We’re with Joy Ngeuamboupha, co-owner of Tamarind Restaurant and Cooking School in the northern Laos town of Luang Prabang. It’s early in the morning and we’re all dealing with throbbing heads and confused spatial comprehension, the ill effects of way too much lao-lao (a village-made distillate of sticky rice wine) the day before. However, there is cooking to be done so we’re at the town’s teeming food market, hangovers and all. Joy buys handfuls of cone-shaped khao tom ping, a dense, hot mush of purple sticky rice and taro cooked in banana leaves. They’re hot off the coals and as promised, they help counteract the worst after-effects of the inebriating local rocket fuel.
The snacks, vaguely sweet and extremely filling, aid in our recovery but it’s really the energy and activity of the markets themselves that prove the best distraction from our sorry states. We note wasp larvae, varieties of wild mushroom, tropical fruits, piles of sakharn ( pepper wood, used in the local spicy stew called or lam), and mounds of unfamiliar greens foraged from the jungle that rings the town. Joy, raised in a nearby village that relied (as does much of the country, even today) on subsistence agriculture for survival, can tell us what each and every ingredient is, and how it should be used. He’s excited to see, among the various types of live toads and frogs for sale, gop horn, a sinister-looking black frog with bright red eyes. “You don’t get these so often” he says. “They’re great for making mok gop sai pak ileut, where you steam them with betel leaves inside banana leaves.” Sacks burst with various grades of sticky rice, the local carbohydrate staple. Women sell sheets of khai phaen, a unique regional speciality made from river weed that’s dried either plain or with tomato, sesame and garlic. It’s a little similar to nori and just as delicious.
Everywhere are little plastic containers of pre-made jeow, an earthy, strong-tasting chilli dipping sauce that includes a variety of ingredients (garlic, lemongrass, galangal for example) and that no self-respecting Laotian meal is considered complete without. Boiled buffalo or pork skin is generally pounded into the mix for texture; it’s sensational stuff to which we’ve become deeply addicted. We’ve been to this market at other times of the year when there are ant eggs, stink bugs and butterfly pupae to buy and sometimes the occasional small, furry forest animal, awaiting it’s fate in a bamboo cage. Food throughout Laos is invariably seasoned with the potent, fermented fish paste called padaek, and grilled meats and fish are a street food staple, so the air swirls with charcoal smoke, odoriferous whiffs of padaek and the sweet smell of barbecued pork intestines, simmering buffalo skin and other meaty bits.
We’re in town to visit Caroline Gaylard, a Melbournian who has called the place ‘home’ for the past 12 years; Joy is her partner. We note the changes that have taken place in Luang Prabang since last here four years ago - more high-end hotels, more restaurants, more tourist shops and less locals now occupy the town’s jumble of historic old homes. In the time she’s lived here, Caroline has witnessed this former royal capital transform from a dusty, hidden-away hamlet discovered only by the determined, to a firm fixture on the South East Asian tourist route. Visitors flock for the sparkling temples and streets lined with picture-perfect UNESCO protected buildings. Early each morning the ancient tak bat (alms giving) ceremony plays out, as silent lines of saffron-robed monks snake through the town to receive food offerings from residents - this colourful ritual has become one of the town’s biggest tourist draw cards. The place is small and visitors stay an average 3 or 4 days before whizzing to their next stop; it’s sufficient time to form an impression of Luang Prabang but hardly enough to really get under its skin.
The first time we visited, it’ was a 2 week stay, a span considered overkill by most. But in that time we plugged nicely into the daily rhythms of this chilled-out town, fully exploring produce markets and meeting locals. And, we became hooked on the cuisine, a singularly rustic one charged with gutsy hot, bitter and herbal flavours. Until recent years it was assumed tourists wouldn’t really take to the robust tastes of Luang Prabang food and were even discouraged, by well meaning locals, from trying it. “You’ll get sick” was the usual caution, followed closely by “you wont like it”.
Caroline does concede that some of the native fare is too ‘out there’ for many western palates, but at Tamarind those with a sense of culinary adventure can dip into unfamiliar territory, if they’re game. “Buffalo bile and other ‘challenging’ ingredients are commonly used in the cooking here,” she explains. “ We serve laap with the option of bile and intestines and spicy basil frog complete with bones you’re supposed to crunch on, for example. We offer an introduction to Lao cuisine, but also give opportunities for deeper exploration if people are up for it.”
