While Bordeaux and I had waited until nearly the end of our time in Thailand to take a Thai cooking course, we decided to take our Lao cooking course during our first week in Laos. A number of restaurants around Luang Phabang offer cooking courses, which seem to vary widely in number of dishes prepared. Bordeaux and I quickly chose the Three Elephants cooking school, taught from a large kitchen down an alley between the Three Elephants Cafe and the Nam Khan river. The course included demonstrations on 7 dishes, with the opportunity to choose five to prepare. This would give us some control over our what we wanted to try, and also introduced us to a wider range of foods.
In the morning we met at the kitchen, we were introduced to our teachers, Neng and Leng. Our cooking class began with the ubiquitous tour of the market. We first cut through the dry stalls, which sold bright plastic toys, cheap cookware, and a strange selection of men's underwear. Once in the wet market, Leng went to shop for produce, while Neng gave a dramatic presentation on various Lao vegetables. We followed Neng around between stalls, looking at sticky rice, buffalo skin, and chili powder. The meat stalls seemed to show a much greater reliance on river life than any markets that we visited in Thailand; tables were covered in glazy eyed scaly fish and wide mouthed catfish, while coal barbecues heated whole fish-on-a-stick.
Back in the kitchen, the class was markedly different than our course in Thailand. Rather than each having a station of our own, we were assigned two to a wok. This worked well for me, as I do much better following Bordeaux's orders than cooking on my own. Additionally, the teaching style was much different. Cooking centered around demonstrations, in which either Neng or Leng would prepare several dishes in succession. The idea was that once we had finished we would gather our own vegetables, measure and chop everything ourselves, and cook the meals using our cookbooks as a guide. This wasn't always easy, as the cookbooks occasionally left out steps from the demonstration, and Neng often spoke so quietly that it was difficult to hear him. This style required us to be much more self sufficient than Thai Farm, where many of our ingredients were measured out for us, and where cooking was done in steps announced to entire class as we cooked. The benefit is that, hopefully, we'll be more able to cook on our own outside of the class.
In the morning we prepared two dishes: Luang Prabang Salad, greens, hard-boiled eggs and tomatoes covered with a mayonnaise we prepared ourselves, perhaps a leftover from the influence of the french; and feu khua, a chicken and rice noodle dish in which the noodles are fried almost into a patty, then scrambled with an egg. After a long lunch we watched a long demonstration, in which we were taught to make chicken larp, green papaya salad, and oh paedek. Bordeaux and I had already made papaya salad in Thailand, so we chose the other two. Chicken larp is a cold salad of chicken and banana-flower, and oh paedek is a soupy dish of ground pork and egg flavored with galangal, a mild ginger root. They then demonstrated two more dishes, fried eggplant with pork, and geng phet, which is a little like a mild Lao curry. We chose the eggplant, since we'd made curry, and Bordeaux and I both love eggplant. Before we moved outside for dinner, Neng showed us how to make Tamnak Lao Jeowbong, a Luang Phabang chili paste that's eaten as a garnish. Lao dishes don't favor the spiciness that the Thai enjoy, however, so for the two tablespoons of chili there were also three tablespoons of sugar. We ate our last three dishes as an early dinner out on the patio. The chicken larp and the pork with eggplant were my favorite dishes; the larp reminded me of a chicken salad I had in Bangkok that could be wrapped in kale leaves and eaten with lime, and the eggplant and pork took on a nice flavor of oyster sauce.
Though we'd been eating Lao food as often as possible since arriving, this class offered a good chance to really see the unique qualities of Lao food. Lao dishes are generally fairly mild, so most flavors are balanced out with contrasting flavors, creating subtle suggestions of spicy, sweet and sour in each dish. I love spicy food, so to be honest I may still have a preference for Thai cooking, but at least this class gave me more of an appreciation for the milder intricacies of Lao cooking.