Wednesday, July 15, 2015

From Laotian coffee to night market
specialties, here's how to eat like a local in Luang Prabang.
Standing in the open-air pergola of his lagoon-side
cooking school, Joy Ngeuambopha begins the day's lesson.
"Lao cooking is about balance of flavors and fresh ingredients," Mr.
Ngeuambopha tells the class as he purées freshly plucked coriander leaves,
garlic, chilies, eggplant, and a fermented fish sauce called padaek into a
mortar and pestle.
"That balance is for you to decide.
" However the "Laos balance" Mr.
Ngeuambopha describes is relatively unknown to the 11 students in
today's class, let alone to the outside world.
Tucked between Myanmar, Vietnam, and Thailand at the confluence of the
Mekong and Nam Khan rivers in the mountains of north central Laos, Luang
Prabang has gained a strong foothold along the Southeast Asia tourist trail
over recent years.
Its cuisine, largely reflective of the ethnic diversity of Laos and its
surrounding neighbors, comprises a rich blend of French colonial, Thai,
Vietnamese, and Burmese influence.
However, unlike the curry- and cumin-based dishes of Thailand to the west and
pho-friendly noodle-based dishes of Vietnam to the east, Laotian cuisine
hasn't garnered the commercial success of its more famous neighbors.
"Landlocked Laos, with no trading port to the outside world and until
recently, a relatively small emigrant population, hasn't spread its culture
globally like Thailand and Vietnam," Mr.
Ngeuambopha said.
Better known for its colonial buildings, beautiful wats and saffron-clad
monks, Luang Prabang's unique gastronomic identity has only begun to take
shape over recent years.
Balancing texture with bold and earthy flavors, distinctly Laotian dishes
include laap—a minced meat salad peppered with a medley of fresh vegetables,
and orlarm, a stew-like specialty that calls for a variety of locally grown
jungle herbs, vegetables, and grilled meat.
One major difference that sets Laotian food apart is the ubiquitous use of
sticky rice.
"It's the staple here," Mr.
Ngeuambopha said.
"Most traditional Lao dishes are designed to accompany it.
" To the
uninitiated, knowing where or what to eat when visiting Laos can be tricky.
However, one thing has become all too clear.
From hectic markets and secluded bamboo bungalows to upscale bistros and
colonial cafes, Luang Prabang boasts one of the most eclectic and diverse
culinary scenes in the world today.
Morning Market: 7 a.
m.
Luang Prabang may be a sleepy town compared to other Southeast Asian
cities, but there's no better way to awaken the senses and immerse yourself
in the local culture than by taking a stroll through the morning market and
rubbing shoulders with the locals.
Located near the National Museum along Sanasongkham Road, this is the Laotian
equivalent of a grocery store.
Flooded with piles of vegetables, overflowing buckets of rice, fresh fish,
slithery serpents, bats, and insects, the market is truly a feast for the
senses.
Be sure to get here early and give yourself plenty of time as there's a lot
to see, smell, and sample along the way.
Treat yourself to some Lao spicy sausage—a specialty that's not to be
missed—skewers of river fish or crispy riverweed.
If it's too early for street meat, look for vendors huddled over steaming
skillets cooking up khao nom kok or Lao coconut cakes.
Served in a banana leaf, these bite-sized delights are as delicious as they
are addictive.
Vendors start to wrap up around 10 a.
m.
, so be sure to get here early.
Michelle Gross Café Le
Ban Vat Sene: 8 a.
m.
Breakfast Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Café Le Ban Vat Sene on
Sakkaline Road in the heart of town offers an assortment of Western, French
and Laotian dishes.
The wooden desks, high ceilings, and wicker chairs are more reminiscent of a
colonial-era coffeehouse than a full-fledged fusion restaurant.
Either way, it's a nice place to spend a lazy morning and try some Laotian
coffee and a freshly baked croissant.
Grown on the Bolaven Plateau outside Paksong, in southern Laos, coffee (hot
or iced) is a delicacy not to be missed.
Tamarind: 9 a.
m.
–3 p.
m.
Cooking Lesson If you want to get your hands dirty and deepen your
knowledge of Laotian cuisine, head to Tamarind on Kingkitsarath Road parallel
to the Nam Khan River.
Classes are held twice a day beside a lotus pond about twenty minutes outside
of town and are the best way to experience Laotian cuisine first hand.
Students use a mortar and pestle (an essential cooking tool in Laos) and an
open flame to master the fundamentals.
