Cook Like a Local
A tuk tuk picked us up from the cafe next door to my apartment. My roommates and I clambered in with our guide who is studying at the Lao National Institute of Tourism and Hospitality. We drove the bumpy 20 minutes to the outskirts of Vientiane next to the Mekong river where our Lao cooking extravaganza would begin. Amy found The Lao Experience online and booked a private cooking class for the three of us. We washed our hands, donned our aprons and sprayed mosquito repellant on our legs as urged by our guide. My suspicion after today’s lesson is that Lao people aren't bitten because their blood has so much garlic and chili peppers in it!
Our guide, Simon and his assistant, May had been soaking sticky rice for several hours. Simon said that the higher quality the rice the less soaking is required. He comes from a province in the north that borders Thailand and Myanmar, has two brothers and one sister and wants to start his own restaurant soon. Sticky rice is the staple of Lao cuisine and a primary crop. We placed the washed rice in a bamboo steamer basket over a metal pot of boiling water over a clay and cement charcoal stove. Corey asked if there were many accidents involving the charcoal stoves. Many Lao homes have outdoor kitchens, but the stacking still seemed precarious and hot pads or mitts were not offered at any stage. Simon casually agreed that there were occasional accidents, mostly with bamboo baskets catching on fire in the provinces where dried wood was used in lieu of charcoal.
While the rice steamed for 30 minutes we prepared tilapia steamed in banana leaves. Simon said most people have banana trees on their property and simply cut them down to use them in cooking. He also said that many people have small fish farms in the Mekong and the tilapia is much cheeper than imported salmon. We use a mortal and postal to “dtam, dtam, dtam,” dill, spring onion, a chili, kaffir leaves, scallions, basil, fish sauce, chili peppers, and salt. “Dtam” is both the sound of the pestle hitting the mortar and the word for cheers as you clank together your glasses. We coated the fish in the rub and wrapped it in banana leaves secured with a toothpick and put each of our bundles in another bamboo basket over another pot of boiling water over another clay and cemetery charcoal stove. Simon says most homes have two such stoves and that while both his father and mother cooked at home, primarily it’s women’s work to cook and take care of the home.
While the fish steamed, we made eggplant dip and tomato dip, which is eaten with the fingers by balling up sticky rice and dipping it in the sauce. Back to the mortal and pestle “dtam, dtam, dtam, like a strong Lao person!” demanded Simon as I mixed 3 small Asian eggplants, 1 chili, 3 cloves of garlic and a small onion that had roasted over the open coals. To the roasted veggies I added fresh cilantro and scallions and fish sauce. Fish sauce is not my favorite condiment. It’s made by fermenting fish and salt in a large vessel for 1-6 months and smells just like one would think 6 month old fermented fish left to its own devices in a large vessel would. I used it sparingly. Corey and Amy made roasted tomato dip, both were good, but the eggplant was fabulous.
Simon kept asking if we were sure we only wanted to use one chili in our dishes. We assured him that one chili was plenty spicy. He told us if we go to a Lao restaurant and ask for a meal that’s a little spicy the chef might use 4-5 chilis! When he’s cooking for his friends or family he uses 10-30 chilis in a recipe. I told him I’d be crying and sweating and my nose would run for days if I ate a dish with 30 chilis. He hacked up a young papaya, still green as we chatted. He shaved off long strips and put them into the mortar with chopped tomatoes, garlic, ONE chili, salt, lime, sugar, and fish sauce. I had the honors of smashing it up with the pastel and we joked about me working in his new restaurant with my new lao cooking skills.
Our final dish was Chicken Laap lettuce wraps. Finely chopped cooked chicken was mixed with lemongrass, fish sauce, 1 chili, sugar, ginger, and salt. There’s cooked and raw laap with fish, chicken and beef as the main meat. They are served everywhere and eaten with sticky rice.
May, the assistant, had removed all the food from the charcoal stoves and set the table for us complete with our banana leaf-wrapped fish and small baskets of sticky rice. We feasted on the four dishes we had made and talked to Simon about Buddhism and Lao culture. Lao people usually eat with their hands and set the table with forks and spoons. Sometimes restaurants will also have chopsticks depending on what type of cuisine is served. The house we cooked and ate at belonged to Simon’s Lao boss and her British husband. Tucked away on the outskirts of Vientiane, it was a great Sunday brunch.