The moment we arrived at the restaurant, I realized it had been quite a long time since I had taken a cooking class. It’s been at least the two years since I’ve lived in Vietnam, and so I do believe the last class I took was in Chiang Mai, Thailand in 2008…the start of my fabulous travel adventures that year.
Every great cooking class should start with a visit to the local market. I absolutely LOVE markets. They are so fascinating to me. You learn so much about a culture just by watching what happens at the market. You learn what foods are grown in the region and what is imported, what are native species of fish, how food is prepared, what types of flavors or spices go into the food and you learn a lot about hygiene.
What I love to watch is how the people interact. Do they have nice polite conversations? Negotiations on price? A bit of loud commentary on the quality and freshness of the product? At one market in Thailand ages ago, I saw a woman yell at the man who was gutting her fish. I’m pretty sure she thought he was cutting back too much of the meat. In Laos, people were kind, polite and efficient in their shopping.
One little tidbit I enjoyed is that all of the butchers in Laos are women. Our instructor, Joy said that is because the woman were always the butchers…the men hunted and gave the catch to their wife, so they have the most skill at chopping up the animal. Joy says women are quick and precise, and that they make excellent butchers. Makes perfect sense. Why, then, in the US are most butchers men?
Once we left the market, it was off to the countryside, and a lovely, simple space which was perfect for a cooking class. Surrounded by lush gardens, lotus ponds, large fish pools and waterfalls, we set-up our stations and got started. Asian dishes, including Lao food are refreshingly simple…it’s really a matter of having the right and freshest ingredients and the proper tools to achieve the desired dish. In Thailand, we used all organic foods, too and cooked everything in a wok. In Lao, the herbs and spices are similar (chili!!!) but it’s all cooked over a small fire. Even the rice is cooked in a basket in a pot over the charcoal. Somehow, the rudimentary style of preparing food makes it all the more exciting to prepare and cook!
Aside from the chicken-stuffed lemongrass you see pictured here, we also made a sticky rice dip, a soup, fish in banana leaf and coconut rice. The group in our class were all super people, and we marveled at how all of us were using the same ingredients, but each of our dishes came out so totally different. My sticky rice dip, which is like a Lao style salsa, turned out much more Mexican flavored because of my obsession with coriander. Pete didn’t use much if any chili, and so his roasted eggplant dominated the taste in his dip. Our friend Sith, who was participating in his first cooking class, had the most authentic taste – not surprisingly!
My favorite dish we prepared was the stuffed lemongrass. It was fun to make, would certainly impress if served at a dinner party and tasted absolutely divine! Remind me not to let 2 years go by without taking a cooking class. It’s a passion I’ve not tapped into in far too long. I loved the class and remembered why I so favor the flavors of this region of the world!