Cooking school, that is. 12 of us gathered at Bamboo Tree restaurant at 9 this morning. Over coffee and tea we scanned the little recipe book that the restaurant had provided us. We were all happy and excited to begin learning how to make these wonderful Laotian dishes.
We selected a total of 6 dishes including spring rolls fried and fresh, fish in banana leaves, stuffed bamboo shoots, stuffed lemongrass, and of course sticky rice.
After the selection we all piled into minivans and a tuk-tuk and headed for the local market.
Linda, our teacher and Chef for the day, was a delightful and personable young woman with excellent English.
Going through the market was a revelation. We discovered baby eggplant In two sizes, one no larger than peas.
We learned that Thai Basil and Laotian basil are two completely different herbs! There was also a vegetable called water grass which was not in any of our dishes but which I had seen on various menus.
We we saw a number of items that were not to be used in our dishes such as dried fish, and dried rat.
After the market we headed back to the restaurant where the shopping and preparation started. As I had never done a cooking class I didn’t know what to expect.
The first job was peeling a tomato so that the peel came off in one continuous strip. The idea was to then arrange it into a sort of flower shape. I failed miserably. It was a strange kind of knife to be working with I suppose.
Then we did a lot of other preparation slicing carrots into matchsticks eyes, slicing potatoes into matchsticks eyes, chopping garlic, and thinly sliced chicken lemongrass. There was also a procedure with lemongrass that involved making small vertical strips along the bottom portion and that was to be stuffed.
We also worked with bamboo which apparently needs to be soaked for several days. To be honest, I couldn’t quite tell the difference in taste between the bamboo that they had soaked and the bamboo that I had gotten from Asiana already pre-packaged. So that’s good news.
There was also a lot of mortar and pestle work in which chili, lemongrass, and I believe shallots for all mesh together. I could see that this cuisine was quite labor-intensive.
One of our dishes was steamed local catfish in banana leaf. But the banana leaf had to be folded in a particular way and this was tricky to pull off.
Another project was to work with rice paper and roll it into spring rolls to be either fried or fresh. It was a good technique to learn. The rice paper needs to be rolled and tucked so that there are no air pockets which will create bubbles when it’s fried. Other than that it’s actually quite easy.
It was all a lot of fun as we were talking and laughing throughout and Linda was giving us explanations of Laotian customs.
It was well organized. We were arranged around a long table; Linda was at one end and one of her helpers was at the other to help correct our many mistakes.
Then it was time for the cooking. A gas table top stove with several burners and walks on top were heated up and we started cooking the spring rolls ourselves. We also cooked the stuffed bamboo shoots and the stuffed lemongrass. All of which needed to be fried. So this took quite a bit of time but we took our turn doing it.
Finally it was all ready and we set ourselves down at the table they were quite a lot of servers around set the table and arrange the food. By this time we were all pretty hungry it was about 1:30 and we attack the food vigorously. It was all absolutely delightful and the crowd was a lot of fun.
Several of the people had made a habit of cooking classes I think at least partly for the convivial atmosphere. Basically I had a ball. We finished at about 3 p.m. And it’s something I would definitely do it again. We also got a certificate at the end which I thought was a nice touch. I am now officially certified to cook Laotian food for friends and family but not Linda specified, to open a restaurant.
After this delightful experience I got back on my bike and pedalled along the Nam Khan riverside which was great.
So then some people that I had met yesterday on the trip to the caves approached me in the restaurant and suggested that we meet this evening for a cinema experience. It turns out that the showing was at the Victoria Hotel and it was a 1927 black and white movie filmed in the jungles of Northern Siam, as they put it. The movie was called Chang and it was really dazzling. It combined small dramas such as tiger attacks and leopard chases with a family drama. Basically it recounted the struggle to survive of a Laotian family in the jungle in 1927. I have no idea how they did it. I have no idea how they managed to stage extremely realistic looking elephant stampedes in the days before animal trainers. There was also a monkey for comic relief but particularly striking was the footage of leopards and tigers that I think pretty much don’t exist anymore in the jungles of Northern Thailand. It managed to be both and anthropological documentary, a wildlife documentary, a family drama.