For many people, food is an important aspect of a journey overseas and is often seen as the window to the soul of a country. Eating on the streets, tasting delicious local foods and observing local cooking practices is all part of the culinary experience when visiting a country. Participating in a cooking class can be another good way to tap the local food scene.
Cooking classes have a reputation for being a bit hit and miss in Southeast Asia with some being too technical and fiddly while others being demonstrations with little hands on participation. The cooking school at Tamarind in Luang Prabang however manages to strike a good balance, we learned on a recent visit.
The morning cooking class starts off with a trip to the local market, where one can see where locals purchase their produce on a daily basis. In Luang Prabang, this often happens at the Phousi Market which has a dizzying array of fruit, vegetables, meat, healthcare products, clothing and anything else you can think of that might be needed around the home.
While rice is a staple in Laos…
… eggs also form a big part of many people’s diets.
You’ll also get to see a large range of exotic fruits on your tour of Phousi Market, such as delicious dragon fruit.
But the best thing about the market is seeing all the stranger foods that are on sale, such as edible wood and bamboo. In particular, the meat section is an interesting experience and the squeamish would be well-advised to skip this part of the market.
After the market tour, tuk tuks take guests to Tamarind’s oasis in the countryside about 20 minutes out of town. To the sound of a trickling nearby stream, the cooking class leader, Joy, gives a rundown of the plan for the day. The cooking class is held in a grass-roofed sala in such peaceful surrounds that it seems a shame that anyone has to do anything at all. But after the brief introduction, guests are instructed to grab some ingredients and we immediately start pounding and mixing and are on our way to making our first dish, Lao dips called jeow. Jeow are usually eaten with balls of sticky rice and are deep in flavour, a great entree to the food that is to come.
Next up is larp, that famous dish cooked in both Thailand and Laos. We’re told that there are an infinite number of varieties and that the one we will make will be our own special variety depending on the amounts of each ingredient we choose to use. The first choice is between buffalo and pork. Although many don’t know it, buffalo is served throughout Laos and many a tourist cafe will use the words buffalo and beef interchangeably. After adding some seasoning to our raw mince meat mixture, we head over to the line of Lao braziers to cook our meat.
After cooking the meat, there’s still more preparation to be done to make this larp special. Handfuls of beans, shallots, onions, garlic, chillies, lemongrass and mint are roughly chopped and added to the cooked mince meat. It all seems a bit unbalanced and random and upon taste-testing the larp, that is exactly what it is — unbalanced. But the secret to a good larp, Joy tells us, is to add more of a bit of this and a bit of that to even out the flavour profile. My larp lacked salt and a pinch was all that was needed to bring out the glorious fragrance of my herb-infused minced pork.
In all we cook four dishes, with the last of the savoury dishes being the most challenging. Stuffed lemongrass, or oua si khai, is simply minced meat stuffed into a stalk of lemongrass, dipped into a bowl of beaten eggs and then deep fried until golden brown. How such a simple dish can confound such a large number of novice cooks soon becomes apparent when you see what is required in order to get the minced meat inside the stalk of lemongrass. With the assistance of the Tamarind staff my stuffed lemongrass turned out brilliantly and tasted superb. The chicken in the centre, spiced with coriander, kaffir lime leaf, spring onions and garlic was a sumptuous accompaniment to the flavour of the lemongrass which most choose not to eat, but which is unavoidable when gnawing like an animal trying to get every last skerrick of chicken out.
All of the savoury dishes were consumed at once on a large communal table which overlooks a large pond and at this time participants from around the world tended to chat and share stories of their travels. It’s incredible what the shared experience of stuffing lemongrass brings out in people.
The final dish for the afternoon was khao gam, purple sticky rice which has soaked up sweetened coconut milk — fresh-pressed by participants from shredded coconut, of course. On top of the sticky rice a salad of mangosteen, dragonfruit, mango and sapodilla is arranged to create a perfect closure to a phenomenal meal. And to think, we cooked it ourselves.
Tamarind is often touted as the best cooking school in Luang Prabang and it’s easy to see why. Its reputation means that bookings are essential year-round and in the high season, they are sometimes booked out a week in advance.
By Adam Poskitt
Last updated on 30th January, 2015.