Monday, October 31, 2011

Food favourite type!


I’ve been meaning to do a class for months but every weekend I forget to make any plans and miss the chance.  So when GVI volunteers, Anna and Chris, offered me to join their cooking class I jumped at the chance! 

The day begins at a very reasonable 10am where we load into the back of a tuk tuk and head down to Phousi Market – Luang Prabang’s biggest market where you can buy everything from footwear to fermented fish and buffalo skin to textbooks.  This day was strictly purchase of fresh vegetables, rice, meat and some other items such as coconut powder and fish sauce, in preparation for the storm we’d be cooking up later. 

Phousi’s crowded and narrow walkways weave amongst the vats of rotting fish (ok, fermenting!  Whatever!), the pigs’ heads, baskets of chillies and piles of different varieties of rice.  Our Cooking Instructor explained about some of the more exotic fruit, vegetables and wood (yes, there’s a spicy edible wood used in a local dish called Orlam) and answered our questions about all manner of weird and wonderful things the purveyors were flogging.  Personally I took the opportunity to take mental note of the local prices of fresh produce so when I return I can avoid paying ‘falang’ (foreigner) price!

Back in the tuk tuk and munching on snacks of sweet sticky rice and fried peanuts I’d picked up, we got back to the kitchen and watched the expert Instructor, Phia, prepare two initial dishes we’d need to replicate.  Luang Prabang Salad was easy, even making our own mayonnaise was simple enough, but flowering the cherry tomato for garnish was a little beyond my skill level! No Masterchefs in sight. J  We also prepared a Fried Sticky Rice Noodles and Chicken dish called ‘Feu Khua’ which I eat regularly so was pleased to give it a go.  My noodles were perfectly cooked and my cooking partner suitably impressed! 

Lao flavours are quite unique and although there are common elements with its more famous neighbours’ cuisines (think Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese), there are certainly typical Lao dishes and flavours and the key is not in flair or originality but in fact preparing food in the traditional way to achieve the perfect balance of flavours and presentation.   Lemongrass, lime, chilli, fish sauce and fish pastes, soy sauce and the balance of sugar and salt combine with all manner of exotic vegetables, particularly bitter leafy greens, and typically eggs and meats including buffalo, pork, fish and chicken.  Most dishes are served with the ubiquitous sticky rice, called Khao Niaw. 


The group set about making the first two dishes, stuffed ourselves around noon and congratulated each other on our efforts!  Then it was on to the afternoon session.  We watched the preparation of 5 Lao dishes, including the very traditional and unique Laap (somewhere between a salad and stir-fry), and a chilli dipping paste called Jeow Bong, which you expect to be dragon spicy but is in fact delectable for even wussy western palates!  We selected 3 of the 5 dishes to try our hand at, and chopped, sizzled and plated our way through an introduction to Lao cuisine. 

Of course the best bit was the eating!  Sitting with a Beer Lao at the end of a day in the warm kitchen feasting on each others’ creations, sharing stimulating conversation with new friends just a stone’s through from the pretty Nam Khan River was the highlight of the day.  For $30USD, it’s not a bad way to spend a Saturday! 

Cooking Courses in Luang Prabang are offered by 3 main restaurants: Tamarind, Tamnak Lao and Tum Tum Cheng.