As the former capital of the Land of a Million Elephants, the small temple town of Luang Prabang in northern Laos developed a cuisine as distinctive as its scenery; set deep in a valley ringed by forested mountain tops, with a clutch of gilded temples and colonial villas auspiciously flanked by the co-joining Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. Featuring raw fish plucked from the river and cured in lime juice, long cook stews of mountain game, tree bark for spice, wild herbs for freshness and a handful of foreign ingredients - dill, tomatoes and chilli, all which arrived with a Dutch trader in the 16th century, while flavour and freshness lay at the heart of the cuisine, it was technique matured in the kitchens of the royal courts that gave it flair. Herbaceous, earthy, and no stranger to spice, most dishes are brazen and bold and designed to be eaten with - and in many cases toned down with - rice, here a low-starch, sticky variety cooked in a bamboo hat and kneaded into a ball to dip into pastes or scoop up dishes.
The History of Luang Prabang's Cuisine
Falling into insignificance after Lao’s communist revolution in 1975, when the town’s aristocratic population was exiled and the courts dismantled, Luang Prabang’s culinary heritage had almost disappeared when the town was awarded World Heritage status in 1995 and a pattering of tourists started to arrive, creating a demand for the old styles of cooking.
The guardians of this revival were chefs whose families had fled with the communist revolution and then returned, or by locals intrigued by the dishes of Phia Sing, the former cook and master of ceremonies for the royal court, whose elusive recipes were found in notebooks and published by British diplomat Alan Davidson in the 1980’s.
The Dishes to try in Luang Prabang
After years of relative obscurity, dishes like Or Lam, a stew made from bone stock, chilli, lemongrass, smoked meat and pounded eggplant, barbecued and then pounded sticky rice, and most crucially, the bark of the sakan tree, also known as pepperwood, which is gathered from local forests and boiled for a peppery tinge, came back to the table.
It’s Or Lam’s sister, Or Paedaek, that takes the stew to a new height. Also prepared with smoked meat and herbs, Or Paedaek bursts with big flavour obtained by a generous dollop of paedaek, a fermented fish paste used widely throughout South East Asian countries and added to give dishes sour notes. Topped with galangal, the shredded and highly aromatic leaf of the kaffir lime tree and cloudy ear mushrooms foraged from the forest during the monsoon, the dish is both zesty and slightly citrusy.
The defining elements of Luang Prabang Cuisine
The defining elements of Luang Prabang cuisine is the time and effort spent in preparation. Lemongrasses cut along their length are painstakingly stuffed with pork minced with a cleaver and shallots pounded with a pestle before grilled over coals and to leek the delicate aroma of the citrus grass and then deep fried. Mok Paa Fork is river fish diced and pounded before blended with shallots, dill, coconut milk and egg before being steamed in banana leaf.
Of course with so few reference points it’s difficult to assess how authentic Luang Prabang’s cuisine still is. Many tourist restaurants dumb down dishes, afraid of their foreign guest’s delicate palates. A flood of cheap processed foods and additives from China and Vietnam have many cooks reaching for sugar and monosodium glutamate (MSG) instead of boiling bones for stock and foraging for herbs. Hydro-electric dams along the Mekong in China have made growing endemic greens like kai peng- a river weed pounded into a paper like sheet, sprinkled with sesame seeds or garlic chips and deep fried- harder to cultivate due to the periodic discharging flooding the river’s lower reaches. Despite the issues threatening the cuisine, the fact it has survived at all is cause for a celebratory feast.