‘And then’ he said, ‘we have snake’.
I swear I heard somebody gasp in horror at the back of the group in that moment, and the rest of us simply looked at each other as if to say ‘shit, did he really just say we’re going to eat snake?’. In our shared, silent shock, he quickly realised his mistake.
We were merely going to have a snack, not a snake – or at least we all hoped it wasn’t going to be a snake-snack. We all laughed nervously and, somehow, I felt this slip-up brought us all closer together.
A Taste of Lao Cuisine: A Cooking Course in Luang Prabang
The day began with a walk to Tamarind, a restaurant and cooking school in Laos’ most beautiful mountainous town. I hadn’t had chance to book the day course in advance, but I thought I’d swing by just to see if they had room for one more; as luck would have it (you knew this part was coming), they did! That has to be another bonus of travelling solo – the fact that there very often is room for ‘just one more’. The downside of this thrilling news was that it made my purse cry out and threaten to throw itself into the ever-present Mekong River the next chance it got. 285,000 notes lighter, me and my hollowed-out purse were offered a welcome drink and told to take a seat to wait for the rest of the group to arrive.
In case you’re wondering, 285,000 Laotian kip is actually only about 24 British pounds, but in Laos – one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia – that’s a helluva lot of money. To put that amount into perspective, you can pile your plate as high as you can with food (as I did do more than once) at the Night Market for just 15,000 kip (£1.26), or you can order a main course and a glass of red inside a restaurant for around 40,000 (£3.37). It’s definitely more expensive than in Thailand, but I think that has to do with it being designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site back in 1995.
Phosi Market Tour: Not for the Faint-Hearted
Once we’d introduced ourselves and pleasantries had been made, we were bundled into a songthaew and bound for the local market for a tour.
A warning sign to all squeamish folk outside of Phosi Market’s main entrance wouldn’t be a bad idea; in fact, I can hardly think of a better incentive for more tourists to visit. ‘Are you man enough to stride into pools of animal blood?’, it would read. ‘To breathe in and let the scent of rotting fish fill your nostrils? To look into the dead-eyes of a butcher and watch as she monotonously hacks at meat?’
Sure, that could definitely work.
In all seriousness though, the meat market truly was horrific to walk through. I distinctly remember a lifeless chicken – head still intact – plucked of all its feathers upside-down on the bloody ground; it had fallen from the table and been left, quite literally, for dead. Lumps of meat strewn every which way and the continuous thud of cleaver knives and loud chitter-chatter combined with the smell was overbearing. Even our tour guide and chef, Sit, confessed he couldn’t stand it in there. Ha!
Fortunately there was another – brighter – side to Phosi which was out in the open air: the fresh fruit and veg market. Here’s a video clip of Sit (our cook and guide) talking about the different varieties of rice:
Folding, Grinding & Cooking in Laos
I’ll be honest, my cooking knowledge doesn’t go far beyond burnt toast and bland pasta, but I think that’s laziness more than anything. Fish steamed in banana leaves may sound exotic, but what could be so difficult about folding fish into a leafy package and steaming it? Turns out, quite a lot. Folding those banana leaves is an art form; get it wrong and seapage becomes a very real possibility, and nobody wants that. Of course it’s all in the timing, too, but luckily Sit was there to ensure chaos didn’t ensue. Here’s a full list of what we all made that day:
- Purple sticky rice with coconut sauce: ‘khao gam’
- Aubergine (eggplant) dip: ‘jeow mak keua’
- Stuffed lemongrass: ‘oua si khai’
- Peanut dipping sauce: ‘jeow som’
- Luang Prabang stew: ‘orlarm’
- Fish steamed in banana leaves: ‘mok pa’
Cutting the lemongrass was also extremely fiddly, but fun nonetheless. I think my favourite thing on the whole menu (and possibly the easiest to make) was the peanut dipping sauce, so much so I ended up just dipping everything into it. The purple sticky rice was interesting to try, since it’s entirely different from the rice we know so well in the UK (it tastes sweet, for one, and it’s purple).
All in all I can think of plenty worse ways to spend a day, or 24 pounds for that matter. Would I dish out 285,000 kip again for this cooking class in Laos? Definitely, though I feel duty-bound at this point to mention that my purse did actually disappear that night, which you can read more about in a solo travel writing post here: ‘A Conversation with a Liverpudlian in Laos‘. Anyhow, the photo below shows the end result, and for someone who barely cooks, I don’t think I did too badly!
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