Joy is Tamarind’s head chef. Cooking in Laos is generally a woman's’ chore but losing his mother at birth forced Joy to learn his way around the kitchen early. His sisters are also wonderful cooks and a few of them work alongside him in the Tamarind kitchen. They’re his sounding boards when he’s researching local recipes, or is striving to unlock correct balance and flavour combinations. Our trip to the market is to buy food for a temple offering he’s performing in memory of his mother. This is a common ritual throughout Laos, a religious country where the prevalent Buddhism is tempered with more than a touch of animism. We take the ingredients back to the restaurant kitchen, which typifies any local domestic cooking set up. Simple charcoal burners line one wall and there’s no oven in sight. Nothing takes terribly long to prepare even though all the pastes and the laborious vegetable, meat and herb chopping is done by hand. Joy swiftly transforms his fresh raw materials into his mother’s favourite dishes; pork and sour bamboo soup and mok pa, a fragrant, chunky fish ‘mousse’ steamed in banana leaves. None of the cooking techniques are complex; grilling, steaming, boiling and a little frying, considered a touch ‘modern’, are the most common. An aluminium steamer, with its characteristic, conical-shaped top lined with woven bamboo matting, is full of fragrant sticky rice. The sight of sticky rice steaming over wood fires is an iconic one in street-side restaurants and homes here. Joy tells us that no Laotian feels ‘full’ without a serve of sticky rice. Nor can they taste anything without alternate mouthfuls of on-the-side chilli, hence the cuisine’s (somewhat inaccurate) reputation for being off-the-dial spicy.
Joy portions food into bowls and piles the rice into bamboo containers. The feast goes onto a large tray and we walk to Wat Paphai temple where Caroline and their children, Willow and Raffi, are waiting. This temple, a fairly humble one by Luang Prabang standards, is where Joy spent 7 years as a novice monk and, along with other boys from rural areas, gained his high school education . He remembers the place fondly and looks forward to visiting his former Abbott, now in his nineties. The offering is over fast. There’s an exchange in front of a seated monk who prays and sends a message to the departed one. “Mr Joy has an offering of food for you and if you are anywhere you can hear, then come to get the food from your family. Then you can go on to a beautiful place and have peace” he says softly in Pali, the language of the Buddhist scriptures. The food offering is taken behind the scenes for the monks to share for lunch.
Despite Caroline and Joy being so occupied with running Tamarind, a cooking school plus their own household, we’re a constant presence at family meals. Their easy acceptance is typical in this town; “to say it’s laid back here is an understatement” they laugh. One Sunday we relax by escaping town for the day, with a tuk tuk laden with food and a few friends in tow, to picnic on the banks of the languid Nam Khan river. It may be his day off but Joy directs food operations and practically everything for the picnic gets made from scratch, in situ. A fire is built amongst rocks using foraged bits of wood. Joy stuffs a large snapper-like fish called pa chawk with lemongrass then marinades it briefly with padaek, garlic, ginger, spring onion, chilli and fresh Sichuan pepper corns. It’s impaled on a length of bamboo then laid over the dampened fire to slowly cook.
The frogs he wraps in banana leaves along with Lao basil, sticky rice, betel leaf, shallot, garlic, lemongrass and chopped toune, the stem of an elephant-ear style of plant. The mixture steams in its’ fragrant juices over the fire. Meanwhile, various friends pound roasted peanuts, lime juice, sugar, chilli and coriander into a sweet, creamy sauce using a mortar and pestle and distribute wing beans, fresh herbs, tomatoes, khao poun (thin rice noodles) and toasted peanuts among plates. We help ourselves and make our own pun pa, a snack of betel leaves rolled around the noodles and a to-taste selection of the assembled ingredients. There are thin black strips of crunchy dried mushrooms and generous skewers of barbequed pork, redolent of their lime-ginger-soy marinade. For dessert there’s fresh fruit and lubrication is the inevitable Beer Lao and lao-lao; and lots of it. We discover, not for the first time, just how readily the local alcohol slides down, particularly when Joys’ mates get out their guitars, and singing voices, and an already unwound mood takes a turn for the distinctly tranquilised. It’s about now we acquire that hang-over.
Tamarind A Taste Of Laos
Kingkitsarath Road, Luang Prabang +856 20 7777 0484