This whole time in Laos we’ve been in the most real of reality TV shows eating everything on offer, today though we’re metaphorically the ones in front of the camera and cooking up a storm. It’s cooking school time. First up is our trip to the market to be introduced to Lao food and ingredients, most of which we already know and use, our host is surprised to find out. The market boasts anything and everything laid out simply on mats or roughly erected benches of some sort or another. Given that we’re cooking this food today I’m not sure if I’m disappointed or relieved that not much of the food is still wriggling as it was in the morning market, apart from the congealed blood we could be in a rougher version of an Asian market at home.
We’ve chosen our dishes and now it’s time to heat the woks; lights up, cameras rolling we’re cooking Lao style. In Luke Nguyens TV show he cooks local delicacies of this region often with the simplest of implements in the most stunning of settings: a tiny canoe, a marketplace or on the beach and it all comes out amazing. We’re not quite balancing in a tiny canoe but we are standing at a basic bench out on a deck by the river, the genius of Lao food is how simply it’s made versus the results gained. No exotic expensive ingredients, no imported goods, no fantastic machines; that stuff is all for those that don’t quite have the genius of a Lao chef. We have a knife, a mortar and pestle, woks, a basket and a pot to create our magic.
As we chop, slice and prepare all our vegetables, spics and herbs Linda, our chef, is also a little surprised that we’re familiar with some of the cooking methods and gives us the option of foreigner or Lao intensity food. I think we’ve found the most redundant question of the trip. The sticky rice is in the basket steaming and we’re off, sticky rice is a defining element to Lao food, used commonly instead of regular steamed rice it’s is always eaten with fingers, this is non negotiable. A mix of Galangal, ginger, garlic, lemongrass, kaffir lime and chilli is in a hot wok for a minute and then into water with some soybean paste, fish sauce and tamarind. In about three minutes we have most of the hot sour fish soup done, it seems too simple to be true.
We’ve stuffed some lemongrass with pork mince and Charlie whips up the chicken for the lap. Along with beans, lemongrass and herbs the secret ingredient comes out: toasted sticky rice, kaffir lime and lemongrass is toasted and pounded to a powder and it’s the flavour we’ve tasted so far but haven’t been able to identify. Light bulbs are going on all over the place. At our stations Linda obviously feels confident, she declares she’s not cooking today, with our matching green aprons we laugh at ourselves, could we look any more homosexual? No need to answer that. Linda asks us to taste and we insist on more chilli here, more sour tamarind there and more fish sauce in everything, apparently this is how she eats her food but doesn’t make it this strong for the restaurant, compliment taken.
Weirdly it only takes a little over twenty minutes and we have five dishes all done and we’re heading over to take our seat on the deck for our very own lunch. So simple, so fresh, so clever; the food that is, we’re pretty happy with ourselves too. This is the best meal we’ve had in a long time; with a few woks, a pot and a steamer basket Linda shows us true Lao genius. It’s all the flavours we’ve fallen in love with but without the subdued foreigner alteration, again we think of Vietnamese or Thai food a lot but Lao food, albeit similar, has little presence at home. Criminal.
After a food-coma nap induced by our inability to stop eating all that sensational food it’s up mount Phu Si, apparently you haven’t been to Luang Prabang if you haven’t climbed Phu Si. Plonked in the middle of town the mountain is more like a sharp hill separating the main street from our riverside end of town, a series of winding stairs weaves its way up the steep slope clambered with jungle to the stupa at the top. Grand serpents form the handrails as we climb and descend stairs winding our way around the mountain in a real life game of snakes and ladders. There’s a huge buddha footprint, a cave shrine and more buddha statues than you can imagine and all the while the grand vista of Luang Prabang town reveals itself layer upon layer.
Grand elegant roofs arch their backs jutting over the canopy of trees as this grand old town lives within the jungle rather than dominating it. A world of bursting green life mixes with the violent red of flame trees in full bloom to form our pocket windows through the jungle to grand views beyond, it’s a spiritual place for believers and even these non-believers are uplifted by a majesty as unavoidable as it is uncomplicated. Cresting the hill we’ve rolled the wrong number finally and the climb stops, we’re catching a snake all the way to the bottom again, but not before a pause to take in the view. The Mekong winds its way through the jungle, a clay coloured serpent scarring the landscape alive with motion unlike the carved serpents around us. Again through the allowed windows of the jungle we gaze upon grandeur, there’s something up here for believers and non believers alike in equal measure I think; but I guess we’re all believers in something Phu Si has to offer.
From choosing one thing to adore and praise to another, like junkies needing another fix we’re back to the, it still shames me to say it, Aussie sports bar to watch our beloved Waratahs. In what is our closest thing to a place of worship the Waratahs take the field to win the game played in heaven and for a moment we get our own little rush. The bar serves only western food so we take our elation to a nearby bar, a burger and wedges is just not an option today. We ask for a drink recommendation and our young waiter suggests that we have two ‘Pink Gays’. Ahem, well we did ask. Give us two pink gays thanks waiter. Maybe he saw us at cooking school today.
Over sticky rice we now eat with our fingers and more tasty Lao food we reflect on another day of experiences. Again we’re startled, we’re in the definition of a tourist trap bar and tasty healthy food seems just the norm, I think we’re going to get really fat in Asia. In a day of worship we’ve cooked to the food gods, climbed to look at other deities, viewed divine nature, cheered on the rugby gods and even tipped a glass to the beer gods. Good god there’s a lot to worship in this town.