Our Private Lao “Cooking Course”

Food is the way to a man’s heart. I’ve said this before half jokingly, but I seriously love eating and the ability to cook a delicious meal is an envious skill. While in Chiang Mai, Austin and I debated on whether or not to take a cooking course and broaden our culinary knowledge. We had heard good things, but being on a budget, we had to choose between many activities as doing all of them just wasn’t feasible. In the end, we decided to pass on the course as we attempted to convince ourselves that we could just learn how to cook Thai food online at some point in the future. We eventually moved on to Laos and the idea of a cooking course was put squarely on the back burner, or so we thought.

After an amazing three day trek through the Nam Ha National Protected Area, our group of trekkers along with our guides went out for dinner and a night at the local discoteca, really a story in itself, however, during dinner I got to talking with Tom, our Lao guide, about learning to cook the local cuisine. He loved the idea and since I figured the best way to learn was from a local, I enthusiastically offered to “buy the food if he would teach us to cook it.” He immediately agreed with his trademark “it’s cool” and we made plans to meet at ten the next morning.

After rather reluctantly pulling ourselves out of bed, we set out for the local morning market to gather our ingredients. The market was an adventure in itself as dog and live frogs on a stick were some of the items for sale, but unhindered, we pressed on. Tomatoes, chilies, green onions, lettuce, a giant banana flower, mint, fermented fish, live fish, pork and a number of other vegetables I can’t name were soon collected and we were off to Tom’s house. Well, not quite. Tom corrected us as we were actually headed to his friend’s house since she “had a kitchen.” Seemed logical enough, but we soon arrived to a house full of welcoming fellow young Lao adults ready to prepare a feast for the afternoon. Apparently, it had been one of his friend’s birthdays and we would be joining them for the afternoon gathering.

Preparation for our meal began right away and after a few good cuts of the fish were made, we were given the job of dicing them up. Over eagerly, we assumed our roles sitting on tiny low-lying bamboo stools, not knowing what we had got ourselves into. We had just begun the process of preparing Laap, a paste textured dish widely regarded as the national dish of Lao and would be using a 6 inch high cutting board and a cleaver to mince the fish as more ingredients were slowly added. What we didn’t know was that the process would take the next two hours. This process of chopping, flipping it over, adding some roasted veggies and chopping some more until your arm felt dead was, of course, pronounced exactly the same as an English word we use for “making love.” Needless to say, using the verb as a pun provided some good laughs among the entire group.

After our arms were thoroughly exhausted from the mincing and crushing ingredients with a mortar and pestle, our laap was finally ready and after garnishing it with some fresh mint leaves, we placed it among the many other dishes. We all took our seats at the large table set up in the lawn outside their house and chopsticks, spoons and loads of sticky rice were distributed. The communal meal commenced. Eating the laap was a process in itself as one had to ball up a small portion of sticky rice and then, using 3 fingers and a strategically placed mint leave to keep your fingers relatively clean, grab a helping of laap. Austin and I got this down quickly and before we knew it, we were stuffed.

Tom began joking about us finishing everything, which really wasn’t possible, but he definitely wasn’t joking when he said it was time for some pork spring rolls. I guess spring rolls are like ice cream, there’s always room for them. Though seemingly full, we headed inside and joined the circle sitting on the floor with ingredients spread around. A few quick lessons and we decided to try rolling our own. My first few attempts were met with a chorus of laughter as my rolls were not quite up to par. Luckily, spring rolls taste good no matter how they look.

After some warm thanks, it was time for us to go, so full belly and all, we began the walk back to our guesthouse. Our “cooking course” turned out better than we could have imagined. It was personal and unique. We were welcomed into the home of our new Lao friends and experienced something authentic. Throughout the day, Austin and I repeated exchanged looks of disbelieve at the generosity of Tom and his friends, as well as how we had been so lucky to stumble into this situation. As Tom would put it, “it’s cool.”