Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Laos: Learning to cook Laotian dishes.

    It's like anywhere in the world: a border crossing between two countries doesn't mean a complete change in what people eat. For instance, the cuisine in the French city of Nice and the Italian town of Ventimiglia just along the coast have more in common than say Nice and anywhere in Normandy.
    Northern Thailand and Laos are no exception.
    I'd done a couple of one-day courses in Thai cuisine but knew very little about cooking in Laos. So, early on in our first week in Luang Prabang, I signed up for a half-day cooking course at the Villa Santi, a boutique hotel in one of the town's old colonial buildings. The course was held at its sister property, the Santi Resort and Spa, about 5 km out in the country.
    A little bus took me there. For the first half hour I was left to my own resources so I wandered around the grounds. It was the most beautiful day with just a faint haze over the mountains.

The resort has planted a small rice paddy in its grounds.

     The best thing was...I was the only student. Just me and a young chef who didn't speak a word of English and a young hotel employee so incredibly savvy that you could almost guarantee she's going to end up running some splendiferous four-star hotel. The point was, she spoke perfect English. Not that you need language skills when you're learning to cook. Watching, tasting, that's usually enough, but it is handy to know the name of a specific ingredient if it translates into English.
Kaeng pak nam is watercress soup with minced pork. Light and tasty, it only took minutes to make.

Sticky rice with mango or sangaka mamueng as it's called locally. 

Once I'd finished cooking, hotel staff set up my lunch table on the terrace with its view over the rice paddy. Fresh spring rolls, a green papaya salad, the soup, sweet and sour fish. chicken curry and the sticky rice with mango. 
     This half-day made me greedy for more. I'd noticed a few posters tacked up on lamp posts advertising the Tamnak Lao cooking school, an adjunct to the restaurant of the same name. I signed up, showed up and got stuck in.
   We began with a walk around the Phousi Market (see earlier post)) then took a tuktuk back to the kitchen. Four students, two instructors. This time, they demonstrated the dish, then left us to make it ourselves from prepped ingredients using the recipe provided.

Ingredients at the is so much easier when someone else does all the chopping and measuring.

On your left, a Luang Prabang salad. I found the mayonnaise-type dressing too rich (it was made with hard-boiled egg yolks), and I'd probably leave out the optional minced pork. Otherwise, a keeper. 

Finished dishes. Simple garnishes of lettuce leaves, tomato and cucumber...

How to make sticky rice...

     Going through the recipe book I brought back, my notes on the sauce-stained pages show the dishes I'm likely to make back home in France.
   "Excellent" is how I've described feu khua: fried sticky rice noodles with chicken and vegetables. (What I really like about these recipes is that the author included lots of suggested substitutes if you can't get your hands on the exact ingredients). 
     Hmm, another "excellent"--this time for chicken larp, a spicy cold salad made with chopped chicken. By the way, this wasn't pre-chopped. Instead, each of us was given some raw chicken breast, a chopping board and a cleaver. 
     "Very good. Needs mushrooms for texture," is what I wrote about kheua sen lon--noodles with pork, vegetables and woodear fungus. The sensible substitute suggested  for the fungus is green beans--far easier to get my hands on those at the local market until I make a trip to the Asian supermarket in Toulouse. 
      "OK but not my favourite" was a pork casserole. Let's move on...
      That's more like it. "Excellent and easy" applies to khua maak kheua gap moo or fried eggplant with pork but geng phet (chilli casserole) only scored a "very good." 
      One of the cornerstones of Lao cooking is jeowbong, a thick chili paste. Making that and sticky rice wound up an intensive day.

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