Cuisines con­verge in Laos

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

Wcon­tin­ues as we wrap our own meu yang, let­tuce­leaf parcels of noo­dles, herbs, chilli pastes and shred­ded veg­etable. For af­ters, pur­ple sticky rice is served in co­conut milk with a lip-puck­er­ing tamarind sauce.

Things are more tra­di­tional at L’Ele­phant Restau­rant Fran­cais, a cor­ner es­tab­lish­ment with wicker chairs, French doors and a trans­planted Parisian air. At some point in even the most en­joy­able of Asian jour­neys, one’s stom­ach de­mands the plain and the pre­dictable and so we es­chew the house spe­cial of wild boar with chanterelles and opt for steak frites, a green salad and cold Beer Lao.

At a neigh­bour­ing ta­ble, an Amer­i­can woman with stunned eyes or­ders a hard-boiled egg.

Ho­tel food in Luang Pra­bang is tasty, too, es­pe­cially at the Ap­sara Ho­tel by the Nam Khan River. At its semi-open restau­rant, the white in­te­rior bright­ened with tan­ger­ine ta­ble run­ners and silk lanterns, buf­falo sausages are served with gin­ger, peanuts and gar­lic, and braised pork belly comes with roasted pump­kin, egg­plant chut­ney and star anise broth.

For an out-of-town din­ner, we take a tuk-tuk (which has no lights and pos­si­bly no brakes) up to La Res­i­dence Phou Vao, a 34-room Ori­ent-Ex­press prop­erty perched on Phou Vao hill. Its charm­ing restau­rant and pool­side din­ing ter­race are sur­rounded by abun­dant he­li­co­nia and frangipani.

At a ta­ble dec­o­rated with a bowl of white irises, we eat cat­fish steamed in ba­nana leaves and en­livened with le­mon­grass, fish sauce, dill and fiery lit­tle mis­siles of bird’s-eye chilli. There’s the tang of lime and a sat­is­fy­ing salti­ness; we lick our fin­gers and stack the scraped-clean ba­nana leaves on our plates like minia­ture zig­gu­rats.

The man­age­ment of La Res­i­dence Phou Vao has paid for the gold-spired stupa atop Mt Phousi, loom­ing in the dis­tance, to be il­lu­mi­nated. It has be­come a draw­card for din­ers, this vi­sion of an or­na­mented, blue-lit build­ing seem­ingly float­ing in the dark­ness. We toast the oth­er­worldly spec­ta­cle with hi­bis­cus flower juice and opt for an early night. Next morn­ing we will get up at rooster’s call to climb the 355 steps up the moun­tain and be ready to start eat­ing all over again.

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ILL it be wa­ter buf­falo casse­role, coq au vin, hand­fuls of sticky rice mixed with smoky egg­plant dip or Lao-style creme brulee with pump­kin and co­conut?

Vis­i­tors to Luang Pra­bang, Laos’s en­chant­ing lit­tle UNESCO-pro­tected her­itage town, have a choice of lo­cal, French colo­nial or zesty fu­sion fare and, for Aus­tralians, there’s the un­ex­pected bonus of eat­ing at Tamarind, run by Mel­bourne ex­pat Caro­line Gay­lard and her Lao part­ner, Joy.

But first we visit the morn­ing mar­ket, which is not an or­gan­ised af­fair with rows of stalls in spe­cialised lanes. It’s a foot­path mar­ket with dewfresh pro­duce laid on the ground on merry flo­ral or checked table­cloths. The sell­ers, mainly women, have brought in the pro­duce from their farms.

There are ba­nanas and sliced egg­plants be­ing grilled on bra­ziers and tiny finches in bam­boo cages, their des­ti­na­tions un­known but per­haps too doomed to con­tem­plate. The Luang Pra­bang spe­cialty of jaew bawng, mashed chillis and dried buf­falo skin pounded to the con­sis­tency of jam, is sold ready-made in plas­tic bags.

Housewives are pounc­ing at the red­dest toma­toes, the snap­pi­est green beans and boun­ci­est bunches of bit­ter phak nam, or wa­ter­cress. There ap­pears to be a lot of hag­gling about qual­ity and price and hold­ing aloft of bunches of shal­lots, all but shak­ing their stalks off. But trans­ac­tions in­vari­ably end in big smiles and the con­tented pat­ting of laden shop­ping bags.

So the chefs at Luang Pra­bang’s restau­rants surely have no short­age of gar­den in­gre­di­ents or a paucity of fresh fish, given Luang Pra­bang’s for­tu­itous lo­ca­tion at the con­flu­ence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. Whole perch from th­ese wa­ters will be wok-fried with gar­lic and chilli or chopped and threaded on to le­mon­grass skew­ers or popped into soups fra­grant with citronella and mush­rooms. Dried river moss is fried and gar­nished with se­same seeds.

At the cafe-style Tamarind, with its crowd­ed­to­gether ta­bles and bustling wait­ers, we drink a tonic-like mix of le­mon­grass and gin­ger, cleanse our hands with scented tow­els and use our fin­gers to eat. From a lid­ded bam­boo bas­ket we scoop hand­fuls of gluti­nous rice, which we form into balls and plunge into dips of smashed sour fruit, crushed pump­kin seeds, mushy egg­plant and chilli-co­rian­der rel­ish. The in­ter­ac­tive ap­proach Tamarind of­fers cook­ing classes, guided mar­ket vis­its and com­mu­nal ta­bles for solo trav­ellers on Fri­day nights. More: www.tamarind­laos.com. www.ele­phant-restau.com www.theap­sara.com www.ori­ent-ex­press.com

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