During a recent trip to Luang Prabang, Laos (a full article on that adventure here), I had an opportunity to learn how to create a few typical Lao dishes through the Tamarind Cooking School (official webpage). Note: Tamarind is actually a restaurant that also happens to offer cooking classes.
In the jungle…
The Tamarind Cooking School is not located at the Tamarind restaurant. The site for the “school” is actually outside of the town of Luang Prabang in a jungle setting. Students get a chance to get out of the city and dine amongst the cacophony of jungle noises. These noises seem to grow louder and louder as the night falls (we participated in the later class which went from 4:30pm – 8:30pm).
We learned to cook Oua Si Khai (Chicken Stuffed Lemongrass), Mok Pa (Fish Steamed in Banana Leaves), Jeow Mak Keua (Eggplant (Aubergine) Dip), Jeow Mak Len (Lao Tomato Salsa), Khao Niaow (Sticky Rice), and Khao Gam (Purple Sticky Rice with Coconut Milk).
Tamarind Cooking School – Learning the Basics
The first thing we learned to cook was the sticky rice (both white and purple). I’ve made a few attempts at home to try and make sticky rice and found the easier and failsafe method is to just go and buy it from somewhere already made! This course illuminated many of the errors I’ve been making (not soaking it long enough, using too much water to steam it, not rotating it properly as it steams). It also encouraged me to get the proper steaming equipment (bamboo baskets). As the rice was steaming we learned how to make a couple of “jeow”.
Jeow is the Lao answer to salsa!
A “jeow” is basically a dipping sauce, and in Laos there are many kinds of dipping sauces. My favorite being one with chili paste and strips of water buffalo skin. This course taught us to make two different kinds of jeow: a fiery roasted aubergine one, and a tomato based dipping sauce that was very similar to salsa. I was surprised at how simple they were. You roast the ingredients over a coal fire, peel of the charred skin from the eggplant, then put everything in a mortar and pestle and smash it to a paste. It was very therapeutic, actually! The dipping sauces go with everything really. We rolled small balls of sticky rice and dipped that in the sauces.
Next we learned how to make fish in banana leaves. The marinade for this fish was incredibly flavorful. It combined garlic, shallots, chili, lemongrass, kaffir lime, basil, and dill. Steaming the fish filets in tied banana leaves made them incredibly tender and flavorful (sorry no pictures!).
Impress your friends with chicken stuffed lemongrass!
The highlight of the Tamarind Cooking School lesson menu is learning how to make chicken stuffed lemongrass stalks. This is one of Tamarind’s most popular dishes and should you ever find yourself in Luang Prabang I highly recommend giving it a try! It’s also a pretty simple dish to make at home, that only looks like a lot of effort. Basically you make small incisions into the lemongrass so that it begins to separate (you have to pound it a bit to loosen it up, too). After awhile you have a segment of the lemongrass stalk that has thin ribbons of stalk that can be formed into a basket. You stuff the minced chicken mixture into this “basket” then pull the ends of the stalk to close it up. These are then dipped into beaten egg and deep fried in oil. Delicious!
After we finished cooking the chicken we prepared small bowls of sticky purple rice with coconut milk and fresh fruits for our dessert. All of the cooking completed we were finally able to eat the results of our labors. As a bonus the workers had cooked up some additional dishes to add to the feast. Included in our feast was: Soop Pak (Steamed Vegetable Salad with Sesame), Orlarm (Luang Prabang Stew), Koy (Minced Water Buffalo Meat and Salad), and fresh local fruits. It truly was an incredible meal and a fantastic learning experience! I felt that this was one of the highlights of our Luang Prabang adventure.
It was also an amazing deal. For all of the recipes we learned (recipe book included), and the huge feast we enjoyed at the end of the cooking session, it was an incredible value at 218,000 kip (about $26). If you have any questions about the recipes or the course offered by the Tamarind Cooking School please feel free to contact me.