One of the most popular restaurants in Luang Prabang is called Tamarind: A Taste for Laos (http://www.tamarindlaos.com/). It’s just a few doors down from the guest house where we stayed and it was always packed for both lunch and dinner. This was the case even during the “shoulder season” of our visit. In fact, it was the only place so busy that reservations were required. Ange had really done her homework before our trip and discovered that Tamarind also runs a day-long cooking class (http://www.tamarindlaos.com/cooking-school/).
Each day of our reunion trip back to Asia was really special to me for different reasons. However, the Tamarind cooking class enabled me to understand Laos and the Lao people on a deeper level, so much so that I expect it will leave a life-long impression.
The rice paddies along the Mekong River basin that I wrote about in my last blog (https://sharoncombesfarr.com/2014/03/11/the-mighty-mekong/) grow a special kind of rice called “sticky rice,” known elsewhere as “glutinous rice.” I thought sticky rice became so because of how it is cooked. That is not the case. It is actually a unique strain of rice and it is the driving force behind Lao cuisine.
Relying on sticky as opposed to regular white rice means that many Lao foods are dips and not soupy or saucy — unlike Thai curries, for example. Laotians use three or four fingers to ball up the sticky rice and either dip it into pastes or dips or push meats and vegetables onto the sticky rice to eat it. Soupy dishes just won’t work for this and chop sticks are not conducive to eating it either.
Another interesting thing about Lao cuisine is how it is made and cooked. They do not need stoves or even woks. The four necessary implements for making Lao dishes are: fire — like a BBQ pit or any other open flame, a pot, a steaming cone, and a deep mortar and pestle set. Barbecued meats are very prevalent, as are steamed dishes made in little bamboo leaf packets to keep the meat moist and flavorful.
Because the Mekong provides great soil, seemingly unlimited varieties or fruits and vegetables are available as ingredients to the cuisine. A few of the most prevalent flavors are tamarind (this is a fruit that tastes most similar to fig), small eggplants, lemongrass, Lao mint, and Lao lime. To give us an impression of the endless variations for ingredients, we began our cooking class at Luang Prabang’s morning market. As with all cuisines, starting with fresh local ingredients is fundamental.
In terms of meats, Mekong River fish (some have described this as a type of catfish and others, as like tilapia), pork, chicken, and water buffalo are the most common. I personally found the fish and the water buffalo to be the tastiest.
In my day-long cooking class, I learned how to prepare sticky rice, and to make and cook four traditional Lao dishes: eggplant dip, buffalo laap, fish mak, and chicken stuffed lemongrass. The actual meal I made and ate is pictured below:
Online, I found similar recipes to what we were taught fairly easily. A version of Lao eggplant dip can be found here: http://avocadopesto.com/2013/04/04/lao-eggplant-dip-jeow-mak-keua/. Here’s a great laap recipe from Epicurious: http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Chicken-Laap-102260. This is an American adaptation of fish mak which uses aluminum foil instead of a banana leaf to make the pouch: http://nanthavongdouangsyfood1.blogspot.com/2012/12/mok-bha-lao-style-spicy-steamed-fish.html. And, finally, here’s a great chicken stuffed lemongrass recipe that includes a ton of great photos: http://avocadopesto.com/2013/04/07/chicken-stuffed-lemongrass/.
Knowing how to make the laap recipe is something that is probably going to change my life. It enables an endless and flavorful variety of healthy meals made from fresh herbs, vegetables, and ground meats that I expect to serve either as one dish salad-like meals or as lettuce wraps. I cannot wait to try it at home. I also cannot wait to show my husband a trick for cutting and squeezing limes.
If you also want to try cooking Lao cuisine at home, these are the best links I found around the Web:
But, better yet, get over to Luang Prabang at take the Tamarind cooking class yourself. You will not be disappointed.