Alone 40 watt bulb does its best to light the room, but most of those present are consigned to the shadows. Two village elders are chanting; the oldest, aged 75, takes the lead. He picks at pieces of cooked chicken, banana and rice and adds them to a plastic bag together with water and Lao Lao (whisky). Finally, the villagers tie pieces of white string around our wrists before we share some of the chicken, rice and soup.
I’m in Viengkeo a village about five kilometres from Hongsa in Sainyabuli Province, Laos for an elephant festival. Mr Samchit, our homestay host, has arranged this baasii ceremony as tomorrow we will be leaving for Luang Prabang. Lao people along with their Buddhist faith believe in spirits (khwan). Each person has 32 of them and it is important before embarking on a long journey to ensure none of them has wandered off.
It may sound a platitude to say that food is a defining element of a country but in Laos, a land where until recently many people survived on little more than subsistence farming, it really does permeate society as with the baasii ceremony. “Food is the key aspect of our culture, it brings everyone together. Food is the centre of all celebrations, whether it be a birthday, prayer day at the temple or even a wedding ceremony. Each dish would have a story behind it, stories our mother would tell us when we were growing up,” explains Jack Sigma, one of the two Australian brothers of Lao heritage behind the Papaya Grill restaurant in the Sydney suburb of Marrickville.
After a five-hour long dusty journey by sowngthaew (a pick-up with two side benches in the back) over mountain passes on a dirt road, I arrive in Luang Prabang shaken but ready to be stirred. This UNESCO World Heritage-listed city, on the banks of the ‘not so mighty during the dry season’ Mekong River, is the cultural capital of Laos. It’s fair to say the food I ate as part of the baasii ceremony was not my best meal in Laos but here in Luang Prabang, where the Lao royal family used to reside, cooking is elevated to its finest.
Early each morning, tourists compete with devotees giving alms to monks. However, at about the same time there is a less observed ritual involving food. Farmers, many of them members of the hill tribes, come from the countryside to sell their produce from old tarpaulins spread on the streets to the side of the Royal Palace Museum leading down to the Mekong. A woman picks out limes from a great selection of snake beans, eggplants and dill. Further on, a grandmother is stooped on a stool busy deep frying corn cakes.
Caroline Gaylard, an Australian who runs the Tamarind restaurant and cooking school with her Lao husband Joy Ngeuamboupha, takes me to the Phosy market. This is Luang Prabang’s main market and most locals shop at one of the markets twice a day, before each meal. Sellers are divided, those with stalls pay by the year and are wholesalers. Others have mats laid out on the ground and tend to be small holders, and those with baskets are farmers. “If it can be eaten, Lao people need to find a way to eat it,” says Gaylard as we lookat a basket full of stink bugs.
Lao people often refer to themselves as luk khao niaow “children of sticky rice” and sticky rice is considered the most important element of any meal. However, it is really the herbs and spices that are key to defining the taste. Many Australians are familiar with Thai and Vietnamese food but Lao cuisine is usually something new. “A lot of our customers would describe our cuisine as fresh and flavoursome. Not being so oily and sweet. We fall right in the middle of both cuisines, providing a great balance of flavours and freshness,” says Sigma back in Sydney.
Tamarind’s cooking school is in a rural location, appropriately enough with tamarind trees, on what was once an opium plantation. “Lao food uses a lot of spring onion, coriander, dill and basil but we don’t use coconut milk very much,” says Joy, explaining what he believes characterises the cuisine. As a group of foreign tourists get ready to start cooking, the ubiquitous sticky rice is already steaming away in a woven bamboo basket over a taoloh.
This wood-fired terracotta brazier is the main means for most Lao families to cook, although these days in all but the smallest mom and pop restaurants it has been replaced by gas. “The taste difference is huge, so we wouldn’t change them for the world,” says Joy; Tamarind still uses them in the restaurant kitchen along with gas.
It’s on a taoloh that we set about roasting green and red chillies, eggplants, garlic and shallots. These are then pounded in a mortar and pestle together with salt, MSG and stock powder before adding finely chopped spring onion, coriander and fish sauce to make jeow. Laotians use this thick paste as a dipping sauce to accompany balls of sticky rice.
Growing up in the countryside, there wasn’t enough food to go around for Joy and his family. “We used to catch animals in the forest like rats, squirrels and sometimes forest chickens. We would then cook them in a stew or barbeque. The first food I really liked was gecko, we used to barbeque it in a banana leaf,” he remembers.
Tamarind uses meats more familiar to foreigners and also better cuts than many locals use. For the orlarm, a Luang Prabang stew, we use buffalo meat rather than rat. One key ingredient is pepperwood which has a slightly numbing taste similar to Sichuan peppercorns in Chinese cuisine. It is thickened using eggplant, garlic and shallots which after boiling are mashed and returned to the stew.
That evening I dine at the restaurant of the 3 Nagas Luang Prabang, a boutique hotel now run by Sofitel. My starter is riverweed, similar in taste to seaweed, which has been fried and topped off with sesame seeds. Accompanying it is a spicy jeow made with dried buffalo skin. The kitchen is helmed by Chanpheng Sengakhom, who goes by the nickname of Chef Pheng. As I dig into one of Chef Pheng’s signature dishes khoua kai sai jeow bong, a light tasting dish of stir fried chicken brought alive by the flavour of the jeow and citrus essence of lemon grass and kaffir lime leaves, he joins me. The food at the 3 Nagas is based on the dishes of the royal household but he is coy to share much of the details.
“I was 10 when I started to learn the recipes of the Lao royal food which was still common cooking at that time,” he says, adding “herbs are the key element. We live in a country full of plants which gives us the opportunity to cook with fresh produce and season our dishes the way we want. One dish can have so many different flavours, the herbs used will be our signature and special touch.”
As I travel around Laos, I experience a great deal of pride going into the food, be it a simple barbecue at the elephant festival, mok pa (banana leaf steamed fish) with the delicate flavours of lemongrass, dill and basil at Elephant Crossing in Vang Vieng, or a Lao starter set featuring Luang Prabang sausage at Kong View in the capital Vientiane. Unfortunately, many travellers to Laos do not take the opportunity to sample the local cuisine; both Vientiane and Luang Prabang overflow with restaurants serving good quality renditions of almost every food imaginable, but particularly French. This however is a mistake. “Nam Khao – Crispy rice salad and sticky rice steamed and cooked in bamboo are, I think, must-tries for Australians visiting Laos,” recommends Sigma. •
Photography by Mark Andrews and Tamarind.
Thai Airways and Qantas offer flights from various Australian cities to Bangkok. It is then possible to go overland by bus or train. Alternatively, there are onwards flights to Vientiane and Luang Prabang on Bangkok Airways and Thai Airways. qantas.com; thaiairways.com; bangkokair.com
When to go
The best weather is from November to February, the dry season. Luang Prabang, as it is in the north, is also possible in the hot season March to May.
Where to eat
• Tamarind in Luang Prabang Ban Vat Sene: tamarindlaos.com
• 3 Nagas in Luang Prabang, Vat Nong Village: sofitel.com
• Elephant Crossing in Vang Vieng, Ban Viengkeo: theelephantcrossinghotel.com
• Kong View in Vientiane, 183 Souphanouvong Rd, Hom 1 Ban Nongpanay: view-goodview.com
• Papaya Grill in Sydney, 393 Illawarra Rd, Marrickville: papayagrill.com.au