The Tamarind Cooking School is in a fantastic, airy, open-sided bamboo and palm frond pavilion by a lotus pond. There’s plenty of bench space and everyone gets a cooking station. For me, there’s nothing worse than having to share a station in a cooking class, as you are far less focussed when you have to share the tasks and simply don’t learn as much.
Joy begins by introducing us to the three items that are incredibly important to Lao cooking. Firstly, the tao-lo or charcoal burner – every house has one, according to Joy. While the burner serves to provide the heat to steam the sticky rice, it also gets plenty of use for other types of cooking.
When making a jeow (a sauce or dip) the first step is to place items in the embers of the burner to soften the ingredients (such as garlic and chillis) so that they mash more easily in the mortar and pestle and – just as essentially – give the ingredients that amazing smoky flavour. At home, if you have an electric stove (my condolences), buy one of those portable gas stoves and use that to roast your vegetables. If you have a gas stove, just remove the grate over the burner, lay down some tin foil, and cook over the open flame – like I’m doing here. If you want to go all out, use a BBQ.
The second important item is the mortar and pestle. There is no substitute and Joy says that you just can’t replace the mortar and pestle with a food processor or blender. The action of the mortar and pestle “releases flavours in a way a food processor or blender can’t copy,” he assures us. I totally agree, having tried to cheat with some Thai and Lao recipes in the past. A blender gives a curry paste, sauce or dip a different flavour and texture that can’t match the mortar and pestle method.
The third item is the houad or bamboo basket for making sticky rice. On top of the charcoal burner sits a pot partially filled with water over which the houad, with a serve of rice, is placed, making sure that the basket does not touch the water. As we will quickly learn, the hardest part of making the rice (besides remembering you have to soak it overnight), is flipping the ‘ball’ of rice when it’s nearly cooked.
While our rice begins to cook, we make jeow mak keua or chilli eggplant salsa, using the charcoal burner to roast our eggplants, chillis and garlic, before peeling and mashing them with the mortar and pestle. The finished salsa is smoky, a little fiery (I made mine that way) and, as we’ll discover once our rice is ready, fantastic when you dip little balls of the sticky rice into it. It’s a great dish that can easily be replicated in a Western kitchen*.
The next dish Joy shows us how to make is one of the Lao dishes I enjoyed from the first day we motored down the Mekong River – mok pa or steamed fish in banana leaves. The ingredients of the marinade could be straight from a Thai cookbook – shallots, garlic, kaffir lime leaves, basil, spring onions, fish sauce. Apart from the use of dill, which I’ve never seen in a Thai recipe. While the fish is simply steamed in a ‘parcel’ of banana leaves, softening the leaves over the burner proved to be a little tricky.
We move on to making ua si khai, chicken stuffed lemongrass. While sometimes pork mince is used for this dish, it’s the chicken version we make today. First we mix the chicken mince with garlic, coriander, spring onions, and kaffir lime leaves. That’s the easy bit. Next, we cut through the lemongrass to make a ‘basket’ to hold the mince mixture, which proves a little more difficult. Once the baskets are made we stuff the lemongrass with the mince mixture, coat it with a beaten egg mixture, and deep fry it in a wok. As we’ll later discover, this is a fantastic dish to have with a couple of Beerlaos, only you’ll always wish you’d made twice as much as you did.
Orlarm, the class Luang Prabang stew, is the next dish we make. It’s a unique stew, mainly because you won’t find one of the key ingredients, sakhan (often called chilli wood), too readily outside Laos. Some would say this is a good thing as the numbing sensation that the wood provides is not to everyone’s taste. The version we make uses pork, but buffalo (or just about any form of meat you can get your hands on in the country) is also popular. The use of water instead of stock makes the flavour of the dish a little thin, even using a ping pong-sized ball of flame-hardened sticky rice as a thickening agent for the stew. For me it’s a dish to be had in Luang Prabang, but not one I’ve had the urge to make since.
After everything is ready, our small group sits down to devour our dishes, and they’re all delicious. We don’t have much room left after the feast, yet we have our final dish of the day still to make, dessert – khao gam, purple sticky rice with coconut sauce. The sticky rice is mixed with coconut milk, sugar and salt, and the rice is left to absorb the milk. When it’s absorbed, more sauce, toasted coconut and sesame seeds are added. It’s a great dish to have with sliced banana.
Joy’s Lao cooking course and Phousi market tour are both a fantastic experience, especially if you’re a foodie. We strongly suggest doing them as soon as you arrive in Luang Prabang so you quickly get a good overview of Lao cuisine, the common ingredients, and the methods of cooking. That knowledge really helps to better understand the machinations at the morning market, as much as what’s going on in the kitchens – and what’s being served at the tables – of Luang Prabang’s restaurants. And more on those soon…
You can sign up for the Tamarind Lao cooking course online. Classes are held 3-5 times a week and should be booked a few days in advance. A course costs 250,000 KIP or US$31 per person at today’s exchange rate. If you only want to do the market tour, it costs 100,000 KIP (US$12.50) per person and requires a minimum of four people.
* I recently made this and Jeow Mak Len (tomato salsa) and they turned out perfectly as you can see in my photo here.