on April 14, 2012
Cooking Class at ‘Roots and Leaves’ Restaurant , Luang PrabangWe had enjoyed a cooking school we did in Hoi An in Vietnam and so when this was offered as an option on our tour we decide we would give Laos cooking a try at this course. ‘Roots and Leaves’ is quite a classy Luang Prabang restaurant not very far from our hotel. It has a beautiful setting with a huge lily pond around which the tables are arranged under sun umbrellas. It looks really lovely with beautiful reflections on the pond, the tables set with white serviettes and sparkling white crockery. In the surrounding garden is a fine range of fruit trees including tamarind, mango, jackfruit and coconut palms as well as orchids and other tropical flowers.We arrived and were introduced to another couple who were joining us in our culinary efforts. We were offered tea, coffee or a cold drink while we waited for the tuk tuk to take us to the market.OFF TO MARKETThe ride in the tuk tuk in the early morning was surprisingly cool and I was quite glad I had my little linen jacket with me. These tuk tuks are sort of mini buses that hold about eight passengers which are actually converted motor bikes with a back like a bus open at the sides with two bench seats.We arrived at the busy market and our guide explained that he preferred to go right into the market as it was less busy there. He also had certain people he liked to buy from as he knew that their produce had come straight from the village to the market.We bought some large chicken breasts, some pork loin and some fish from a couple of stalls before we moved on to the lady where he bought all the vegetables and fresh herbs. We bought some of the dried ‘seaweed’ which is actually a river weed from the Mekong River which is dried and flavoured with chilli and tomato. They then dry these sheets, to cook they are cut into squares and very quickly deep fried. This is a speciality of Luang Prabang called Kháy phen is served with drinks and a pretty hot chilli dip called jaew bong.The market traders were quite happy to have their photo taken but it was quite tricky as it was crowded and people were dodging in and around us. Our guide also bought us some colourful rice Laos deserts which we tried when we got back to the restaurant. I have to say they were not unpleasant but they were pretty unexciting, they tasted of rice, were sticky and chewy and slightly sweet but that is about it.We returned to the restaurant on the tuk tuk with our ingredients. I was actually quite impressed with how fresh and plump looking the chicken breasts were. The pork loin was also really tender and free of fat. I was less keen on the flies that were hanging around but they were not too bad compared to some places I have been.WHAT WE WERE GOING TO MAKEWe were each given a lovely little menu/recipe booklet made of handmade Lao paper which explained what we would be making and gave us the list of ingredients needed.We were going to be preparing about five dishes:Green chilli dip with crispy pork/chicken skinChicken or pork salad (laap) with corianderStuffed lemongrass with pork or chicken ( Ui Si Khai)Steamed chicken in banana pickets ( mok)Clear soup with watercressWok fried morning glory – a sort of local spinach which is really yummyDOWN TO BUSINESSThe chef came out to meet us and the guide who had taken us to the market was also our interpreter as the chef didn’t speak a lot of English. He explained all the ingredients and then we had to choose which dishes we wanted to use the chicken for and which the pork.At this stage we hadn’t washed our hands but were brought a bowl with lemons in it, an apron each and a hand towel. Our first task was to prepare the lemongrass for stuffing. This entailed using a pin to sort of cut through the bottom end of the piece of lemon grass. You kept on running the pin through the lemongrass and turning it until you could push it and get something that looked a bit like a paper lantern. These were put to one side then we chopped the herbs and finally the chicken. I was a little concerned about the hygiene as we chopped the chicken on the same board as the veggies and herbs. We then washed our hands in the bowl with the lemons in it.The lemongrass was stuffed and then rolled in egg and then breadcrumbs and left to be deep fried later.We then chopped more herbs and watched the chef cook the minced pork in the wok with water not oil. Once the pork was cooked all the herbs were added and it was left to cool. This was going to be a salad and the salad garnishes were then sliced by the chef with the same knife on the same board. I have to say I didn’t eat any of the uncooked salad vegetables having seen this.The chicken wrapped in banana leaf was created by mixing the herbs with the chopped chicken and then we wrapped this up a bit like origami and fixed it with a toothpick. Mine didn’t look quite as neat as the example done by the chef but it stayed together while it was steamed in the bamboo steamer.We had initially put the sticky rice on the steamer and at this stage it was ready. We had to wet our hands and roll the sticky rice into a cylinder and put it in the cylindrical baskets ready to be served from. I was a little concerned once again that my hands had only been washed in the lemon water after handling the chicken. I am so fastidiously careful at home with raw chicken.At this stage the chef sort of took over and we watched. He cooked our river weed for us and we tried it while watching him finish off all the dishes. Considering he had a very small table and it was full of all the bits and pieces I was pretty impressed with the way he presented all the food on lovely serving dishes with little garnishes as well.We were able to go across to the toilets at this stage as I was desperate to wash my hands with some soap before eating. The dishes were all taken across to a beautifully laid table on a deck overlooking the large lily pond. The large sun umbrella kept the sun from us. We could have ordered beer or other drinks but we knew we had an afternoon of sightseeing to last through so decided to have a lemon tea which was very refreshing.We enjoyed eating our handiwork and the other couple were good company so it was a very pleasant way to spend the morning and an excellent lunch even if I was rather concerned about the hygiene. We had no nasty effects after this so the lemon must have done the trick of being a natural germ killer.It was really interesting to find out what ingredients went into the dishes and also to discover that they didn’t fry their meat for the salad. I was impressed as it made it far less greasy and we thought we would try this method for some of our cooking at home.I loved going around the market and seeing all the vegetables, fruit, meat, fish and other things on sale. The sights sounds and smells in places like that are just so atmospheric. The people were so friendly and willing to explain what they were selling or doing which sometimes people are really not happy about so that was a very nice experience.I would certainly recommend doing a cooking school in here or somewhere in Laos if you are travelling in the country and have any interest in food. It helps you to make choices at restaurants and gives you a very good idea of the ingredients such as herbs and spices that are used in the dishes.
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