Creating Lao Cuisine at Cooking Class
One of the pleasures of being a perpetual traveler (to me) is going out to eat. Partly as a necessity – our hotels and apartments do not come with dinner… but mostly, I consider it a great luxury and highlight of the day. Not having to cook, nor do the dishes or spend hours shopping for groceries. Such a comfort.
However, today we entered new terrain. A kitchen! We were going to cook a three course meal for ourselves. In the sleepy romantic city of Laos, at Luang Prabang’s best cooking class. For some reason Tamarind is not my favourite restaurant in Luang Prabang but they do offer entertaining and professional cooking (or so concluded our review comparison on the net).
Booking a cooking session was easy, pricey and… worth it. 27 USD per person, 9.00 to 15.00, it included a one hour tour of the local market with unforgettable sights. As in many poor countries, parts of animals are eaten that are wasted in the developed world. For the cooking class, we were provided with superb vegetarian alternatives, the carnivores had to deal with buffalo.
We also learned about local spices, ingredients and culinary customs while preparing some intriguing platters of Lao specialities.
Are we going to cook here?! YES!
The above clay and tin braziers are not ancient cooking techniques but traditional methods to cook food using charcoal, which we have seen all around Laos. Many foods are grilled and will often have a barbecued flavour.
Our menu for the day! This is what we were going to create:
Having a before-cooking-adventure drink. We were surrounded by a setting of lotus pond and jungle.
I was impressed and enjoyed the general conduct of cleanness at the cooking class and overall in Laos.
Ready, set, apron, go!
Our guide showed us what had to be chopped, stirred, shredded, peeled, pounded, mixed, heated, grilled…
Place rinsed sticky rice into the huat khao, the Lao steaming basket.
The rice would be cooked over boiling water with no lid.
We had to rinse the rice three times under running water. See how it steams in the baskets!
Preparing for the dips. Tomek made eggplant dip, while I prepared for the tomato dip.
For the dips we needed to grill one long eggplant, four tomatoes, garlic, shallot, red and green chillies.
We burned our greens above an open flame until it blackened and we could take off the skin.
Tomek rotating project dip.
He totally burned it. According to plan!
Coming up was working with sharp utensils. Relax and put away the thought of potential axe murders within the cooking team!
Chopping it all up under the watchful eye of our master cook.
What a (systematic) mess!
Then came some therapeutic action of repetitive pounding motion to release all repressed feelings of anger and frustration but mainly those Lao flavours!
Final touches for the dips – lime juice and fish sauce (the latter we secretly left out).
I have no idea what I am doing but I am having fun (they told us we would not have to do the dishes)!
FISH IN BANANA LEAF
For the fish marinade. Shallot, garlic, lemongrass, Lao basil, green chilli, salt, kaffir lime leaves, dill and spring onions.
A cool trick to get garlic loose its peel, is to squeeze it down with a knife. The peel will easily come off!
Pounding and incorporating. Doing our best.
Now, stirring in the roughly cubed fish fillets.
Each banana leaf had to be run over a flame to become nice and shiny but mainly to soften them.
Then came the tricky part. Wrapping the banana leaves. People who can make origami swans have an immediate advantage.
Folding the sides up, then folding the open ends up, then wrapping the loose flaps around the outside of the package, finally tying the package together.
That’s it! Tomek never told me about his origami abilities.
Well, mine was not to be to the satisfaction to the chef, who rewrapped my package. After I was done! What does that say about me cooking skills…
Well, finally. Everyone had to mark their package with a green and off they went into the steaming baskets.
At this point we had long passed the aptitude threshold of pasta-home-cooking. We were going to create a cage basket out of the stalks of lemongrass – by making many cuts right through the stalk. We only needed two… the other three are for practice.
Nice try but… eh, no.
Watch the lemongrass basket master.
Filled with a concoction of mashed potatoes, garlic, spring onions, coriander, kaffir lime leaf and salt – those baskets were going to be deep fried.
TOFU AND HERB SALAD
That dish was a breeze to prepare. We gently heated up soft tofu in sesame oil and incorporated it into a bowl of chopped spring onions, coriander, lemongrass, mint, lime juice, chillis, banana flower, snake beans, fresh galagal, accompanied by beansprouts.
Arranged on a serving platter with garnish, ready to be eaten with sticky rice.
Our (now crispy) stuffed lemongrass!
To be eaten like this.
I can honestly say that the steamed fish and stuffed lemongrass were the best meals I have ever prepared. We did have a fantastic time with our company of friends, too! We met Ross five years ago during our travels in India: we didn’t have a place to stay, while a (friendly) stranger named Ross offered us to stay at his hotel room, which in the end neither Ross nor we used at all – time rushed by as we were talking through the night, at the lobby. We spontaneously travelled together for the next week around India and recently hooked up again, with him and his wife, in Laos.
No time for reminiscing…
For desert, we used purple sticky rice, water, shredded coconut, sugar and salt.
After the water had turned into a white sauce, thereby absorbing the coconut flavour, we got rid of the shredded coconut.
The coconut sauce was to be mixed with the sticky rice and heated up for about 10 minutes while being gently stirred.
Taking it easy – the last cooks working at the brazier station.
The rest of the cooking team was already topping up their rice with fresh exotic fruits.
Sprinkled with sesame seeds. Done!
I have gotten very hungry now! How about you?