
And of course, the sticky rice. The cooking method for Khao Neow is unlike any rice preparation that I've seen. The rice is washed, soaked overnight, and then washed until the water runs clear. The drained rice is them placed in a bamboo basket and steamed. After 20 minutes, the rice is flipped over and then returned to steam for another 10 minutes. After it has been cooked, the rice is placed on a damp wooden tray and gently folded to let the heat dissapate. Afterwards, the rice is placed in a traditional basket and served alongside the other dishes.
The Lao meal is communal and all the dishes are served simultaneously. Older people serve themselves first, but once they touch the sticky rice, everyone else can begin eating too!
I will admit that when I was first informed that we could choose only two dishes to make, I was a bit salty. I wanted to learn how to cook three dishes! Three! But after eating the meal we prepared, including a dessert of bananas and pineapples carmelized with powdered sesame seed, I realized the wisdom behind Chef Linda's decision. This was an ungodly amount of food. When we got back to our guesthouse, I literally passed out from overeating. Tim remained ambulatory and took himself for a walk while I slept.
When I awoke and Tim returned, we headed to Wat Sop to help with Sayfohn's English class. And then we took Sayfohn out to dinner at a hotpot restaurant on the banks of the Nam Khan. We ate chicken and beef and pork and shrimp and squid and egg and all manner of greens and sprouts and veggies, barbecued and/or boiled at our table. By the time we were done, Tim was woozy with food. We thanked, hugged, and then parted ways with Sayfohn and then we headed back to our guesthouse.
But I wasn't done yet. While Tim stumbled back to the room, I walked to the nearest crepe stand and ordered a banana and Nutella crepe. And then I ate it. And it was GOOD!