By Marc d’Enterement
Like the nation itself, the cuisine in Laos takes a back seat to its larger and more familiar neighbors Thailand and Vietnam. Yet like these two Southeast Asian giants, Laos and its food are fascinating, relaxed and refined befitting the most Buddhist, least populated and under visited of former French Indochina nations. The agricultural abundance of Laos provides vibrant produce and copious amounts of fresh herbs. This creates complex layers of flavor in combination with a large variety of proteins.
Tamarind Café is located in a traditional French/Laotian house overlooking the Nam Kahn River within the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Luang Prabang. The cafe is one of this city’s acknowledged culinary destinations. Founded in 2005 by self-taught Laotian chef Joy Ngeuamboupha and his Australian partner Caroline Gaylord, Tamarind quickly gained a reputation for authentic Laotian cuisine. The cafe utilizes the freshest of ingredients purchased daily from the city’s teeming markets.
In a city known for its cooking classes, Tamarind offers unique full day experiences, starting with a shopping expedition to the morning market. Ban Phousay, like many Southeast Asian morning markets, opens around 4:00 a.m. when farmers from the surrounding countryside bring fresh produce, meats, fish, fowl, baked goods, and prepared foods. they also bring items usually found in urban malls – iPhones, microwave ovens, clothing. To a Westerner, a first time experience can be a visual and sensory overload: butchering taking place on site, exotic items such as vibrant red blocks of congealed blood (for soups), the pungent aromas of fresh fish sauce mixed with the bright array of fresh produce and fragrant herbs.
A Savory Gathering
After an hour at the market, where the chef instructor is purchasing supplies, the group segues to the cafe’s bucolic riverside farm/garden/events venue. Located on a small landscaped lake, the venue is several miles outside the city on the opposite bank of the Nam Kahn Within a lush garden setting, Tamarind Cafe teaches the fragrant secrets of Laos renowned cuisine. In this quiet environment, small groups of 8 to 12 participants engage in a hands-on experience preparing six different Laos dishes, which are then enjoyed during an after class feast.
Whereas both Thai and Vietnamese dishes, to the uninitiated, can set the mouth on fire with their free wheeling use of hot peppers, Laotian cuisine holds back on the heat and indulges in copious handfuls of fragrant fresh herbs. Several varieties of basil, cilantro, ginger, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, tamarind, dill, mint, pak hom baen – a peppery green – are paired with garlic, spring onions, eggplant, long beans, delicate cloud ear mushrooms, purple banana flowers, generous amounts of fresh lime juice and the judicious use of padaek – Laos’ fermented fish sauce, a salt substitute. Although to the Western nose fish sauce smells “vile,” once added to dishes it has a surprising and pleasant sweet flavor.
Peppers are certainly part of the cuisine but frequently served as side condiments even in the most traditional homes. Cooked pastes of peppers, onions, oil and herbs, peppers marinated in vinegar and fresh peppers will often accompany a meal allowing the diner to season the dish to their liking.
The Kitchen Hutch
Throughout Laos, both locals and street vendors cook over open wood fires. Many restaurants utilize traditional wood charcoal, grilling vegetables, meats and steaming rice in the preparation of dishes. Sticky rice both describes the texture and variety of this grain (available in Asian markets, “follow package directions”). Traditionally steamed over a wood fired vessel of water within a woven mat basket, it’s Laos’ most popular starch. The diner rolls a golf ball size portion of rice in their hands and uses the ball to literally pick up food, especially in stews. Sweetened coconut milk and a large variety of nuts and dried fruits are added to make a popular dessert.
All the Ingredients
Tamarind Cafe’s Ua Si Khai (Stuffed Lemongrass)
In this classic Laotian dish, lemongrass permeates the meat with its citrus flavor. You can vary the recipe with different meats. If you prefer a vegetarian option, substitute firm tofu mixed with some steamed vegetables such as bamboo shoots or cabbage to give the stuffing body. This dish is best prepared one day in advance of cooking to allow the lemongrass to infuse the filling. This recipe makes 3 to 4 servings.
• 5 cloves of garlic, chopped
• 4 to 6 medium green onions, chopped
• 1/2 to 3/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
• 1 fresh kaffir lime leaf, thinly sliced
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 8 ounces finely ground chicken, beef or pork
• 12 long and large fresh stalks of lemongrass
• 2 eggs, beaten
• 1 cup oil, for frying
1. With a motar and pestle, or in a food processor, pound or combine the garlic, spring onions, cilantro, kaffir lime leaf and salt.
2. Add ground meat and combine well.
3. Using a sharp, thin knife, starting about one inch from the base of the lemongrass, make a cut lengthwise through the stalk for 3 to 4 inches. Be sure to stop at least one inch from the end of the stalk – it must stay intact. Rotate the stalk a quarter turn and repeat 3 times.
4. Gently push the ends towards the center and the stalk will open like a round cage. Insert a spoonful of the meat mixture and with your fingers push and smooth the filling until the lemongrass basket has encased the meat.
5. Place the filled lemongrass stalks on a baking sheet and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 12 to 24 hours in order to allow the citrus flavor to infuse the filling.
6. Heat the oil in a wok or large frying pan. Dip each stalk into the beaten egg and fry until the meat is browned and cooked through.
7. Transfer to a plate. Each diner, using a fork, chop sticks or fingers, will pick the meat filling out of the basket. Serve with sticky rice and a salad of mixed greens, fresh basil, cilantro, mint and dill tossed with a lime vinaigrette.
It is easy to travel to Laos from either Thailand or Vietnam. Laos ought to be on the itinerary of any visitor to Southeast Asia – visas are obtained at the border. Affable, relaxed, devoutly Buddhist, Laotians welcome travelers to their stunningly beautiful country, and no one will leave with taste buds unsatisfied.
Editor’s note: Original World Travel offers 18-day journeys to Laos in February and October.