A great way to learn about the food and culture of a country is to take a local cuisine cooking class. Tamarind cooking school in Luang Prabang, Laos was recommended to us by our “foody” friends in Vientiane. Regina and Serge Selbe own and run Pimenton, an Argentinian/Spanish style Tapas restaurant in the heart of the city. Pimenton is a classy place with a relaxed atmosphere and some of the best food we tasted all month. Although not a traditional Laos establishment, the unique menu combines Argentinian and Spanish style entrees and the food is to die for. Not to be missed is the decadent chocolate bread pudding made from a croissant and smothered in Jack Daniels infused crème fresh. Plan on doing a few extra exercise sessions after consuming one of these decadent desserts, especially if you pair it with one of their signature cocktails.
To start our cooking school experience, we were whisked off in a Tuk Tuk to the morning food market just on the outskirts of town. Chi, our guide and instructor, first gave us some market etiquette rules: it is crowded and you will get pushed, it is not personal; do not block the isle ways and if you want, you can push back.
Our first stop was a neatly laid out display of many of the ingredients used in traditional Laos cooking: Bamboo shoots, lemon grass, coriander/cilantro, dandelion leaves, mint, lime, three kinds of basil, chilli (Mak pet kinou- small but hot), cloud ear mushrooms, garlic (Lao garlic, much better than Chinese variations, according to Chi), fish sauce, galangal (similar to ginger), Kaffir lime, spring onions, tamarind, and of course, several varieties of chili peppers. Chi spent a good 20 minutes explaining each Herb, its uses and where it grows. We then were given a tour of the market including, the optional meat “counter” where whole animals are butchered. The most commonly eaten meats include fish, chicken, pork, beef and water buffalo. There are also a variety of alternative meat choices such as larva, crickets, frogs and spiders. Having recently fallen off of the vegetarian band wagon and being relatively selective about my protein sources, I opted to not eat any of these.
After another short Tuk Tuk ride up a windy, pot holed dirt road, we arrived at the beautiful Tamarind cooking school “campus”. A serene setting complete with water lilies and lots of very young and very cute puppies. There were 12 students and we each had our own cooking station with all the necessary utensils. Our heat source was in the form of a traditional clay and tin brazier- a sort of clay pot charcoal grill that is commonly found in many Lao homes to this day. The demonstration table at the front was laid out with all the ingredients we would need for the day.
Chi was an excellent instructor. He first described the course we were to prepare, then demonstrated how to prepare it- then helped us as we fumbled through the execution of the dishes. The main kitchen tools we used were the clay fired mortar and pestle, a large chef’s knife and chopping board and a pairing knife- that’s it! Once the food was prepared and cooked, we all sat down to enjoy a feast – one which we proudly prepared.
The menu included the following:
Sticky Rice (purple and white)- steamed in traditional rice steaming baskets
Koy or Laap (using water buffalo meat)- a traditional Lao salad – similar to Thai Larb. Chi claimed this to be the national dish.
Mok Pa: Fish steamed in banana leaves
Oua Si Khai: Lemon grass stuffed with chicken- tricky execution – Christine mastered it! I failed miserably and Chi helped me out.
Jeow Mak Len: Roasted tomato chili sauce
Jeow Som: Peanut sauce
Khao Gam: Purple sticky rice with fresh coconut milk pudding with fresh local fruits.
I highly recommend participating in a cooking class as a way to understand a bit more about the food and culture of any region you are visiting. Tamarind did a fantastic job with this cooking class- a definite must do when visiting Laung Prabang, Laos.