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[Warning: Contains graphic image of a cow fetus in this post]

If you were asking me five years ago to attend a cooking class while on holiday, I probably would have hissed at you and think you are absolutely wasting time and money when you can spend the time go out and do more sightseeing and shopping. But after blogging about food for nearly two years, I started to see things differently and the priorities of a holiday also have diverted from sightseeing to a food trail. And look at me now, who’d have thought I signed myself up for a cooking class and absolutely enjoyed it? That’s exactly what I did on my last day in Luang Prabang, spending half a day learning traditional Laos cuisines before flying out in the evening.

Most of the restaurants in Luang Prabang have their own cooking classes, Tamarind restaurant, Tam Nak Lao restaurant and Tum Tum Cheng restaurant are the more popular ones. I’ve signed up for the cooking class at Tum Tum Cheng restaurant which costs me 150,000 kip (AUD$22). Consider expensive in Laos, but absolutely bargain for me especially the class covers a trip to local market, the cooking class plus I get to eat all the dishes I’ve been prepared for lunch! But first, breakfast time! 🙂

I don’t have to look far and spotted a group of Japanese tourists having noodle soup for breakfast, at a tiny shop right next to Tum Tum Cheng. I join the Japanese tourists who are now slurping loudly for glory, I know I am in for a treat. I don’t really need to say much to the shop lady what i want, as there is only one dish she serves and that is Khao Piak Sin, a traditional noodle soup what locals usually have for breakfast.

I also spotted a little sign hanging on top of the door, written in Japanese and couldn’t understand what it’s saying except guessing this shop must have been mentioned on a Japanese TV show. I asked my friend Yas to translate for me,

“This restaurant is the best restaurant for Khao Piak (Laotian udon noodle) in Luang Phabang.  We’re featured in ‘How to walk on the earth’.  Come on in and enjoy our yummy Khao Piak – Owner (best taste!)”
“We’ve been featured on Japanese TV ‘World Bazaar 21’ too!!”

The Khao Piak arrives in big bowl of fat round rice noodle, fully submerged in an opaque hot broth with shredded chicken on top, a soft boiled egg and the sprinkle of scallions are more than generous, and also a bowl of bean sprouts and lime wedges on the side. But the fun part is on the condiments what you can add to your noodle. A little bit of garlic, fish sauce, vinegar, a squeeze of lime, throw some beansprouts on top, and last but not least – add as much or as little of the hot pounded chilli flakes depending on one’s spicy hot tolerance level.

The noodles are usually made with half rice flour and half tapioca flour, hence when it’s cooking in the soup, it thickens the broth to almost glue like. The noodle itself is also chewier than usual before of the tapioca flour. I usually not a big fan of heavy soup thickened by using cornstarch, but this is actually delicious like eating a bowl of congee with noodle instead of rice, filling and comforting. I sure worked up a sweat by the time I finished the dish.

Tum Tum Cheng is literally derived from the sound of cymbals and drums, it symbolises a celebration of prosperity. I walk across to Tum Tum Cheng after finishing my breakfast, but they just opened the door and still setting up. They hand me the cooking class menu and ask me to decide two dishes that I would like to learn how to cook. Initially I thought I am joining other tourists for the cooking class but only soon find out that I am actually the only one who signed up for the class, which is not surprising being a Monday on a low peak season for holiday.

“Good choice,” I got the seal of approval by one of the waiters when he sees that I picked two traditional Luang Prabang dishes to learn. In the mean time, the limo-taxi they have arranged prior arrives at the restaurant and is time for us to go and check out the local market.

The market is only a short taxi ride, within walking distance from town center (would say about 20mins walk). It is a daily market for the locals and I hardly see any tourists there, maybe because it is still early. The size of the market is quite impressive, separated into section including butchers, fresh vegetables, dried goods, seafood, and also a long stretch of food stalls selling all kinds of noodle dishes.

We are not buying any ingredients for the cooking class as they already have it prepared at the restaurant, so we are just wondering around, checking out all the local fresh produce and some I absolutely have no idea what it is, chili wood (sakhan) for instance.

Rice is usually the staple food for Asia countries, sticky rice in particular is more popular than the jasmine rice here in Laos. In Luang Prabrang you would find the red sticky rice being the most common, a local specialty apparently.

The most interesting part of the market possibly the dried fish section and also the butcheries. Any cuts of meats from head to tail are on display with flies around it is unsound or adulterated. Cubes of crimson pig’s bloods are disturbingly red, bags of red goat’s blood and green goat’s bile is rather Christmassy, but I am sure is totally another story when you actually tasting it.

“Oh god, look at this,” my tour guide points at the most gruesome sight I’ve ever seen at a market.

