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Lao Cooking

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!


Lost in the souks

If you’re an avid reader of my blog, you’ll know that I love markets.  You can tell a lot about a culture simply by taking a good look at life in the markets.  You can gather what food people eat, what items they may have in their home, how the locals treat each other, how they negotiate, what people wear, how much English and other languages are spoken and also how touristy the area is or revel in its authenticity.

The souks in Marrakech were fascinating to me because the paths are totally chaotic, it’s noisy, a bit smelly and crowded, except when it’s time for prayer.  There’s no real organization save a section where all of the metal works are done.  Mosques are found nearly anywhere, but I would be hard pressed to recognize a doorway without a guide.  When I walked alone, I was often the focus of attention for my blue eyes.

Moroccan men are not shy, that’s for sure.  When they would call after me in French, I ignored them.  When they figured out I speak English, a few had it in them to run after me and say, “Madamme, madamme.  One question. One question, please.”  When I would agree they would ask, “What is your name?”  Sometimes I answered truthfully and sometimes not.  On one occasion, I went with Maria.  After I answered, they would follow with, “Where are you from?”  But then I would smile and wag my finger and say, “Nope.  That’s two questions.  Have a great day.”  And I would walk away. This drove them nuts!

Usually when I am in a new place, I love buying treasures which I hope to keep forever.  I still have mementos from the Caribbean, Russia, Italy and other trips from long ago.  But oddly enough, I didn’t do that much shopping on this trip.  Of course I bought some Moroccan shoes – that was fun.  A gorgeous red pair, which would normally be worn at a wedding is a pair of shoes I will keep on display somewhere.  I bought twenty smaller pair on keychains to give out as gifts to friends and some staff at the office.  Other than that – not much else was possible.

I would have loved to have bought a lamp, some pillows, even a carpet.  But that’s not really practical with a suitcase packed for a 20 day business trip!  If we go to this show again next year, I am definitely planning and packing and shopping way differently!  I really like the Moroccan style, particularly what I saw at the 2 riads I stayed in.  So next year, Marrakech – look out!



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