I’m with Joy Ngeuamboupha, co-owner of Tamarind: A Taste of Laos cafe and cooking school in the northern Laos town of Luang Prabang. It’s early and we are both dealing with throbbing heads and confused spatial comprehension, the ill effects of excessive consumption of lao-lao (a village-made distillate of sticky rice wine) the day before. However, hangovers aside, there is cooking to be done, so we’re at the town’s teeming food market. Joy buys handfuls of cone-shaped khao tom ping, a dense, hot mush of purple sticky rice and taro cooked in banana leaves. They’re hot off the coals and he promises they’ll help counteract the worst after-effects of the inebriating local rocket fuel.
The snacks, vaguely sweet and extremely filling, aid our recovery, but it’s really the energy and activity of the markets themselves that prove the best distraction from my sorry state. I note wasp larvae, varieties of wild mushroom, tropical fruits, piles of sakhan (also known as pepper wood, used in the local spicy stew, lam), and mounds of greens foraged from the jungle that surrounds the town. Joy – who was raised in a nearby village that relied on subsistence agriculture for survival (as much of the country still does) – can tell me what each and every ingredient is, and how it should be used. He’s excited to see, among the various types of live toads and frogs for sale, gop horn, a sinister-looking black frog with red eyes. 'You don’t get these so often," he tells me. 'They’re great for mok gop sai pak ileut where you steam them with betel leaves inside banana leaves."
There are fat fish pulled fresh from the Mekong; catfish (pa kae) are common, but Joy says the best river offering is pa tong, famous in the delicate, mousseline-like royal dish mok pa fork. There are sacks bursting with various grades of sticky rice, the local staple. Women sell sheets of khai phaen, a unique regional speciality made from river weed that’s been processed and dried either plain or with tomatoes, sesame and garlic. It’s a little similar to nori and just as delicious. Everywhere are little containers of pre-made jeow, an earthy chilli dipping sauce that includes garlic, lemongrass and galangal, and that no self-respecting Lao meal is considered complete without. Boiled buffalo or pork skin is generally pounded into the mix for texture; it’s sensational stuff to which I’ve become deeply addicted. I’ve been to this market at other times of the year when there are ant eggs, stink bugs and butterfly pupae, and sometimes the occasional small, furry forest animal, awaiting its fate in a bamboo cage. Food throughout Laos is invariably seasoned with the potent, fermented fish paste called padaek, and grilled meats and fish are a street-food staple, so the air swirls with charcoal smoke, odoriferous whiffs of padaek and the sweet smell of barbecued pork intestines and simmering buffalo skin.
I’m in town to visit Caroline Gaylard, a Melburnian who has called the place home for the past 12 years; Joy is her partner. I note with a certain amount of dismay the changes that have taken place in Luang Prabang since I was last here four years ago – more high-end hotels, more restaurants, more tourist shops, and less locals now occupy the town’s jumble of historic old homes. In the time she’s lived here, Caroline has witnessed this former royal capital transform from a dusty, hidden-away gem discovered only by the determined, to a firm fixture on the South-East Asian tourist route with all the expected conveniences. Visitors flock to take in dozens of sparkling temples and streets lined with picture-perfect UNESCO-protected buildings. Early each morning, the ancient ritual of tak bat (the silent Buddhist ceremony of giving alms) plays out, as lines of saffron-robed monks snake through the town to receive food from residents. This colourful ritual is now one of the town’s biggest tourist drawcards. The place is small and visitors stay an average of three to four days before whizzing to their next stop; it’s sufficient time to form an impression of Luang Prabang, but hardly enough to really get under its skin.
The first time I visited, I stayed for two weeks, a span considered overkill by most, but in that time, I plugged into the daily rhythms of the town, explored the markets, met the locals and became hooked on the rustic cuisine charged with gutsy, hot, bitter and herbal flavours. Until recent years, it was assumed tourists wouldn’t really take to the robust tastes of Luang Prabang and were even discouraged by well-meaning locals from trying it. 'You’ll get sick," was the usual caution, followed closely by, 'you won’t like it".
When Caroline first came here, she recalls that no-one was doing anything to make local food accessible, and when her neighbours heard that she and Joy were opening a restaurant, they assumed they were going to serve pizza. Caroline does concede that some of the native fare is too 'out there" for many Western palates, but at Tamarind, those with a sense of culinary adventure can dip into unfamiliar territory if they are game. 'There is buffalo bile and other 'challenging’ ingredients," she explains. 'We serve laap (a meat salad, also known as larb) but with the option of bile and intestines and spicy basil frog complete with bones you’re supposed to crunch on. We offer an introduction to Lao cuisine, but also give opportunities for deeper exploration if our guests are up for it."
