Learning to cook Laos {Tamarind Cooking School, Luang Prabang}

Tamarind Cooking School, Luang Prabang // scarletscorchdroppers.com

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!

vegetables in the Laos market // scarletscorchdroppers.com

chilli heap at a market in Laos // scarletscorchdroppers.com

Laos market produce // scarletscorchdroppers.com

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.

Laos market produce // scarletscorchdroppers.com

Laos market produce // scarletscorchdroppers.com

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.

Laos snacks // scarletscorchdroppers.com

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.

Laos market produce // scarletscorchdroppers.com

Laos market produce // scarletscorchdroppers.com

Laos market produce, sticky rice containers  // scarletscorchdroppers.com

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.

Laos market produce // scarletscorchdroppers.com

Laos market produce // scarletscorchdroppers.com

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.

Tamarind Cooking School, Luang Prabang // scarletscorchdroppers.com

All the ingredients were laid our for us, ready to cook. They all looked so vibrantly fresh and inviting.

Tamarind Cooking School, Laos // scarletscorchdroppers.com

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.

Cooking sticky rice, Tamarind cooking school, Laos // scarletscorchdroppers.com

Cooking sticky rice // scarletscorchdroppers.com

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 // scarletscorchdroppers.com

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.

Tamarind Cooking School, Laos // scarletscorchdroppers.com

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!

Tamarind Cooking School, Laos // scarletscorchdroppers.com

Next on the menu was fish steamed in banana leaf parcels. Here again we bashed fresh garlic and herbs into a paste.

Tamarind Cooking School, Laos // scarletscorchdroppers.com

Tamarind Cooking School, Laos // scarletscorchdroppers.com

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.

Tamarind Cooking School, Laos // scarletscorchdroppers.com

Tamarind Cooking School, Laos - steamed fish // scarletscorchdroppers.com

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.

Tamarind Cooking School, Laos // scarletscorchdroppers.com

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.

Tamarind Cooking School, Laos // scarletscorchdroppers.com

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.

Tamarind Cooking School, Laos // scarletscorchdroppers.com

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.

Tamarind Cooking School, Laos // scarletscorchdroppers.com

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!

Tamarind Cooking School, Laos // scarletscorchdroppers.com

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.

Tamarind Cooking School, Laos // scarletscorchdroppers.com

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.

water buffalo Laap // scarletscorchdroppers.com

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.

Coconut Rice // scarletscorchdroppers.com

Tamarind Cooking School // www.scarletscorchdroppers.com

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.

Tamarind cooking school, Luang Prabang // scarletscorchdroppers.com

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.

Tamarind cooking school, Luang Prabang // scarletscorchdroppers.com

Tamarind cooking school, Luang Prabang // scarletscorchdroppers.com

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.

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  1. Wow, what an amazing post! It looks like the most fun, interesting, informative, cultural, tasty, delicious day ever. It reminds me of the cookery school day I had in Bangkok (Old Siam cookery school) which was by far the highlight of my month trip. I’m going back to Thailand in January for 4 months to dive and I want to fit in many more cookery schools – if I find myself in Laos I will definitely pay Tamarind Cookery School a visit! If only they did week/month long courses – I would sign up!
    Rosie x

    • Oh that sounds like such an exciting trip! Where in Thailand will you be going? I’d love, love, love to take a Thai cookery course – I’ll have to put it on the list for next time! A friend took one in Chiang Mai, and everything she cooked just looked so delicious. This was my first time at a cookery school, it was so much fun I’m already on the lookout for some here in China! x

  2. Peggy Munday says:

    We will be angling for a dinner invitation – we are free in the New Year! I love your blogs and the amazing pictures, thank you so much for sharing your adventures.

  3. I am very jealous – the cookery school sounds like an amazing day. I need to try and find some of that purple sticky rice. I love sticky rice! Not sure about the buffalo bile. Sometimes I think it is best not to know exactly what goes into Far Eastern cooking!


  1. […] My favourite recipe from my cooking course at Tamarind cooking school. If you haven’t seen it yet, you can read more about it here. […]

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