Cultural Cooking Class in Vientiane: Slaving Over a Hot (Coal) Stove Has Never Tasted So Good
Laotian cuisine is one of Southeast Asia’s most distinctive cuisines, varying quite dramatically from those of its neighboring countries. The staple here is sticky rice, which is eaten by hand and is used, quite literally, in place of cutlery. With a heady emphasis on the use of fresh herbs, ginger, lemongrass, chilli and coconut milk, and a distinct lack of animal-derived fats, Laotian meals are fresh, spicy, and totally mouth-watering. Healthy simple recipes are the order of the day in this part of the world.
After two months of traveling through Laos, I was totally hooked on local fare, although I had the sneaking suspicion that I was still not savoring the most authentic cooking the country had to offer. As in many other Asian countries, the great majority of restaurants in Laos tend to ‘westernize’ their dishes, in the erroneous belief that most foreigners can’t handle overly spicy or tasty food. So, although I’d loved every mouthful of national delights like laab or mok pa,I knew there was plenty more I still needed to discover. Once I finally reached the capital Vientiane and was joined by a friend traveling from San Francisco, I jumped at the chance to take part in an authentic, culturally-enriched cooking class with Backstreet Academy.
Backstreet Academy came recommended from at least a dozen fellow travelers and their cooking classes sounded incredibly enticing. If you travel to Laos – and visit major tourist hubs like Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng – you’ll notice that nearly every fancy restaurant offers ‘authentic’ cooking classes, held in their (no doubt gorgeous) commercial kitchens. Backstreet Academy offers a truly authentic experience, where classes are held in someone’s home with meals prepared by someone’s grandma. BA is a bit of a hybrid between a tour agency and community-based project. The agency works with local families who are trained in the art of holding cooking classes for foreign tourists. Tours are offered on a rotation basis so each family receives an equal number of guests and profits are then shared among all. I fell in love with this idea! Not only do we get the priceless chance of spending a whole day cooking with a local family, but the family has the chance to safeguard their culinary traditions and earn a few extra kip on the side.
My friend Lisako and I were picked up at our hotel bright and early one morning by Souphaphone, a young university student who would act as ‘facilitator’ for the day to help with any translation or logistical problems.
The host family’s modest home is on the outskirts of the Laotian capital. In the front courtyard, they set up a vegetable washing station, coal grill (most Laotians still cook on traditional coal stoves) and food preparation area. I loved how organized they were, how welcomed they made me and the other visitors feel, and just how relaxed the whole day was. While we washed, peeled, grilled and chopped, the neighbor’s kids played under our feet, and the pet dogs kept watch for any loose meat from the grill.
I was excited to finally have the chance to cook my two favourite dishes: spicy mincemeat salad (laab) and creamy herbed fish cooked in banana leaf (mok pa). Although both dishes boast complexity in texture and flavor, they were surprisingly easy to make and recreating the tastes of Laos at home is superbly easy. Of all the ethnic recipes from around the world, which I’ve had the pleasure to cook; these two are among my all-time favourites. As much as I love to savor complicated meals, when it comes to cooking them, I prefer healthy, simple recipes I can whip up in a jiffy.
Our host chef reminded me a lot of my mum, she obviously loves to cook and showed incredible patience in showing us how to prepare vegetables that we’d never even seen before.
Alongside these two main courses, she also taught us to cook three jeows – the Laotian version of dips. The most unique was the jeow padek – a fermented fish dip that turned out to be quite delicious. The pork and olive dip and the roasted tomato dip were also impressive. If you’re ever in search for exotic dinner party ideas, I’d say these Laotian jeows would definitely be a hit.
Oddly enough, preparing sticky rice turned out to be the hardest job of all. Although the rice is cooked in a conical bamboo steamer (called lao aep khao), the rice needs to be flipped a few times to even out the cooking and I found the rice flipping to be a difficult skill to master.
The best part of the class for us was the communal feasting we enjoyed with our host family at the end. We cooked twice as much food as we could manage to devour. Our host mum offered us take-away containers, but we insisted they keep left-overs for their own dinner. This seemed to make them very happy, which was great to see.
If you’re visiting Vientiane on your next trip to Southeast Asia, I really can’t recommend Backstreet Academy’s cooking classes enough! But, if you’re itching to discover what all the delectable fuss is all about, then try your hand at these recipes for Khao Khua, Laab, and Mok Pa. I hope you’ll find them as scrumptious as we did.