The first thing we do when we arrive in a new place is look for a cooking class. Laos was no exception. We came to Luang Prabang (after several dreary, unmemorable days in Hanoi, post Hạ Long Bay) happy to be back in the warm, laid-back atmosphere we liked so much in Cambodia. The class offered by Tamarind came highly recommended, but our timing was poor—they were not offering classes in March. So we poked around and eventually found one offered by the Tamnak Lao Restaurant.
It began with a trip to the local market, which I always look forward to. Invariably there are vegetables I haven’t seen before, as well as familiar foods seen in a new light. That said, I can now confidently identify lemongrass, galangal, and kaffir limes (and their leaves) during the show-and-tell sessions.
This being our 4th cooking class (after Bali, Vietnam, and Cambodia), I continue to be amused at the ways in which they differ. In the previous two classes, everyone cooked the same dishes in lockstep with the instructor. At Tamnak Lao, our instructors Leng and Phia would demonstrate a recipe from start to finish, and then we’d pick up the ingredients and go to our “wokstations” to cook the dish, at our own pace, without any involvement on their part. Along the way we’d refer to the recipes in the class cookbooks to jog our memory. It felt more like cooking at home, which I liked, but it was also the first class where the instructors didn’t make any attempts to connect with the students on a more personal level.
During the first half (for lunch) we cooked Luang Prabang Salad, which is a hard-boiled-egg-heavy version of a chef’s salad. The list of foods I avoid is not very long, but hard-boiled eggs (not to mention things made with hard-boiled eggs) feature prominently. Stephanie, hard-boiled-egg-eater that she is, made me look good by eating most of it.
The other dish we made for lunch was an unusual fried-rice-noodle stir-fry, feu khua. It featured wide rice noodles cooked almost like you would a potato pancake, bound together with egg. When it was all good and crispy, we chopped the “patty” up into bite-size pieces and set it aside. Then we stir-fried some chicken, veggies (garlic, leafy Asian greens, tomato, and onion), and sauce (oyster sauce, soy sauce, cornstarch, and sugar). Before serving, we added the fried noodle chunks back into the mix. Different, excellent, and very tasty.
After a nice long tea break chatting with our fellow classmates, we started up again in the afternoon to cook “dinner”. Here the format was quite unique. Leng and Phia demonstrated 5 different Lao dishes, back to back. When they were done, everyone got to try them and each group (we were cooking in teams of two) got to choose the three they wanted to make. The five dishes were:
- Larb gai (also spelled laap, larp, and laab, it’s a chopped chicken salad, regarded as “the national dish of Laos”)
- Kheua sen lon (vermicelli noodles with pork and vegetables)
- Oh padaek (described as “pork casserole”, but looked like an omelet)
- Khua maak kheua gap moo (fried eggplant with pork)
- Geng phet (Lao curry with chicken)
I think the chicken larb was one of my favorites, but since we’ve cooked a similar chicken salad with banana blossom in our previous two classes, we opted for two pork dishes, the one with vermicelli noodles and the one with the eggplant and the crazy name, as well as the Lao chicken curry. Once everyone was done we all brought our dishes to the table and ate together.
The eggplant with pork was definitely my favorite. Here’s the relatively simple recipe for future reference:
Khua Maak Kheua Gap Moo
- 1/2 long Asian eggplant
- 2 tbsp oil
Cut the eggplant into circles an inch wide, and then cut the circles into six wedges (like a pizza). Heat oil in the wok and cook eggplant until golden, but not mushy. Set aside.
- 3 garlic cloves, crushed
- 60g minced pork
- 1/2 tbsp oil
Cook garlic in oil until golden. Add the pork, break it up, and cook until browned.
- 3 large green onions, chopped coarsely
- 2 tbsp oyster sauce
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp sugar
Add the remaining ingredients to the cooked pork, including the cooked eggplant, and stir-fry until the green onions soften slightly.
Just for posterity (because I’m definitely going to want to make it one day) here’s the larb recipe:
- 200g minced chicken
- 1 cube chicken bouillon
- juice of 1/2 lime
- 2 tbsp hot water
Combine all of the above in a wok over low heat and continue stirring until chicken is cooked but not browned and liquid is absorbed. Remove from heat, place in a bowl, and allow to cool to room temperature.
- 2 tbsp of finely sliced banana heart (if available, can substitute green cabbage)
- 2 kaffir lime leaves, sliced very finely
- 1 green onion, sliced thinly
- 2 small shallots, sliced thinly
- 2 garlic cloves, sliced thinly
- 1 small bunch of cilantro, chopped finely
- 2 stalks of lemongrass, sliced very finely (white part only)
- 6 arugula leaves (aka rocket), chopped finely
Combine vegetables with cooled chicken.
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1 tbsp rice powder (can be made by toasting and then pulverizing long-grain rice in food processor or mortar and pestle)
- 1 tsp chili powder (or fresh chilies)
- 1/4 tsp fish sauce
- 1 tbsp fried sliced garlic
- 1 tbsp fried sliced shallots
- juice of 1/2 lime
Combine seasonings with salad mixture. Garnish with cilantro. Marvel at how your amazing Lao salad tickles your taste buds.