Joy is Tamarind’s head chef, and a gifted one. The kitchen in Laos is generally a woman’s domain, but losing his mother at birth forced Joy to learn how to cope in the kitchen. His siblings are also wonderful cooks; some of them work alongside him in the Tamarind kitchen. His sisters are also called upon to act as sounding boards when he’s researching local recipes or striving to unlock the correct balance and flavour combinations.
This trip to the market is to buy food for a temple offering he’s planning to perform in memory of his mother. This is a common ritual throughout Laos, a religious country where Buddhism is tempered with more than a touch of animism. We take the ingredients back to the restaurant kitchen, which typifies any local domestic cooking set-up. Simple charcoal burners line one wall and there is no oven in sight. Nothing takes terribly long to prepare, even though all the pastes and laborious chopping is done by hand. Joy swiftly transforms his raw materials into his mother’s favourite dishes; pork and sour bamboo soup and mok pa, a fragrant, chunky fish 'mousse’ steamed in banana leaves. None of the cooking techniques are complex: grilling, steaming, boiling and a little frying are considered most common. An aluminium steamer, with its characteristic, conical lid lined with woven bamboo matting, is full of sticky rice. The sight of it steaming over wood fires is an iconic one in Laos. Joy tells me that no Lao feels 'full’ without sticky rice, nor can they taste anything without alternate mouthfuls of some chilli on the side, hence the cuisine’s (somewhat inaccurate) reputation for being off-the-dial spicy.
Joy portions food into bowls and piles the rice into bamboo containers. The feast goes onto a large tray and we walk to Wat Pa Phai temple, where Caroline and their children, Willow and Raffi, are waiting. This temple, a fairly humble one by Luang Prabang standards, is where Joy spent seven years as a novice monk and, along with other boys from rural areas, gained his high school education. The offering is over fast. There’s an exchange in front of a seated monk who prays and sends a message to the departed one. 'Mr Joy has an offering of food for you and if you are anywhere you can hear, then come to get the food from your family. Then you can go on to a beautiful place and have peace," he says softly in Pali, the language of the Buddhist scriptures. The food offering is taken behind the scenes for the monks to share for lunch.
Despite Caroline and Joy being occupied with the restaurant, the cooking school, as well as their own household, I’m a constant presence at family meals. Their acceptance is typical in this town. 'To say it’s laid-back here is an understatement," they laugh. One Sunday, we escape town, with a tuk-tuk laden with food and a few friends in tow, to picnic on the banks of the languid Nam Khan river. It may be Joy’s day off, but he directs food operations and practically everything for the picnic is made from scratch, in situ.
A fire is built among rocks using foraged wood. Joy stuffs a large snapper-like fish called pa chawk with lemongrass and marinates it with the padaek (fermented fish paste), garlic, ginger, spring onion, chilli and Sichuan peppercorns. After impaling it on bamboo, he lays it over the dampened fire to slowly cook. He then wraps some frogs in banana leaves with local basil, sticky rice, betel leaves, eschalots, garlic, lemongrass and toune, the stem of an elephant-ear style of plant. The mixture steams in its fragrant juices over the fire. Meanwhile, various friends pound roasted peanuts, lime juice, sugar, chilli and coriander into a sweet, creamy sauce using a mortar and pestle, and distribute wing beans, fresh herbs, tomatoes, khao poun (thin rice noodles) and toasted peanuts among plates. We help ourselves and make our own pun pa, a snack of betel leaves rolled around the noodles and a selection of the assembled ingredients. There are thin black strips of crunchy dried mushrooms and skewers of barbecued pork, redolent of their lime-ginger-soy marinade. For dessert, there’s fresh fruit, and to drink, the inevitable Beer Lao and lao-lao – and lots of it. I discover, not for the first time, just how readily the local alcohol slides down, particularly when Joy’s mates get out their guitars and start singing, and an already unwound mood takes a turn for the distinctly tranquilised. It’s about now I acquire that hangover.
Later in my stay, I’m invited to a traditional baci (blessing ceremony) for baby Willow. It’s a ritual that’s conducted on many other occasions, such as weddings and deaths, when someone is sick, starting a new venture or even moving house. Laden with symbolism, it’s designed to flush out malignant spirits and supply ongoing protection. In Willow’s case, the Lao arm of the family have decreed only a baci can cure the baby of her restless sleep and it’s being performed at the home of Morn, one of her aunties.
I have been at the market early with Joy to choose ingredients for the subsequent feast. We also purchase banana leaves and marigolds (their colour symbolic of a monk’s robes) – all essential items for the spectacular ceremonial centrepiece which is known as kun dok mai. Constructing one of these multi-layered marigold extravaganzas is an artform, and a local specialist, Ba (Aunty) Keum, has been summoned for the task. She sits on the floor and Caroline and I watch, captivated, as she fashions reams of banana leaves and piles of flowers into the tall, elegant pyramid. It takes her hours and, when finished, it is topped with incense and candles, said to 'indicate the path and guide the way".
