I was feeling wonderfully light and energetic in Laos. My back didn’t ache, and thanks to it being December (2015), the temperature was temperate and so heat was not making my feet swell. I was no longer grunting when I got in and out of a vehicle, and I was bounding up the stairs to our hotel room. I was sure I must have lost weight!
Bill, however, was hamstrung by his hamstring injury, and so I signed up for that Lao cooking class someone had raved about. In all my travels, I have never signed up for a class of any type. Usually I avoid being in a group of foreigners when I travel. It’s one thing to be a white elephant, it’s another to be in a herd of them. But this trip, I was giving in to the tourism meme.
This was a 6 hour market visit and cooking class put on by the Tamarind Restaurant, currently costing 285,000 Kip ($33 US). We had already enjoyed an intriguing meal at Tamarind, located as it is right next to the Apsara Hotel.
The class met up at the restaurant at 9 and were offered a warming cup of bael fruit tea, which is spicy and slightly astringent, and immediately became one of my favorite herbal teas.
The Market Visit
We were then driven in the back of a pickup over to a huge fresh market that I would never have found. Our teacher led us through the market explaining different ingredients and answering our questions.Much of the market is under cover and very dark, so I didn’t get a lot of photos, but it is an extensive market. Towards the end we went through the meat market, which like most meat markets in Asia, looks like a scene of great carnage. Little bags of blood and bile were on offer, along with all the anatomical bits of the animals, except the squeal and the moo. One interesting thing about Laos, is that women run all the stalls. Men do the butchering, but even the meat stalls were staffed by women. Women are considered better businesspeople.
The Cooking School in the Garden
The classes are held at a purpose-built facility in the hills outside of Luang Prabang. The jungle garden setting is lush and green, and the dining area overlooks a lovely lotus pond. The classroom is a covered veranda with two rows of counters with a station of cooking utensils for each participant. Our teacher, whose name I do not recall, strode in between as he explained things. He was entertaining and quick-witted, with excellent English, once you adjusted for a few Lao pronunciation quirks. In fact he was so good, I decided to videotape his instructions so I could refer to it later.
We learned how to make sticky rice by steaming in the traditional woven bamboo steamer baskets over charcoal braziers. The rice is first washed and soaked for 4-10 hours. Then it’s drained and rinsed 3 times. Then it’s put in the steamer basket, covered and steamed for 20 minutes or so. Then the rice is tossed or flipped over gently in the basket and steamed for a further 5-6 minutes.
We made a couple of jeow, or Lao dips/salsas, from roasted eggplants or tomatoes, pounded with garlic, chilies, fish sauce, cilantro and green onions.
These braziers are ingeniously simple and efficient. Made from clay baked in a galvanized bucket, if ever The Big One (earthquake) hits the Pacific NW and I need to make an emergency stove, I’ll make one like these.
Also on our menu were fish steamed in banana leaves, a minced meat and herb salad, and lemongrass stuffed with minced chicken, and a dessert of purple sticky rice with coconut milk and fruit.
For each recipe, we were called to the end table where the recipe was explained to us and we were allotted our ingredients. Ingredients for the minced meat and herb salad called for beef bile, but it was optional and I opted no, thank you.
The stuffed lemongrass was fiddly, but fun to try to do, and mine looked awfully unprepossessing on the plate before dipping in egg and deep frying.
When all our dishes were made, we sat down to enjoy our creations. It was a lively bunch, from Britain, New Zealand, Australia, the US and Malaysia. The food was tasty, the setting gorgeous and a good time was had by all. We learned a lot, and I cannot recommend the Tamarind Restaurant’s Cooking School highly enough! Definitely good value and a great way to spend the day!