His black chef’s hat was the shape of traditional Hmong tribal hats, and it brought him up to almost 5 feet tall.
Chaiva, our cooking teacher for the day, had a keen sense of humor and talked faster than an auctioneer at an Iowa barn sale. He may have been short, but his ambitions (to come to America and be a famous TV chef) soared as high as the craggy peaks surrounding the city of Luang Prabang, Laos.
Luang Prabang is one of the most beguiling cities in all of Southeast Asia and is just beginning to be discovered by the crowds of tourists.
It lies on a peninsula between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. The cooking class I attended was sponsored by Tamarind restaurant, and the high point of our time in Laos last winter.
Tamarind is known for its excellent traditional Laotian cuisine. The restaurant and cooking school also focuses on training young Hmong tribal villagers who are leaving their families in the mountains to learn trades in the growing tourist industry.
The first thing we did in our class was to stroll through the local market with Chaiva.
The names of mounds of greens and vegetables I didn’t recognize rolled off his tongue in both English and Lao.
Many looked similar to varieties in our own markets, but there wasn’t enough time to taste and compare. I think, primarily for the pleasure of seeing the squeamish looks on our tourist faces, Chaiva walked us through the meat section of the market where more exotic foods were sold.
As in most poor countries, every edible food source available is used — congealed blood squares, pig and buffalo uteruses, farmed frogs and a wide variety of bugs and smiling fish heads to name just a few. Luckily, we didn’t experiment with these in our cooking class.
Then, the 10 of us were taken to an open-air pavilion outside of town amid gardens and a lotus pond.
Each of us had our own cooking station.
And small world that it is, the woman cooking next to me was coming to Grass Valley for a wedding this winter.
When most people think of Asian food, it’s either Thai or Vietnamese. The foods of Laos, though not as well known, have distinguishing flavors all their own.
Our first dish we prepared was a pumpkin soup in coconut milk with finely grated ginger. All my taste buds wanted to jump up and dance. Next, we prepared river weed and rice with dipping sauces, which tasted far more delicious than it looked.
Kaffir lime leaf, chilies, cilantro, fish sauce, sticky rice, elephant ear mushrooms — all these ingredients from Southeast Asia weave together tantalizing flavors and textures, but it isn’t necessary to fly half way around the world to enjoy the cuisine.
There are several wonderful restaurants right downtown that offer delectable and reasonably priced meals.
Most people don’t know it, but we even have a Laotian restaurant.
Panoy is located across from the baseball diamond in Memorial Park on Colfax Avenue. Look closely as the sign is small, but owner Touty Sanith and her daughter, Panoy, are committed to serving traditional Laotian entrees.
Panoy’s grandfather opened the first Thai restaurant in Grass Valley on Neal Street in 1991. He thought at the time that a Thai-based menu would be more acceptable to the community than Laotian.
It’s also easy to prepare these dishes at home. The main stumbling block for most people is the assumption that the spices and ingredients are hard to find.
“Finding the ingredients you need for Thai food is really easy,” said Nok Becker, longtime manager of Sopa Thai in Nevada City.
“They are pretty widely available in most markets and natural foods stores. At the farmers markets, you may find Hmong farmers who grow and sell Thai chilies, cilantro, and Thai basil. For instance, kaffir lime leaves, a leathery leaf that gives a distinct fragrance, is available in season in plastic containers. It is somewhat expensive, but you will use a small amount, and it freezes well.”
The fiery Thai chilies grow in our climate, and they are easy to dry, but the spicier serrano chilies can also be substituted.
Galangal, used in many Thai recipes, can be replaced with small amounts of ginger. Lemon grass is available at most grocery stores year round.
Everyone loves Pad Thai. It’s the dish most associated with Thailand. It is often served with bowls of extra chili powder, ground peanuts, cilantro and slices of lime so that each person can make the dish as spicy as he or she wants it.
I try to mince and chop all the ingredients I will need before beginning the whole process. That way they are ready to go.
1/2 box of Thai Kitchen stir fry rice noodles, about 7 oz.
2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon fish sauce or soy sauce
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
3 tablespoons cooking oil
3 to 5 cloves garlic, minced
About a quarter pound tofu, drained and cut into squares and/or about a cup of cut-up chicken
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 carrot, grated
1 bunch green onions, sliced fine
1 or 2 Thai chilies (or Serrano)
1 cup chopped cilantro/parsley/baby greens mix
Lime juice to taste and about ¼ cup water
Generous handfuls of mung bean sprouts
Reserve some of the greens to have available at the table.
Serve with bowls of additional lime, ground peanuts and chili powder.
In a small bowl combine the sugar, fish sauce, and oyster sauce; set aside.
Bring large pot of water to a boil. Remove from heat and add the stir fry rice noodles let stand 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Soak until noodles are soft but firm. Drain well, rinse under cold water and set aside.
In a wok or medium fry pan add the cooking oil and then the garlic for one minute.
Then add the chicken and tofu.
Stir fry two to three minutes until chicken turns white; then add the egg.
Add the seasoning mix with the carrot and green onions.
Just before turning off the heat add the cilantro/parsley mix, mung beans and lime juice.
Add the noodles to this mix, additional lime juice to taste and about a quarter cup of water.
Mix all ingredients together and serve with the bowls of condiments.
Patti Bess is a local freelance writer and cookbook author. She will be teaching a class on the flavors of Southeast Asia at In the Kitchen Cooking School on Oct.3. Register by calling BriarPatch Co-op at 530-272-5333.