Starting with dipping sauces, known as jeow (a tomato- or eggplant-based
vegetable dip), continuing on to laap (a minced meat salad seasoned with fresh
herbs including cilantro, mint, chilies, lime juice and kaffir lime leaves),
and finally mok pa (lemongrass-wrapped chicken skewers), this is the joy of
authentic cooking in Laos.
The lovechild of Joy Ngeuambopha, a Lao national and his wife Caroline
Gaylard, Tamarind is a family business that aims to give back to the local
community.
Inspired by Mr.
Ngeuambopha's creative cooking style, Tamarind offers diners locally sourced
ingredients as well as the most approachable Laotian tasting menu in town.
Not to be missed is the platter with stir-fried bamboo and morning glories,
crispy riverweed, and smoked eggplant.
At the start of your dining experience, complimentary shots of honey lime
Lao-Lao, a locally brewed rice-based whiskey, are served.
This powerful elixir will be sure to loosen you up for the variation of bold
and unique dishes to come.
Enjoy! Sign up for cooking classes in advance.
Classes are available Monday through Saturday with the option of a full day
class from 9am-3pm or an evening class from 4:30 p.
m.
-8:30 p.
m.
Transportation to and from the classes are included.
Classes start at 285,000 Kip ($35 USD) per person.
Silk Road Café: Lunch If cooking's not your thing, head over to the
Silk Road Café.
Located a few minutes outside of town via complimentary tuk tuk along the
banks of the Mekong River, the café is part of Ock Pop Tok, a popular craft
and resource center in Luang Prabang.
All ingredients are grown on a local farm, with signature dishes like
pork-filled lemongrass, eggplant tempura bites, and the aforementioned
laap.
  Established as a social enterprise working primarily in the field
of textiles, handicrafts, and design, Ock Pop Tok works to empower rural women
to use their traditional textile-producing skills to ensure a sustainable
future for their families and villages.
It also aims to create international awareness about the rich history and
traditions of Lao weaving through a range of educational activities.
Michelle Gross Viewpoint
Café: 5 p.
m.
Happy Hour It's been an exhilarating day and now it's time to kick back
and relax.
Viewpoint Café at the tip of the peninsula offers stunning views of the
sunset over the mighty Mekong River.
Owned by Swede Urban Paulsson, Viewpoint Cafe is an extension of The Mekong
Riverview Hotel and offers freshly muddled fruit cocktails, including mai
tai's, margaritas, and more.
Dyen Sabai: 7 p.
m.
Dinner With a little liquid courage you'll be ready to traverse the Nam
Khan River.
There are a few options to make your way across depending on the time of year.
Constructed by local monks in the dry season (December-May) when water levels
are low, a footbridge as rickety and daunting as it is adventurous is the
quickest and easiest way to reach the other side.
In the rainy season, when water levels are high (June-November) and the bridge
washes away, the restaurant provides a small boat service.
Either way, strap on your Indiana Jones hat and make the trek to the secluded
and peaceful setting of Dyen Sabai.
 Complete with bamboo huts and beautiful gardens, Dyen Sabai is the
perfect place to try sindad, otherwise referred to as Lao fondue.
A cross between a Chinese hot-pot and Korean BBQ, sindad isn't
necessarily Laotian in origin, but the practice of grilling and marinating
meat coupled with the freshness of the ingredients is very native.
The basic components can include thin slices of pork, chicken, beef, or tofu,
rice noodles, vegetables, mushrooms, and raw eggs.
Sindad is consumed in typical Lao fashion by sitting close to or on the floor.
Sindad's simple.
You'll be given a basket of vegetables and a grill over charcoal.
Place the meat on top of the metal bowl and let the juices flow into the broth
in the rim below.
Put the vegetables and noodles into the rim and proceed to crack the eggs and
let them boil in the broth.
When the meat is cooked sufficiently, slide it down into the broth (or into
your mouth), and transfer the lot into a bowl.
Add chilies and spice to your liking.
 It's a delicious dish that's only complete when you wash it down
with a venerated Beerlaos.
  Night Market: 9 p.
m.
Dessert As the day draws to a close, it's time to polish it all off with
something sweet.
Head back into town and make your way over to Sisavangvong Road, where the
local night market will be in full effect and crepe and fruit stands abound.
In March, when mangoes are in season, try them over sticky rice topped with
coconut cream or a freshly squeezed jujube and hibiscus flower smoothie.
Khao gam, a Laotian specialty of purple sticky rice is served up with slices
of fresh fruit.
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