Monday, February 11, 2013

Cooking in Vientiane Lao

In keeping with our recent tradition of culinary lessons in each country we visit, we joined the staff of Lao-Experiences for a half day tour of the morning market followed by a cooking lesson in a villa garden on the banks of the Mekong River on the outskirts of Vientiane. Among the various options we picked a cooking school based upon a brochure in our hotel, The Hotel Khamsongsa. We wondered over to the Full Moon Cafe, several blocks away and made our reservation...for the next morning at 8 am.

After a full breakfast (the light french option at our hotel consisting of filtered coffee, banana smoothie, fresh croissant, jam, butter, yogurt with honey, and fresh tropical fruits), we walked the short 4 blocks to the cafe and arrived just before our hosts, Nook and Morgan.  Morgan is assisting Nook to establishes her business.  We traveled to the morning market in Vientiane. As we got closer we observed police directing traffic. At shortly after eight we were late to the begins at 3 AM!

Rice Merchant with multiple grades of rice

The Market Tour

We began our market tour with the rice dealers. We viewed the various grades of rice: A, B, & C. Color, size and the amount of broken grains influence the cost. For regular white rice the difference in price of the grades is great ( from 6,000 Kip to well over 11,000 Kip per kilo). The better grades have a nicer aroma, and cook quickly, but the lower grades can cook for hours without becoming soft and palatable. Although represented by one bin out of 15 or so, sticky rice is the staple food of Laos.   Sticky rice is cooked over steam rather than in a rice pot of water or rice cooker. Most sticky rice does not make it to the market but remains in the village. With the exception of one bin of black rice, all was polished white rice. No brown rice was available.

Inside the market we saw tubs of Lao fish sauce (a brown sauce containing the fermented remains of various local fish), not the clear Vietnamese fish sauce or the slightly darker Thai sauce. Each of the different sauces are intended for specific dishes. We saw a wide variety of vegetables.  Most were familiar and available in SE Asian markets.  The herbs included multiple varieties of basil, dill, tarragon, mints, onions, garlic ( including garlic chives), gingers (new, old, turmeric, and galangol), and the SE Asian standby....lemon grass.

Lemongrass, pepperwood, eggplant, and galangol

 Fruits included multiple varieties of bananas, papaya, multiple varieties of mango, durian, and jackfruit. Ever present at this time of year are mandarin oranges, big and small.  Most you will never see in North America (to our great loss).

Tubs of Lao Fish Sauce

Ant Larvae anyone?

Chicken was available (fresh and butchered in plastic bags), as well as all sorts of fresh water fish. Also available were dry season protein supplements: ant eggs, and various larvae. I watched as shoppers walking along sampled larvae from baskets. I did not sample.

Kung's Lao Cafe

We then traveled to Kungs Lao Cafe (at one time featured in a NY Times travel article, can currently has inspired a recipe by Luke Nguyen in his book Greater Mekong) where we had local coffees (Liz chose black coffee with no milk or sugar, while I chose traditional Lao coffee with condensed milk at the bottom of the glass). Tea was served as a chaser. We also sampled sticky rice pancakes with papaya and honey. Some older expats wandered in and were greeted as old friends. We left  satiated, and we still had a full meal to prepare.

Kung's Lao Cafe Menu

Back at the Full Moon Cafe we picked up two additional participants. They were the parents of a French woman teaching at a local university. They spoke minimal English and we spoke even less French. But they were lovely, and equally adaptable.

About 15 minutes later we arrived at the villa. Flowers covered the trees, butterflies abounded, and birds filled the air with sounds. A small dog greeted us, knowing she would end up with droppings from sloppy chefs.

Kung's Kitchen

M. Kung of Kung's Lao Cafe

The Cooking Class

The class started with a review of Lao cooking implements. A woven steamer is a multipurpose device, primarily used for cooking sticky rice. After the rice has soaked it is rinsed and placed in the pre-moistened steamer. Failure to pre-moisten will result in a truly sticky mess. The steamer is placed atop a large boiling pot of water and a woven conical hat is placed over the rice. We were given two sets of timing: gas burner powering the boiling water, or the more traditional charcoal stove. The gas is more reliable, but not a useful in a village and does not impart flavor.

Preparing the stoves

We then made the mat pa (Lao steamed fish and herbs). We chopped herbs, pounded herbs, added salt, fish sauce, and other Lao flavorings. Give it all a quick mix and you are ready to prepare the banana leaf steam packets. Starting with squares of banana leaf, we slightly charred them on both sides over the grill, just enough to make them pliable. We put single servings of the fish pieces in the center and learned how to fold and seal the packets. Properly sealed and identified they were placed in a steamer and set top cook: 25 to 60+ minutes depend upon the heat source.

Liz all decked out and ready to cook!

With the main course prep completed we prepared the tomato and eggplant dip. The tomatoes, garlic, shallots, and eggplant were skewered and roasted until soft over the coal fired stoves. Back at the prep table we squished and peeled the charred vegetables, added herbs, and pounded until it was smooth.

Our fish all wrapped up and ready for the steamer

A green papaya salad was made. We chopped ingredients while the chef assembled them, doing the heavy chopping of the papaya. No squeezing out of moisture from the papaya. I will need to talk to my fruit vendor in KL to get an appropriate papaya.

Our feast, our chef, and our classmates!

Food cooked, it was time to eat. Under tropical trees, with red hibiscus blooming and attracting butterflies, we sat down to a scrumptious meal. But the cooking was not done. Dessert needed to be made. We reduced fresh coconut milk to a thick syrup and poured it over sticky rice and a half fresh mango. We were thoroughly satiated as were gave the chefs our thanks and were driven back to our hotel. On a hot day, after a full meal, a nap was most appropriate.

No comments:

Post a Comment