Fancy learning to cook buffalo guts?
I’d finally psyched myself up to asking hubbie if he fancied doing a class at Tamarind Cooking School with me in Laos the following week, knowing in reality the last thing he’d want to do on holiday would be slave over a hot stove to produce his own food. Surely that’s what restaurants were for?! It just wasn’t really his scene and he’s always looked at me with haughty distain whenever I’ve dared suggest such a thing in the past.
Sure, sounds like fun, why not!
Rather surprised by his answer, and hoping he wouldn’t realise why I’d been plying him with beer for the last hour, I hurriedly booked us both onto a day class at Tamarind, just outside Luang Prabang, before he could change his mind.
A week later he was regretting his earlier enthusiasm as we were picked up by tuk tuk from the Tamarind restaurant in town. It turned out he was the only bloke and was about to spend the day getting sweaty working in a kitchen surrounded by a gaggle of excited girls. Wasn’t this supposed to be a relaxing holiday?
In fact there were only 7 of us, which meant we received as much help and attention as we needed from our wise and wonderful Tamarind Cooking School chef for the day, Joy, and it was great for getting to know the other aspiring cooks who we were working alongside. We’re generally quite antisocial travellers (don’t hate me!), but for once it was fun swapping tales with like-minded people. There was Claire who was moving house the long-winded (and awesome!) way from Australia to the UK and stopping everywhere in between; there was Janine from Germany who’d been working on a sheep farm in the Australian outback; Maya was from California and had come to visit her mum who was working at Ok Pop Tok Living Crafts Centre; and Carolina who had wisely fled Rio to escape the World Cup.
Before arriving at Tamarind Cooking School, our first stop was Phousy Market on the outskirts of Luang Prabang. It was such a different experience visiting with Joy and we got far more out of it than we would’ve done alone. He stopped at several of the stalls, demonstrating the wares, explaining the produce, and even letting us try some of it. We could take photos at our leisure without feeling intrusive because we were with a guide, and the locals hardly gave us a second glance.
The tables were laden with herbs, spices, rice, unidentified vegetables, buckets of live eels, unrecognisable dried fish, bamboo chips (really yummy), ‘cat poo’ (sweet nobbly nugget snacks made from rice flour, even more yummy) as well as wares for all your home and cooking needs. The meat section was possibly the most interesting with counters groaning beneath piles of fresh cuts, chicken feet, intestines, ears, eyes, bags of bile and blood, and even a baby laying happily amongst all the gore. We could only assume she wasn’t on the menu.
After another 10 minutes on the tuk tuk we arrived at the Tamarind Cooking School pavillion, in a serene countryside spot outside the town with it’s own lily pond and river. Some local ladies were attempting to catch fish with bamboo baskets and trickery, but they didn’t seem to be having much success. After a refreshing welcome lemony drink we got stuck in with creating our feast. All the dishes were traditional Lao, and a world away from the usual Thai fried rice and noodles that seem to pass themselves off as ‘local’ in all the restaurants in town.
We each had our own work station, complete with all the tools of the trade, and after Joy expertly demonstrated each cooking stage with bags of enthusiasm and ladels of humour, we grabbed our fresh ingredients from the front and got down to business.
First up was jeow, the fundamental Lao spicy dipping sauce that accompanies most meals. I chose to make mine tomato based whilst hubbie decided to be different and opted for aubergine. Have to be honest I wasn’t smitten at first taste, but it certainly gives flavour to otherwise bland food like sticky rice. The great thing about Lao cooking is that you can make your dishes as fiery as you desire, so whilst Joy was cooking up a 7 chilli storm for his unsuspecting colleagues, the wimps among us (me included!) picked the smallest, greenest, singular specimens for our plates.
Perhaps the most creative dish was Mok Pa, fish steamed in banana leaves. Folding the surprisingly tough leaves correctly and tying it all up with bamboo was quite an art in itself. To distinguish our little bundles we decorated them with chillis, and I was quite chuffed with mine.
The Oua Si Khai – lemongrass stuffed with chicken and herbs – required a steady hand and a degree of skill, and luckily we had both! We’d eaten this dish the night before at Tamarind restaurant, and wondered how on earth we’d even come close to replicating the intricate dish. Yet armed with a sharp knife and warnings from Joy not to cut too far down the stem, we somehow all managed to produce something quite remarkable for our first attempt!
I’ve had misadventures with fish sauce in the past, like the time I slaved for hours cooking hubbie a Thai birthday extravaganza only for the entire day’s work to end up in the bin enroute to the chinese takeaway. Apparently I’d been a bit liberal with the potent liquid! So it was with some relief that Joy offered us a more local alternative to the sauce bottles lined up on our cooking stations. Buffalo bile to be precise. Possibly not top of my must-try foreign foods list, but when in Rome… And since we were adventurous in trying the bile, why not add some buffalo tripe as well? The resulting Laap/Koy dish (minced buffalo and herb salad) was actually rather delicious, guts and all! It’s a traditional Lao meal only cooked for special occassions, so it was quite a privilidge to be able to have a go ourselves.
My personal favourite was the simplest, and the sweetest. Pkhao Gam is purple sticky rice, soaked in coconut milk, sprinkled with sugar and dressed with fresh exotic fruits. So glorious that I persuaded hubbie we needed to buy a whole bag of purple rice from their restaurant shop in town so we could make it back at home.
Throughout the day at Tamarind Cooking School we chopped, smashed, bashed, pounded, diced, mixed, fried, steamed and soaked until somehow, we managed to produce this…
Not too shabby, if I do say so myself!!!!
We came away with full bellies and our own recipe books so we could attempt to recreate our works of art back home. Arriving back at the restaurant in town at 3pm we proceeded to purchase several tons of purple rice, aprons and some Mekong river weed (I know, it sounds grim, but its really tasty!) before heading off for a well-earned siesta.
So what was hubbie’s verdict?
The sceptic has admitted he thoroughly enjoyed the day at Tamarind Cooking School, and has been raving about it to anyone who will listen.
He wonders why we haven’t done a cooking class before! Give me strength!!
Useful stuff about the cooking class
The day class is from 9am – 3pm Monday to Saturday and costs KIP 280,000.
There is an evening class during the week (4.30pm – 8.30pm) but you miss out on the market and cook one less dish.
It is hot, especially cooking over the stoves, but the pavillion is open air and has fans, so it’s actually a lot cooler than in town. You will be busy on your feet all day, so wear comfy footwear.
There are toilets and drinks available (take some cash with you if you want anything other than water with your meal).
There are other cooking classes in Luang Prabang, but Tamarind Cooking School stands head and shoulders above the rest, and has the best premises. Plus if you eat at their restaurant (which I highly recommend you do) you’ll just be dying to know how they do it!