Don’t worry, I’m still working on the Southeast Asia posts, they’re all coming!
We first were introduced to the delicacies of Tamarind Restaurant in Luang Prabang when we signed up for their cooking class. We were picked up at the restaurant and taken to the market just outside of town for a little tour and to pick up some supplies. We were offered the occasional sample while at the market, and it was at this point that I tasted a piece of uncleaned pig intestine. Myself, my mom and one other man were the only of the class of about 12 people who tried it. Honestly though, as gross as it sounds, it tasted a lot like sausage. Don’t worry though I’m not rushing out to buy any too soon. That said, it was just an introduction to the things I would eat from Tamarind.
The class began with a lesson on how to make that Lao staple, sticky rice. The class was well taught and enjoyable. They did a good job of keeping things moving and helping everyone out. The class was taught on a house overlooking the river and all of the cooking was done right over the hot coals, like shown in the brazier above, so that was pretty neat. I definitely wished I had one of these in my backyard when we were done. Unfortunately I developed a bit of a fever and didn’t have the energy to cook, eat and take pictures, so this is about where those stop. That said, I really enjoyed the various spicy Lao dips they taught us and have made those many times since returning to the U.S.. We also made an incredibly Lao BBQ which I will probably make when my backyard is not covered in snow as it is right now!
At the end of the meal, Carolyn, the Australian owner, began talking about the Adventure Gourmet Meal that they offer for about $10 a person. Brett and I seized the opportunity to try a plethora of crazy Lao foods, and the next morning we showed up ready to eat and eat well.
But first I must interrupt with a quick story about that evening. As I said, I hadn’t been feeling perfectly, so we spent some time in the room. Luckily a nap and some Aleve went a long way and I finally agreed to accompany B to a nearby bar for a drink. We could here loud music wafting down the street and followed it, always in search of excitement. What we found was some sort of Lao celebration, complete with what was either a performance or karaoke, lots of beer and a fair amount of dancing by people of all ages. It looked like fun, so we grabbed beers and sat down at the adjacent bar. Within minutes people we coming over to us and either motioning or inviting us in cracked English to join the party. We watched the dancing and festivities for quite a while, as the bar staff got progressively more wasted and the people more friendly. We were given free bar snacks and asked to dance by a man that must have been well into his 90s, who actually invited us in French. While most of my french consists of food-related words (fromage was my only word for many years), I did understand that this man wanted us to join him in dancing. It was very fun to watch them celebrate as oppose to seeing them in their everyday lives as tourists generally do. It was a neat experience.
Back to food. This was the most enjoyable view from our table at the Tamarind restaurant, which was nice since the entire meal took us just about three hours from seating to leaving. And here is our first course. Starting from the green sludge, that is the Mekong river seaweed dip. The texture was intriguing and downright mucous-like. I love that texture in food, but I know it is strange. This was all served with sticky rice, so we just sort of dipped away. The yellow things in it are the flowers of this thorn-something flower, the buds of which you can see to the right of the bowl and which were tasty as well. Below the sludge are two dry powders, one made of pumpkin seed and I don’t remember the other. In the bottom right was one of our favorite dips, a spicy one made from what is called a Lao olive. I have no idea if it has another name and Google seems to have failed me on this one. Next to it is a ginger leaf dip. This was also spicy, but we had told them that we would eat absolutely anything and as spicy as they were willing to make it. They do tailor these to the people eating it, which is nice. The furthest left in the bottom row was a Lao green with sesame and while very good, this was sort of boring compared to the other bits. The pickled bamboo shoots above it were again good, but nothing too special. The pickled greens at the top were good and very different flavors than the other stuff, much more bitter, which is pretty typical of a lot of Lao food. I enjoy pickled things in general, and these greens were good. Here’s a close up of the sludge so you can try to get a bit more of an idea of the texture, as that was what really made the dish so interesting and unique. We were served a frog soup between courses that was not all that interesting. Later we were served a far more interesting snake soup.
