Laos cooking is delicious. Its fresh, clean, and focuses heavily on the use of freshly picked herbs and vegetables.
While we were in Laos I visited the Tamarind cooking school, and spent a day having a go at cooking Laos dishes in their beautiful garden setting.
The day started with a trip to the local market. Our guide, and tutor for the day, pointed out frequently used herbs, some I’d never seen before, others I’d tasted in dishes but not known what they were. Those sticks, for example, are cut into slices and used to give a peppery taste to dishes. They’re meant to be chewed for flavour, then spit out. No wonder I’d had a hard time eating them when they cropped up in my curry!
Food pilled high on wooden tables, and spread across the ground. Bright, vibrant colours bursting from every corner. The herbs made the air deliciously fragrant, and I began to feel excited for the meals we’d be cooking later.
Moving on through the market we were given the chance to try some of the local snacks.
We tried dried deep fried mushrooms, tough strips of water buffalo skin and, my favourite, deep fried bamboo slices cooked with chilli, garlic and kaffir lime.
They tasted like salty, spicy kettle chips style crisps. They were incredibly moreish, and everyone in the group went back for a second handful to nibble on as we continued our wanderings.
We moved through into the dried produce area, and learnt to tell the difference between the different kinds of rice cooked in Laos. We saw the long grained rice we’re used to eating steamed, and the short stubby grains of glutenous rice favoured locally.
The fresh fish and meat section was the busiest part of the market.
Everything was incredibly fresh, fish with glistening bright scales, and meat still tender and red. All kinds of meat were available. In Laos every part of the animal is used. Wandering through we were fascinated by every cut of meat you could imagine, including lots of offal I couldn’t even identify.
Once we’d worked our way right around the market we clamboured in the back of a Tuk Tuk and took a bumpy ride out to Tamarind Gardens, the cooking school’s beautiful outdoor location. We each had our own individual workstation, and from my chopping board I looked out across the lily stewn lake.
Our benches were laid out with everything we might need; chopping board, heavy wooden pestle and mortars, knifes, spoons, pans, and a black tamarind school apron. The staff were fantastic and kept the area incredibly clean. As soon as utensils were dirty they were whisked away to be cleaned and replaced with fresh tools.
All the ingredients were laid our for us, ready to cook. They all looked so vibrantly fresh and inviting.
We began by learning to cook sticky rice, a staple of Laos cusine. Made with a glutenous rice, sticky rice is eaten with the hands. A small amount of rice is pulled away and worked into a ball with the fingers and palm of the hand. It can then be eaten as it is, or dipped into sauces or curries.
We steamed our rice in these bamboo steamers over bubbling pans of water.
Once cooked the rice is transfered into wicker lided baskets to serve.
We saw these little baskets sold right across the country. I have one stashed away in my backpack to try using back in England.
Sticky rice is often a meal in itself. A popular Laos breakfast is sticky rice dipped in a spicy sauce.
This sauce was our next recipe. We roasted aubergine, chillies and garlic right on the white hot coals. Once they blackened, we peeled them and ground them up with lots of salt and chicken stock powder.
The resulting sauce was deliciously chunky and fiery hot.
In Laos this is popular for breakfast, but I’m not sure I could handle that much heat first thing in the morning!
Next on the menu was fish steamed in banana leaf parcels. Here again we bashed fresh garlic and herbs into a paste.
We learnt how to softened the banana leaves by holding them over the hot fire, then carefully folded the sides up around our fish, and turned it into a parcel ready for the steamer.
It wasn’t very easy to tie the parcels, it involved lots of careful folding, tucking and twisting, all the time making sure none of the sauce leaked out. The finished parcels may not have looked as elegant as the demonstration, but they all survived steaming and tasted delicious.
Next up was the most complicated dish of the day, but it was also my favourite. When we were told we were making chicken stuffed lemon grass, I think everyone in the class assumed we were going to be putting lemon grass into chicken. Oh no, no, no. We were going to put chicken into lemongrass!
I was utterly baffled as to how we were going to fit anything at all, let alone chicken, into a thin lemongrass stalk.
The trick lies in a series of cuts.
First we cut right through the stem, from the thick base up for about 4 inches. Then we turn the stem 90 degrees and cut right through again.
Next we slashed the stem multiple times, taking care not to cut right through this time.
Once it was covered in slashed we were able to carefully open it up with our fingers to reveal a little basket. It looked to me like a bulb, or a fancy christmas decoration.
We pounded up herbs with mince chicken, then carefully pushed it through the slits we’d made and into the middle of the lemon grass.
Our teacher made it look easy. It wasn’t!
We all achieved something looking vaguely like it was supposed to, and finally the stuffed lemon grass was dipped in egg and deep fried until crispy and golden.
It was truly delicious. The lemon grass flavour permeated the chicken.
Apparently it also works really well on the barbeque so, despite the fidiliness, I’m really excited to give it a try next summer.
Our final savoury dish was the dish I was most excited to make, Laap. Laap is a dish we ate all over Laos, we couldn’t get enough of it. Its a meat salad, made with finally chopped meat or fish (our favourites were chicken and pork) and lots and lots of deliciously garden fresh herbs, lots of mint, lemon grass, coriander.
The version we were about to tackle, however, had a few ingredients I hadn’t encountered so far.
The Laap we were making was made with minced water buffalo.
See the dark green liquid in the jar? Thats buffalo bile. Yes, thats an ingredient in buffalo Laap!
Along with the meat (and the bile) we chopped up garlic, ginger, chillies, mint, coriander, lemongrass, green beans, bean sprouts and tripe. We squeezed in a generous squeeze of lime and splashed in some fish sauce.
The resulting dish was deliciously savoury and the flavours of the herbs shone through. I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that the bile was in the dish had I not known it was there. Apparently on its own the bile tastes very strong and bitter, but mixed with the meat and the vegetables it didn’t have a discernible taste.
The final dish of the day was pudding – always a favourite part of every meal for me!
We boiled up purple sticky rice in coconut milk and sugar.
Next we garnished it with coconut and lots of delicious fresh fruit.
It tasted like a sticky rice pudding. Wonderfully sweet and comforting, and beautiful with the fresh fruit.
Finally it was time to eat. We all sat together by the lily pond and tucked into a feast!
There was so much food I couldn’t possibly finish everything I cooked. The Tamarind staff took away what I couldn’t finish and wrapped it up into little bamboo parcels to take away.
I went away feeling very stuffed and happy. It was a fantastic day and brilliant to have the chance to learn some of the basics of Laos cooking. I’d defiantly recommend Tamarind to anyone visiting Luang Prabang. A real highlight from a wonderful stay in such a beautiful town.