A shiny slimy hairless underdeveloped cow fetus is asleep peacefully on the table. We both shudder just by looking at it, and I ask my tour guide whether he would he eat it, he says no and it is not a common sight at the market. I think we have seen enough and decide to head back to restaurant for the cooking class. A local walks up to the butcher just as we are about to leave. A negotiation has been made, the butcher picks up the fetus and weighs it on the large scale is the last thing I saw before walking out of the market for good.

I am very lucky to be the only student at the cooking class and get full attention from the chef, Linda Vongsalavanh, daughter of the owner of Tum Tum Cheng. I am welcomed with a snack of puffy rice crackers with tamarind jam while they are doing the last minute preparation. The rice crackers are rather addictive, I’ve been told they are basically made with leftover rice, clumped into patties, sun dried then deep fried. The tamarind jam is actually sweet and not too sour.

First we go through some of the fresh vegetables that we are going to use for cooking today. I just learned about Chilli Wood at the market earlier and curious to have a taste. I cut a small bit of the bark and start chewing, it has a numbing sensation like the sichuan peppercorn but bitter and woody, instead of the floral aroma like the peppercorns.

Then my knife skills are putting to the test. I learned how to peel tomato skin freestyling in one long string without tearing it, then roll the skin into a skin and voila, a beautiful petite rose garnish for the plate.

After some vege chopping exercise, we move on to the makeshift kitchen at the back of the restaurant for some real cooking action. First we cook some sticky rice to go with our dishes, steaming it by using a cone-shaped bamboo steamer basket atop boiling water. The double boiler works exceptionally well and I’ve been trying to find one in Sydney but to no avail. Anyone knows where I can get one, please let me know.

I ask Linda what is her favourite Lao food, the usual answer that I kind of expected is there are too many to mention. “Oh, and fried ant eggs omelette, delicious, but not in season right now,” she says and then shows me an ants nest in the garden, a clump of leaves on the citrus tree had been woven together into a cocoon shape, they don’t called weaver ants for nothing. The fried ant eggs omelette is a delicacy to the locals, I am so looking forward to try it but too bad it is not in season and there aren’t that many ants nests to collect the eggs from.

The two dishes I’ve picked to learn are Aw Lam, a traditional Luang Prabang beef stew, and Ho Mok Pa which is steamed fish wrapped in banana leaves. Have to say I actually didn’t do much at the cooking class, but the sous chef does most of the cooking for me. I did learn how to wrap the ho mok pa with banana leaf before putting inside a steamer.

I think since I am the only one at the cooking class and there are more than enough sticky rice to go with my lunch, they decide to use some of it and teach me how to make sweet sticky rice with mango for dessert as well.

A table for one, I get to eat the dishes we’ve prepared all to myself! The Aw Lam beef stew doesn’t look like much from presentation but it is actually very delicious. The dish is surprisingly saucy from the pounded eggplant which makes a nice thick broth. The beef fillet is a little tough as expected, but some pork cracklings added at the end are still a little crunchy on the inside while soft on the outside, nicely soaking up the eggplant broth. It is a beautiful comfort food.

I am rather proud with myself of the Ho Mok Pa and is so easy to make. The fish fillet is steamed along with a concoction of fresh herbs inside egg yolks and some coconut milk. Again, it doesn’t look pretty but the flavours are insanely complex with the sweetness of the fish, in a spicy mix of chilli, galangal, lemongrass while the yolks and coconut milk is a beautiful touch to give it a layer of richness.

Look! There’s the little tomato skin flower in the background I’ve prepared earlier! HA!

Sticky rice overload, but thank god this time is a sweet dessert. The sweet sticky rice with mango is very easy to make, by just adding caramelised sugar and coconut milk and salt. The just ripe mango is firm and still a little sour on the palate, but it works rather well with the sweet sticky rice. It is a very heavy and rich dessert and I simply couldn’t finish it on my own.

My journey across three countries – Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, tasting all different kinds of local delicacies has finally come to an end. I absolutely fell in love with these countries which is totally unexpected because I was predicting there will be humps along the journey where I will hate it and just want to get out of there but nope, I had a blast and cherished every single moment of it. But most importantly, I’ve learned a lot and become more wiser from the whole experience. Never take things for granted, especially food.

Addresses of restaurants/places I've visited:

Tum Tum Cheng
Ban Khily, Sakkaline Road, Luang Prabang
Tel: 856 (0)71 253 388

Related Post:
Postcard from Vietnam
Postcard from Cambodia
Postcard from Laos

Don’t forget to enter ATFT competitions, entries close Sunday 4/7/2010.