I stop by the kitchen to watch the food preparations and am just in time to catch the tail end. Women from Joy’s extended family are washing greens, portioning sticky rice and pounding grilled eggplant, garlic, chilli and salt for laap mak keua (eggplant dip). A whole chicken, which will end up at the base of the centrepiece, simmers in a corner. Joy says it’s an essential element as the chicken is a creature that 'wakes everyone up, including spirits, early each morning. It’s energetic and always finding food, and it’s hoped the person being blessed will become like that, too." Sweets, fruits and boiled eggs (foods associated with luck and good future) are heaped around the centrepiece with the whole chicken. There’s soop gai, a tangy, sour chicken soup flavoured with ginger, galangal, eschalots, lemongrass, lime and tomatoes, and bowls of or lam (spicy stew). An entourage of elderly folk arrive – one is Lung (Uncle) Chaan who will lead the proceedings. In order to perform a baci, you 'need to be old and to have been a monk for a decent amount of time", I’m told. Everyone takes a place on the floor around the centrepiece.
In Laos, once anyone is seated, it’s impolite to rise higher than their heads, particularly anyone older, so I try to keep low. Lung Chaan leads an incantation that Caroline explains is an ad-libbed mixture of wishes for 'bad spirits and anything else keeping the baby awake at night to be banished". Everyone then reaches to touch the edge of the completed centrepiece, and those who can’t reach it, touch those directly in front of them so that everyone is 'connected’.
Connection is a strong theme and is also the reason behind attaching string to one another and to Willow’s wrists. As they tie, participants say a good wish to the recipient and, by the end of the ceremony, we’re all heavily adorned with string bracelets. You’re meant to leave them on for at least three days and not cut any off, as that’s considered terrible luck. Lung Chaan lowers a small banana-leaf dipper called a wan into a glass of lao-lao, then flicks the alcohol over Willow to offer her strength and protection.
Everyone then disperses to take their place on large floor mats over which the meal is spread. The men serve Beer Lao in the customary manner – at room temperature, over ice and shared from a communal glass. Caroline offers me a lesson in dining Lao-style, as she watches me make a complete hash of eating with my hands. In Laos, most dishes are shared and one uses little kneaded balls of sticky rice, and the aid of a thumb, to transfer food from bowl to mouth. The process should be neat, quick and elegant; it’s considered bad form to drop rice as you go and I’m leaving quite a trail, not to mention dripping food down my hands, another no-no. But the Lao are gracious hosts and Joy’s family are particularly forgiving of a clumsy foreigner. Caroline says, wryly, that’s because she’s paved the way over the years.
As I sit and help lay waste to the spread that Joy and his family have cooked, I reflect on my great fortune at being here to experience Luang Prabang well and truly off the tourist trail. This isn’t what most will experience in the town even though the simple sharing of food and traditions, and an immense sense of communal participation, is really what the place, at its heart, is all about.
THE HIT LIST
Tamarind: A Taste of Laos is open for lunch and dinner, Monday to Saturday. Classes (approximately AU$32) include a market tour and cooking and eating six dishes. Ban Wat Sene, Kingkitsarath Rd, tamarindlaos.com.
Wander the morning market, just west of the Royal Palace, for the best traditional Lao street fare.
Sit out the back of Coconut Garden and enjoy a menu featuring authentic Lao dishes made using herbs from the restaurant’s own organic gardens. Sisavangvong Rd, +856 71 260 436, elephant-restau.com/coconutgarden.
The Pak Ou Caves are famous for containing thousands of small Buddha statues, but it’s the trip up the Mekong that makes them so unforgettable. Hire a boat below Chunkham Rd, along the Mekong.
The shop at the beautifully curated Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre stocks a small assortment of gorgeous handmade crafts. Ban Khamyong, +856 71 253 364, taecloas.org.
Ock Pop Toc is the best place to purchase the celebrated local textiles. 73/5 Ban Vat Nong, +856 71 253 219, ockpoptoc.com.
3 Nagas is one of the original boutique hotel conversions and still one of the nicest. Head to the dining room for the full-throttle earthy, gutsy flavours of authentic Lao fare in swish surrounds. Sakkaline Rd, +856 71 253 888, 3-nagas.com.
Lotus Villa features 15 rooms arranged around a lovely garden courtyard. A helpful Aussie owner and an excellent location within the UNESCO old town complete the package. Ban Phone Heung, Unit 3, Kounxoa Rd, +856 71 255 050, lotusvillalaos.com.
Two beautiful heritage buildings facing the Nam Khan river are home to The Apsara, one of the loveliest small hotels in the town and right next door to Tamarind. Ban Wat Sene, Kingkitsarath Rd, +856 71 254 670, theapsara.com.
Photography by Leanne Kitchen