A culinary guide to Laos
If you dine in Laos, don't expect the familiar sweet tangs of neighbouring Thailand. Here you'll find spicy yet often bitter dishes are mopped up by generous handfuls of the ubiquitous sticky rice.
I'm bashing lemongrass stalks with a wooden baton. The sound of my thwacking mingles with the laughter of children splashing in the pools of the waterfall, just beyond the kitchen where I'm learning about Lao cuisine. My teacher is showing me how to mould a minced pork mixture around the hard, citrusy herb to make delicate kebabs that will be grilled over charcoal.
Vanvisa at the Falls is quite possibly the most spectacularly located cooking class I've ever seen. It's situated at the foot of the glorious Kuang Si Falls, 20 miles south west of Luang Prabang, around a basin ideal for swimming and floating, as the local kids do, in old rubber inner tubes. A bamboo bridge spans the basin, and as I walked across it to reach my class, my heart sang.
Vanvisa is by no means fancy — there are no cookers, just three charcoal-fired burners lined along a rear wall. However, above them an open window looks out onto both the cascades and the stiller aquamarine water below, where butterflies dance in their hundreds and brightly coloured dragonflies hover. The organic gardens here are also spectacular — there are herbs, medicinal plants, fruits and vegetables, all sown by owner Vandara Amphaiphone, co-author of the book Food And Travel Lao.
I'm the only pupil, ably assisted by my jolly driver Sung and guided by Sit Ti Moong Khun, who goes by the nickname Nou. He explains that lemongrass, garlic and onion are the cornerstones of Lao food and that many of the ingredients are from the jungle. He asks me to finely slice barbecue pork, to be used later to make laap, which could be considered the national dish of Laos. We mix spring onion, shallot, chilli, galangal, mint, calamansi juice, soy, sticky rice powder, and the pork and assemble it all into a fragrant salad.
After the cookery class, I travel to Luang Prabang, where I learn that not only does sticky rice accompany almost every meal and every mouthful in Laos, the sound of it begins the day. As monks seek alms at dawn, balls of sticky rice are given as offerings; when they hit the metal of the monks' vessels, a sonorous bong rings out. Since the geography of Laos is made up of around 70% mountains, sticky rice is the easiest crop to nurture here and, as such, more than 500 types of it are grown. Rolled into a ball, it's used to mop up food, so neither cutlery or chopsticks are necessary.
To find out more about this ubiquitous staple of the local cuisine, I visit Living Land Farm, located just three miles outside Luang Prabang. This organic city farm has demonstration paddy fields where visitors can learn all about the process of planting, growing and harvesting the rice. My guide, Chilee, tells me that sticky rice takes three to four months to grow: "Starting from the seeds, until it's served on the table, there are 13 steps. But that's an unlucky number, so we add a step — eating."
Chilee takes me out into the thick, oozing mud of the paddy, where every footstep is accompanied by a rather satisfying squelch. Rice plants are sown three shoots at a time, all by hand. "After this work, your back is sore from planting all day, but you don't mind," says Chilee. It's labour intensive subsistence farming but many Lao will tell you they're contented doing this work because it's generally done by families and communities together. When the plants are yellow, Chilee explains, they're ready to harvest. One seedling can sprout about 600-700 grains, which are left to dry in the sun for a day or two.
Coming in from the field, Chilee shows me how to grind and cook the rice. Then we roll and toss it in a large cone-shaped basket to form a big, sticky ball.
In the farm restaurant, which sits on stilts, I eat snacks made from sticky rice and rice flour before tucking into a lunch that includes traditional chicken soup with herbs, lemongrass and pork with taro, onion and mushroom from the garden. I'm introduced to Mekong riverweed, an algae collected from an oxygen-rich part of the river which is pounded into flat sheets, sprinkled with sesame seeds then fried. It's served with jeow bong — a chilli paste made with buffalo skin. Buffalo, which graze beside the Mekong, features heavily in Luang Prabang cooking — the meat is often candied, made into sausages, served in stews or used raw in laap.
