Cooking classes are a popular learning option all over the world; in places world-renowned for their cuisine, such as France or Thailand, culinary options abound where you can pick up the know-how for that perfect soufflé or gangaree curry. But venture off the path a little bit, into some lesser known ethnic styles, and you can really impress back home.
In Laos, award-winning executive chef of Hotel de la Paix, Somroj Mepiern, enthusiastically teaches guests the art of Lao cooking—similar to Thai and Cambodian food in some ways, but generally less spicy and with its own unique signature dishes. “Lao food is not well-known in the rest of the world,” Chef Somroj says. “Many Asian cuisines are popular throughout the world: Thai, Chinese, Indian…but most people have yet to discover Lao cooking.”
One interesting aspect of Lao food is that this land-locked country is the only Asian nation that eats sticky rice, rather than steamed rice, almost exclusively. One of the best aspects of the Hotel de la Paix cooking school, as is the case with many similar courses, is that it begins with a trip to the local market. At eight in the morning I set out with Chef Somroj—just your typical day, strolling through cobblestone lanes between Buddhist temples, checking out delicacies on offer such as freshly-gutted tadpoles, live wriggling larvae, water buffalo ears, and live snakes.
The Luang Prabang morning market is bustling, and besides the slightly disturbing (to a Westerner) items for sale, there are also a plethora of beautiful vegetables, aromatic herbs, poultry, meat, and sweets. After a couple of hours we return to the hotel’s Ka-Toke Cooking School, where we whip up Lao specialties including Naam Kaow (rice crepes stuffed with pork and vegetables), Mok Pak (steamed vegetables in a banana leaf), and Panang Gai (red curried chicken).
As I discovered, Lao food does indeed have its own distinct flavor and style and is quite interesting and unique. All in all, it was a great day with Chef Somroj, who has been cooking since age 17, when he became an apprentice in a hotel restaurant. “Just like an artist who sees his paintings in his mind first,” Somroj says, “I see the food, I see the dish and all its ingredients in my mind first, before it comes together on the plate.”
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