Cuisines converge in Laos
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.
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