I'm trying so hard to refrain from talking about how great Luang Prabang was eleven years ago. I don’t want to sound like that tourist, sorry, I mean traveller, who waxes lyrical over how cool they are for going to a place before most people heard about that place. By the way, I went back then because it was in the Lonely Planet guide.
The city has changed considerably, however, and while that was a shock it also meant I could get a soy latte seven times a day (Joma and Saffron both have non dairy milk). Still, it was overwhelming at times, and I was thrilled the Tamarind Cooking class took place with middle class cooking facilities in the middle of nowhere. Seriously, driving there was a bit like did I just pay someone to drive me to a location where nobody would find my body? Oh wait, no, there’s landscaping, stonework, and a pond.
If you do anything in LP, it should be the vegan cooking class at Tamarind (well it isn't vegan but there’s an option). Tamarind’s cooking class caters to vegetarians and there’s no sense of being left out. Also, they encourage the use of MSG and I think that’s wonderful since it's one of my main food groups.
We were given a choice between making jeow mak keua (aubergine dip) or jeow mak len (Lao tomato salsa). I chose the former, and it involved sticking eggplant, chillies, garlic, and shallot in a fire before pounding the ingredients into a paste. I added a lot of MSG.
The mok, which is traditionally fish steamed in banana leaves (Cambodia and Thailand have variations of this dish as well), was veganised by using bamboo shoots. The staff even maintained a separate steaming vessel for vegetarian mok parcels.
Oua si manton, or stuffed lemongrass with potato, was the most interesting and tricky dish of the night. Yes, stuffed lemongrass can happen, but only when an entire group of privileged tourists cry and other people come to fix our inabilities. Basically the process entailed making a cage out of a fat stalk of lemongrass, putting a bunch of stuff inside, and then deep frying it. For the record, I messed up a lot of lemongrass before someone cut it the right way for me.
Finally, we made khao gam, or coconut sticky rice, with tamarind sauce and lots of fresh fruit, a process of most people not paying attention to what they were doing because all anyone could think about was eating already. Also someone got really upset with me when they asked what the name of a fruit was and I told them the name of the fruit.
We sat down around a communal table with our food, plus a thousand other dishes and condiments prepared behind the scenes (with vegan versions of everything for me), and tucked in. Mushroom laap, pumpkin salad, and gaeng nor mai (bamboo shoot soup) were part of the spread, and it was a gluttonous affair where people talked about things like free range chicken and their children’s dance lessons.
I have participated in my fair share of cooking classes around Southeast Asia, and the vegetarian cooking option at Tamarind is by far the most professional and thought provoking. If you like cooking and are seeking a vegan cooking class in Luang Prabang then I highly recommend Tamarind. Be sure to arrive with a sense of humour though as at least half of your class will be comprised of UKIP (no not me, Kip) voters.
The restaurant Tamarind runs maintains a strong reputation in Luang Prabang and is securely on the itinerary of every tour package that runs through town. Reservations are recommended, especially for dinner.
One of my favourite aspects of dining here is that everything is explained as it comes out of the kitchen, from ingredients to how that particular food would be traditionally eaten. The other wonderful thing is watching the tour groups eating with their hands and saying things like “teehee, did you try eating the sticky rice with your hands, John? This is so funny!”
Tamarind understands what vegan means, and the vegetarian set menu was all vegan when I visited. I was told the ingredients in the som tam (tam mak hoong) could also be adjusted to suit.
There’s a menu item called the Seriously Vegetarian Dipping Platter, and since I am one hundred percent serious I decided to give this option a go. The plate includes a selection of four jeows (Lao dips eaten with sticky rice) and is gorgeous.
Tomato jeow (jeow mak len): mild tomato jeow with lime.
Eggplant jeow (jeow mak keua): smoky aubergine dip with a little chilli.
Pickled greens (som pak gat): garlicky pickled mustard greens.
Grilled chilli with coriander and garlic (jeow pak hom): quite spicy, but fabulous.
River vegetable chips (khai pene): tomato, garlic, and sesame seasoned dehydrated vegetable crisps.
Worth noting is my strong opinion that bael juice can be absolutely gross, but Tamarind’s version kicks arse. Worth noting is also the fact that I say "worth noting" in an awful lot in reviews.
The restaurant also sells cookbooks, ingredients, and cooking implements (if you took the cooking class and liked the tools...), so this is a good spot to hit if you’re seeking out foodie souvenirs.