Cooking in Luang Prabang: Tamarind Riverside Cooking Classes

Signing up for his class was the first thing Joshua and I did when we got to Luang Prabang; we planned everything around the school’s schedule and it turned out to be just the right thing to have done.  Joy’s classes fill quickly and are limited to just 9 people, the number of bodies that can be squeezed into a tuk-tuk, the combo motorbike/covered wagon/taxi found all over Southeast Asia.

The class takes off — on time — and goes directly to the market just outside of town.  I’ve been touring markets everyday of this trip and everyday it’s interesting, but nothing beats seeing a market with someone like Joy, who knows it and its vendors inside out.  Among the unusual things we saw were congealed blood, used in soup;

Congealed blood 

Banana flowers that we’d later use in class to make a salad popular in many parts of Southeast Asia

 Banana flowers

And Laotian garlic as small as cat’s eye marbles and pungent enough to ward off evil spirits of any ilk (they’re the white bulbs to the left; in the center are equally small shallots)

Laotian garlic 

I was delighted that after our spin around the market, Joy helped me find the ingredients for a dish I’d had the day before

Seaweed and chili 

In the basket are little matchbooks of seaweed, known as riverweed in Laos, which had been sprinkled with sesame seeds and slivers of tomato, dried and quickly heated.  The sauce (which I didn’t manage to get much of in the shot — sorry) is a sweet-fiery “jam” of chiles, deep-fried garlic, honey and strands of chewy buffalo skin (think jerky).  It’s one of many memorable tastes I’m taking away from Laos.

Then we tuk-tukked our way to Joy’s riverside classroom, a thatched porch with a lovely t-shaped table and the basic tools of the trade: chopping blocks cut from tree trunks, cleaver-type knives, large mortars and pestles and simple braizers whose charcoals were as difficult to control as fireflies

Braisers 

During the class we steamed sticky rice in the bamboo “hat” you see on the first braiser and, while it steamed, we pounded together chiles , cilantro, scallions and either little eggplants or charred tomatoes to make Jeow, which we scooped up out of each other’s mortars with balls of hot sticky rice.  We pounded a terrific paste of chile, garlic, shallots and lots of herbs, including dill, to rub all over fish, wrap in banana leaves, tie with bamboo and steam

 Banana leaf fish

Joy said we could use cabbage leaves as the wrappers when we return home — and I will — but it was wonderful to use the large leaves that were growing just within reach.

In addition to these dishes, we made Koy, a minced meat (buffalo) or fish and herb salad, which, in it’s fish version, reminded me of a great ceviche; Ua Si Khai, in which, with a few well-placed slits, we made baskets out of lemongrass bulbs, filled them with chopped and spiced chicken and grilled them over the coals; and Luang Prabang Stew, a mix of pea-size eggplants, chili wood (like Szechuan peppers on the mouth-numbing scale), cloud-ear mushrooms, long beans and, of course, bright, fresh herbs.

It was an introduction to a cuisine that’s not as widely or well known as those of its neighbors, but one that’s equally haunting and certainly one that piqued my imagination: I think I’ll be giving my trusty mortar and pestle even more use when I get back to my own kitchen.

Dorie Greenspan

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