In spite of being a neighbour to Vietnam and Thailand, Laos has a very different cuisine, borrowing relatively few elements from across its borders. It is, in essence, a food based on foraging and the jungle, where people eat what they can find — this might include river crabs, catfish, frogs, wild birds and insects. I see this at Luang Prabang's early morning market, where old ladies hunker down beside empty rice sacks on which are displayed their sometimes rather paltry offerings — a few potatoes, lemongrass, some fresh herbs maybe, wild mushrooms or beans. Further along, though, there are proper stalls offering roasted rats and snakes. I even spot (with a little horror) a tiny owl in a cage.
Still, strolling around Luang Prabang in the early morning light is a joy in itself. A French colonial town, the continental influence isn't just evident in the beautiful architecture of this calm riverside city, which sits on a peninsula at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers. It's also there in the coffee, the baguettes and a local appropriation of mayonnaise.
Together with my InsideAsia guide, Bounglieng, and my driver Sung, I head north to Nong Khiaw, a little town on the banks of the Ou River. We row out in two little boats to try to net some fish — the lines are dropped in as circular a shape as possible, then surface of the water is battered with bamboo sticks to try to drive the fish into the net. My party has no success, but Sung comes back smiling; he has enough for lunch. The fish are speared with bamboo and grilled over a little fire on the riverbank, served with sticky rice and a chicken's head and feet.
It's with Sung and Bounglieng that I learn about the Laos' love for their national beer, Beerlao, as well as lao lao, a fierce rice spirit. In a local, rather than a tourist restaurant (it's a town that caters mainly for backpackers), we eat in traditional Lao style, where everything is served at the same time and shared.
I'd quickly discovered that Lao cuisine isn't sweet like that of Vietnam or Thailand — it's far more spicy, sour, salty and bitter. But I hadn't realised quite how fond Lao people are of that bitterness or just what bitter really means until our buffalo laap arrives on the table. I ball some saucy meat into my sticky rice and as the taste sinks in, my face very quickly twists in shock to resemble a wounded gargoyle. It turns out the bitterness has been turned up a few notches by the addition of buffalo bile. Sung laughs, then picks up five chillies and eats them with a forkful of papaya salad, explaining that it's "not spicy enough". I can only imagine the inferno inside my driver's mouth, and quickly order another Beerlao. I can see why the Lao adore it.
A taste of Luang Prabang
There's an 'explorer' menu and a degustation menu, while a less exotic menu includes sweet dried buffalo meat that tastes like candy, Luang Prabang pork sausage and orlarm, a thick soup with chicken, aubergine, chilli and local vegetables.
How much: A Luang Prabang meal, with starters, main courses, side dishes and sticky rice, from £11.50 per person, but with a two-person minimum. Individual dishes are also available.
Set menus include a Laos degustation and an explorer, but there's also an a la carte menu that includes oua si khay mhoo (deep-fried lemongrass stuffed with minced pork and local herbs) and khoua kai sai cheo bong (stir-fried chicken with shallots, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and spicy buffalo jam).
How much: Three courses and sticky rice without wine from £12.50 per person.
Manda de Laos
This beautiful restaurant specialises in Laotian family cuisine — manda means 'mother' in Laotian. Starters include a charcoaled laap ball and deep-fried Mekong fish stuffed in bamboo. There's a do-it-yourself laap with ingredients in little dishes for you to assemble and for mains there's buffalo steak with lime leaves, galangal and crispy garlic.
How much: Three courses without wine from £17 per person.
InsideAsia Tours offers a 10-night Laos Discovery tailored trip which costs from £1,270 per person, based on two sharing and excluding international flights. The price includes 10 nights' accommodation, all guided transport between destinations, transfers, breakfasts, a cooking class at Kuang Si and a number of other experiences.
Published in the December 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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