The first three plates, we were told, would get progressively more challenging to the Western palate. So this is course two. The blob in the center was the only thing here that we truly had trouble with. I don’t remember the details but I believe it is fish intestine innards cooked in fish bile. Hope you are not planning to eat anytime soon! No, just kidding, I found it edible, but not very enjoyable, where as this was the only thing B really disliked. Next to them are the buffalo meatballs, which I don’t think were challenging to the Western Palate, but I just didn’t think were super flavorful. In the bottom right corner is a 19 day fertilized chicken egg. This was actually extremely delicious, very rich, almost like a soft boiled egg that has been doubled in flavor but not in size. I will admit it was difficult to look at the little head, but (and don’t think me crass) you can’t see the head once it is in your mouth. Okay, moving along, you’ve got the pickled garlic in the top right and the pickled fish in the bottom left. I love pickling and found both of these to be incredibly good. They both had that inherent sweetness that contrasts the bitterness of the pickling and I found that to be most pleasing to my palate. In the top left, you will see the pork floss, which anyone familiar with Chinese cuisine will recognize. Kind of like pork cotton candy, I’d say. The texture is fun and, well, it tastes like pork, so how can you go wrong. The beef jerky next to it was nothing special, fairly similar to beef jerky we’ve got here but without the artficial flavorings that make it so delicious!
Okay, on to course 3, the most challenging. Yup, check out our variety of bugs. We started by eating the bamboo grubs arranged in a star by the salt in the top middle, as I had heard before that they tasted like nuts or potato chips. They did. They are also not a very scary shape and were easy to eat. Next we tried the dish to its left, which is steamed wrapped pig brains. Again, not so challenging because you couldn’t actually see what they were, as they had been steamed and mixed with flavorings. Those were good, but unlike liver or other offal, I didn’t find an incredibly compelling flavor that would make me seek it out. In the bottom right were river crabs, prepared similar to the brain, though much more flavorful, in fact downright tasty. They river crab was not as rich as the big crabs we’re used to here in Seattle, but the subtle flavors were mixed with spices that brought out the best in them. In the upper right you’ll see our wasp larvae. You pop them out of their little section of egg up there and pop them in the mouth. They are kind of like a gusher, there is definitely sort of a liquid inside, however they tasted very good and had quite a pleasant aftertaste. Then there are the bugs. I had eaten, I believe some cricket and grasshopper before and while there is still this “I’m really going to put this in my mouth” moment, I have to be true to my philosophy and eat everything. And again, they are quite enjoyable once you’ve popped them in your mouth and are over that they look like bugs. However, the big guy remained on the plate. Carolyn came over and asked us about him. She said she thought it was the only one the cook wouldn’t even eat and that they don’t usually serve it (found it on the kitchen floor that morning, eh? I didn’t ask). She challenged me to eat it though, and I don’t do well saying no to a challenge. I pulled off the wings and the legs, as instructed, to get to the meat. I placed it in my mouth. Oh, my…God. It was INCREDIBLE. Seriously, what a surprise. She checked in the kitchen. Oops, mistake, this was the cooks FAVORITE bug. The bug had this incredibly fragrant taste, like the way that eating lavender or jasmine or rose is a little perfume-y, but more subtle so it didn’t taste like it shouldn’t be eaten. It was such a surprise that then everyone else wanted to try. It was one of those moments where you realize that the risks you take do have rewards. I may eat a lot of bugs and be scared or grossed out, but then I get to taste this incredible, unique flavor, and the reward is there.We finished up with some lettuce rolls, with a pile of fresh vegetables and a bit of pork crackling. It was a nice palate cleanser. We were just finishing up, talking to Carolyn about the various things we ate, when she mentioned she was working on making flavored lao-lao, the local moonshine. As the conversation continued, she complained that she thought it was ready but the ladies in the kitchen wouldn’t try it for her and the guy there had drank to much the night before and couldn’t try it. “Would you be willing to try it?” She asked us? And this is how we came to finish our many course tasting menu with shots of chile pepper lao-lao moonshine whiskey. Incredible. But wait! This stuff was really good. You got a good lao-lao burn, a good chile burn and overall it was tasty. So then she said, well, maybe my other ones are ready too! Try these…That is the lemongrass lao-lao on the left and the ginger lao-lao on the right. The lemongrass was uninteresting, but the ginger really smoothed the burn of the lao-lao. One last parting shot of her tamarind infused vodka and we stumbled happily full and slightly buzzed out the door and ready to head on our way to Vietnam. Bye Laos, Bye lao-lao!