What’s Cooking, Luang Namtha?

After my failed attempts at taking a cooking class in Dali, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Luang Namtha has them here in Laos.  I was less pleasantly surprised to find out they’re as expensive here as they are in the much bigger city of Luang Prabang.  So after hoofing it to every possible cooking class to see prices, I decided to settle on the cheapest option.  Ethnic Travel Cooking Class it is!  The local favorite ethnic minority restaurant, Papaya, had classes that had more minority dishes than traditional Laotian food, but they were also about twelve dollars more.  That’s enough for a guesthouse and food for the day here!  Also after eating at papaya, I’m not sure if homey ethnic minority food is my favorite thing, or perhaps Papaya restaurant just isn’t my favorite thing.

A Lao-style mortar and pestle. My hand is there on the left side to show the size. I covet this thing.

While originally I wanted a full eight hour class I’m pretty glad I ended up in a four hour “full day” class as it was already pretty tiring.  I wandered into the travel office in the morning and was amused to see class would be taking place on the one burner they had in the back corner of the office.  We soon set off on scooter to the wonderful morning market to pick up ingredients.

The market lady fries her lunch once she's done with the plate full of bananas and mangos.

Once we returned it was a mix of mostly prep work and a little too much of watching my teacher and his co-owner’s wife cook.  I did not put a single thing on heat and I found the highlight of my cooking was using the gigantic mortar and pestle.  I think I prefer my cooking classes a little more hands on.

The crazy bamboo basket used to steam the fish in banana leaf on top of a pot. The same basket was later used to cook rice. I wish you could see the basket's discoloration from constant heating.

I was also not entirely thrilled about the owner/teacher wandering off to chat and smoke with friends, trying to get random passerby to buy tours, and general tendency to leave for periods of time.  Still, I learned a few things like prepping raw bamboo can make you itch so you shouldn’t touch anything.  The cooking involved a fair bit of MSG and Knorr soup base powders.  I don’t really mind MSG and I appreciate that I was seeing how one would cook at home.

Luckily for me the common Laos dishes are full of things I love.

At the end of the session we had quite a few dishes of food.  The table had a spread of buffalo larb (or lahp among other spellings), papaya salad, sauteed morning glory, banana leaf steamed fish, bamboo and tomato soup, and sticky rice.  I’m not sure if I could reproduce many of these things at home due to things like lack of cheap, fresh bamboo and I still have no idea how they made that sticky rice in a giant basket over a pot.  However now I can make a chile sauce in a giant mortar and pestle.  Midway through the meal they busted out a bunch of Beer Lao, which is about as tasty as beer gets in this area of the world.  We then wiled away the afternoon drinking and chatting about life and travel.  Overall a pleasant if slightly not what I expected experience.




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