After crossing the Thai border with Laos at Chiang Kong, me and my pal Charlie stopped in Huay Xai and got stuck into some traditional Lao cuisine in the form of Lap Kai. This is a meat salad which is cut with beans, chilli, lemongrass, galangal, coriander, lime and suchlike. After this brief stop we got the slow boat down the river to Luang Prabang, meeting some lovely folk along the way.
Typically, I heard equally conflicting arguments and rumour about the boat ride before going on the two-day cruise. Some reported dire conditions and others enthused about the beauty and camaraderie of the confined conditions. I personally found I great and was very happy looking at the beautiful Mekong views in between playing poker, scrabble, chess and various other card games for hours with new friends.
In Luang Prabang I got stuck into another cookery school, which if anything, was better than the first in Chiang Mai. The chef at Tum Tum Chong cookery school, Chandra Vongsalavanh, is a bit of an all-round legend and has plied his trade in busy hotels and restaurants in the West including Germany, Hungary and New York. As well as learning five traditional dishes, we did five or more of his own recipes – a lot to fit into just 4-5 hours, since we also did the obligatory market tour and education price about the ingredients. In the cookery school at Chiang Mai, we all cooked our own dishes, but here we got involved less occasionally, which actually turned out better, as it was easier to pick up the recipes and techniques.
Aubergine salad parcels recipe:
Although I was keen to learn the traditional dishes, my favourite dish of the day was one of his; an aubergine salad which we ate in parcels. I (conveniently enough) was the volunteer who helped cook this one. After warming some chopped garlic and ginger in hot vegetable oil, I added some aubergine pulp gained from steaming some large aubergines. This was stir friend until the spices were incorporated. This was left to cool and we then made parcels in some simple green leaves and blanched cabbage leaves.
In these leaves we put a small spoon of the aubergine and a small slice or two of crispy (small) aubergine, along with a pinch each of chopped lemongrass, galangal, garlic, chilli, ginger and shallots. This tasted absolutely amazing and would be great as a sharing salad for a summer dinner starter with friends.
Interesting sticky rice facts:
- It was also interesting to learn that sticky rice is not only culturally preferred in Laos, but it has broader significance in terms of having a role in wedding traditions. It’s eaten with every meal and also used in wedding ceremonies to underscore the values of equality and everyday diligence.
- Quite often in Laos you’ll be served cold rice with your meal because it’s usually prepared once – in the morning and then used throughout the day. If any is leftover, it is used to make rice crackers.
- [For the uninitiated] With sticky rice, you use your hands to eat it but rolling it into a ball, flattening it and using it to scoop food.
- The powder of cooked and dried sticky rice is used as a thickening agent in many dishes
- Sticky rice is more agriculturally intensive, as it is grown for four months instead of one-to-two with normal rice.
- When you cook sticky rice, it starts very white-coloured and becomes translucent when cooked; the opposite is true of long grain rice.