I confess. Earlier this week I was ready to pull the plug, throw in the whole travel-eat-blog towel, and crawl under a rock. Maybe somewhere softer.
We'd been in Laos for... I lost track of how long, I realised when a fellow tuk-tuk passenger asked me. Two nights and too many hours were spent trekking, treehousing, gibbon-spotting and zip-lining around the jungle canopy, a terrifying 150m above ground. Babs loved it, of course. Unfortunately the only enthusiasm I experienced was my now-purple shoulder enthusiastically slamming into a tree during a clumsy zipline landing, and a plethora of nasty bugs enthusiastically chowing down on my arms, neck and ankles.
And then there was the food poisoning from Luang Namtha. Was it the buffalo satay? Or the skewer of chicken butts? Or the noodles with meat ragu? Or the BBQ duck? Say it ain't so, night market BBQ duck!
Whatever it was, it made for 14 hours of stomach churning, a mild fever, a splitting headache and the shakes as our bus wound around endless half-baked Lao mountain roads, with even more endless Thai / Lao karaoke videos which all seem to be about 1) a girl who gets her heart broken by a cheating bastard pretty boy; 2) a boy who gets his heart broken by dating a rich girl with a disapproving father; and 3) how life in the country is idyllic and how life in the city sucks. Just in case you didn't pick up the pattern within the first 5 songs, there's another 80 to help you out.
I'd lost interest in writing. Posts, emails, tweets, whatall. I'd lost interest in taking photos. I just gave a weary shrug when I realised I had lost my little Canon Ixus somewhere in Luang Namtha (the grief is sinking in only now). I'd even lost interest in eating -- always the point where Babs starts to really worry.
The bung-me-up pills finally worked for long enough, for Babs and I to walk through Luang Prabang to sign up for Tamarind's cooking class, run by Lao-husband and Australian-wife team Joy Ngeuamboupha (right) and Caroline Gaylard.
Being back in the arena of delicious sights, smells and tastes (on terra firma I might add) was just the thing to yank me back from my personal netherworld of jungle-trekking-bus-meandering-gut-treachery.
The morning started with the very bubbly Caroline taking us around Luang Prabang's Phosy Market, the city's largest market, introducing us to local herbs and snacks.
I was especially intrigued by how the spartan waste-not-want-not Lao lifestyle -- influenced by a mountainous landscape and a war-torn history -- showed prominently in their food.
Turns out, for example, that chunks of chili wood (the short stumps 2nd from left below) are added to stews, and have the taste and numbing effect of Sichuan peppers.
I forget the Lao word for buffalo, but it translates to "paradise meat". And the Lao eat it nose to tail and then some. Below are dried buffalo skin, which can be added to stews or deep fried to make buffalo scratchings, tofu bricks made from blood, and (this takes the cake) the half-digested contents from intestines, which are bagged, sold, and cooked along with buffalo meat to tenderise it.
Below is padaek, the Lao rendition of fish sauce. Mekong fish (I saw some tilapia), spices and water are left in the sun to ferment... until the rapture it seems. The stuff is bloody pungent, but offers more way depth and earthiness than the much thinner and more sugary Thai or Vietnamese factory-bottled fish sauce. I wonder how the sniffer dogs will react at customs...
Breakfast snacks at the market include a young jackfruit salad. Lovely and light.
And we're off to class! The Tamarind classroom is 10 minutes out of town, a tranquil spot on the river flanked by its own fishponds and the beginnings of a few veggie beds. The workstations give plenty of elbow space for a group of 12, and the "stoves" are a line of charcoal-fire pots, all fired up to perfection.
The unflappable Joy -- with twinkles of deadpan humour -- first introduces us to the key building blocks of Lao cooking, then gently guides us through our assignment of making a whopping 6 dishes for lunch: Steamed sticky rice; Jeow, the ubiquitous salsa-esque dipping sauce made from whatever you dream up; Mok Pa, fish steamed in banana leaf; Ua Si Khai, lemongrass stuffed with chicken; Orlarm, a Luang Prabang specialty stew; and a dessert made from purple sticky rice cooked in sweetened coconut milk, topped with fruits, tamarind sauce and sesame seeds.
Overall it was definitely an exciting new palette of tastes for me. Very green, and on the woody, bitter medicinal end of herby. Anthropologically stimulating to taste, but not about to become a source of comfort food anytime soon. Three of the dishes, however, I look forward to introducing to friends and family over a dinner party at some point. Though that might have to wait, because the Joy of Luang Prabang's Tamarind has, for now, revived in me the joy of travel. And for that I am thankful.
Take your desired concoction (in this case I went for tomatoes, 2 chilis, garlic, shallots and a spicy green pepper) and skewer and chuck on a charcoal fire to singe for a lovely smoky edge. Remove skins, bash about with mortar and pestle, and then use as dipping sauce for sticky rice. Also great with BBQ meats.
Herbs -- shallots, garlic, chili, kaffir lime leaf, dill, basil and spring onion -- are chopped and pounded, then used as a marinade for chunked up whitefish. As yummy as it is, I think it's all about the pretty banana leaf package, secured with bamboo twine.
Ua Si Khai
Again, a combination of fresh herbs is used as a marinade -- this time, minced chicken. The real fun here is using a scalpel to creat these lemongrass "cages" to hold the meat. Dunk in beaten egg mixture, then deep fry.
Tamarind: Restaurant and Cooking School
Opposite Wat Nong
Luang Prabang, Laos
+856 20 777 0484
As of March 2010, the class takes 12 people per session, runs from 9am - 3pm, and costs US$28 per person.