Tamarind Cooking School, Luang Prabang

posted on: Monday, 30 September 2013

A bridge over much calmer water in Luang Prabang

Following my recent visit to Hanoi, I’ve written a lot about my street food favourites. But one of my best tips is actually about how to escape Hanoi! A fifty minute flight across to the north of Laos, Luang Prabang is the ultimate in relaxation.  If you get a chance, I would strongly recommend trying a cooking class there, though maybe not in the circumstances I found myself in last time…

'Oh. My. God. I thought we were going to die!’ I said giggling with hysteria, able to admit this only once the tuk-tuk had safely delivered us back to Luang Prabang town centre. 

‘I thought we’d be murdered and hacked to pieces, then thrown into that whooshing river, never to be discovered again!’ My mother contributed, warming to the murder scenario-theme.

‘Me too!’ Everyone rushed to agree, looking relieved.

Let me take it back a few steps.  Our destination was the Tamarind Cooking School run by the super-friendly Laotian chef, Joy. We left, what I consider to be one of the world's ultimate hotels The Apsara, in clear weather, but as our tuk-tuk drove us out onto the dirt roads of the Laotian countryside, clouds darkened and heavy rain set in. The further we got into the deserted hills, the more torrential the weather got. By the time we made it to the cooking school, the ground was so slippery and bogged down with mud, they had to put planks of wood on the ground so we could actually walk into the property.

Once we made it in, sopping wet, we admired the setting: a beautiful wood hut perched above a river. Joy started our class by showing us all the fresh Laotian produce we would be cooking with: fragrant lemongrass, huge coconuts, mountains of fresh herbs. And then, all of a sudden we were standing in pitch black. 

With the lights out, we became pretty aware that we were standing in the middle of a thick wilderness. Isolated. Surrounded by a group of Laotian men we had never met before. And a deafening river steadily rising underneath us. We all looked at each other with panic in our eyes. 

Thankfully Joy wasn't perturbed! He pulled out his mobile phone and improvised. By the light of his phone, we cut the bases of lemongrass and stuffed them with seasoned chicken mince, wrapped fresh fish in banana leaves with herbs, made our own coconut milk through white muslin and poured it over purple dessert rice to go with a tamarind sauce and ripe mango. And then, of course, the lights came back on.

Back in town, when we had very much established that the school is not run by murderers, but very nice, resourceful people, it finally hit us: Laotian food is amazing! Despite our tension, the class was a real highlight in Asian cooking. So if you get the chance to visit Luang Prabang, please make sure you stop by the unforgettable Tamarind Cooking School - just be sure to check the weather forecast before you go!  

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