Two great meals in Laos

So far I’ve had, among many memorable meals, two unbelievable ones. The first was on my last night in Luang Namtha, on the outskirts of town near the old airport, at a restaurant called the Boat Landing, which happens to share its name with the most upscale lodgings in town (rooms go for about $20 a night). I hired a tuk tuk to take me out there after I’d showered upon returning from my kayaking adventure, since from what I’d read in brochures around town and from what the staff at Green Discovery had told me when I’d asked, this was the place to try well prepared traditional Lao food in a relaxed and somewhat upscale atmosphere. I asked the waiter for some recommendations, since the set meals were all designed for 2-3 people, and despite my desire to try a lot of dishes, that seemed slightly excessive.

Dinner - Rice, fish laap, and pork jeow chili paste - Boat Landing Restaurant - Luang Namtha
Pork jeow chili paste - Boat Landing Restaurant - Luang Namtha

I went with his vote for the fish laap, accompanied by the nam pik awng chili paste with pork, steamed rice (since I was a bit tired of sticky rice after eating it four meals straight), and a lemon-mint shake, concocted by the chef himself. None of these choices could have been better. The fish laap was green as the jungle, with finely minced river fish happily overwhelmed by chopped leaves of various herbs, like mint and cilantro, as well as garlic, chiles, scallions, ground roasted sticky rice, and crescents of shredded banana flower. The nam pik awng tasted surprisingly like a spicy, umami Bolognese ragu, and was delicious spread on top of the crisp cucumber rounds and parboiled carrots that accompanied it. The Boat House offers some of their recipes online here, and I’m fairly certain the one for tofu laap could easily be adapted to recreate the properly piscine version I had the fortune to consume.

The second meal was the dinner I ate last night, after my first real day in Luang Prabang, the third-largest city in Laos (with a population of only 16,000!). I ventured down the peninsula toward where the Kham River meets the Mekong to check out the 3 Nagas restaurant (website currently under construction). One of four eateries in town run by a pair of enterprising business partners, 3 Nagas was written up in the food section of the Times two summers ago, and it was that article (by Amanda Hesser, of whose writing I’m usually not a fan) that fanned my eagerness to travel to Laos, and especially Luang Prabang. (Since the article is only available to subscribers like myself, who may or may not have filched their mothers’ delivery account numbers to access archived articles for free, I’ll paste the full text of it below.)

Crispy rice cake with jaew maklen - 3 Nagas
Fried coconut sticky rice with sour pork - 3 Nagas

The restaurant appealed from the moment I walked by, with real wine glasses, tablecloths, and what Amanda Hesser described somewhat overdramatically in her Times piece as a floor the color of ox blood. The real star, however, was the menu, and the food that issued from it. When I first sat down, an amuse bouche–of jaew maklen chili paste on a crispy rice cake–appeared, as if by magic I’d been transported from Laos to New York or Paris. Again on the waiter’s recommendation, I started with the salad of fried coconut sticky rice and sour pork, which was one of the subtlest and most delicious dishes I’ve eaten in my entire life. The flavors were so quiet but persistent at the same time, I almost had to order a second helping to take home with me for later…though I managed some restraint. The pork with eggplant was good but not resplendent, though the jaew bong chili paste, the traditional Luang Prabang variety, shined with its dark undertones of dried buffalo skin and roasted garlic.

Jaew bong chili paste - 3 Nagas
Bamboo rice steamer - 3 Nagas

Eating these chili pastes always feels somehow verboten, as if they contained the blood of Christian children or a secret alchemical elixir of life. This food is dangerous, stuff not for sunny days but for consumption in some coven’s cavern, scooped up with fingers and placed on the tongue to facilitate communion with some dark governor.

Stir-fried pork and eggplant - 3 Nagas
Tamarind sorbet - 3 Nagas

Safer fare was to be found in the dessert section of the menu, where a tamarind sorbet tempted even my bulging belly. I washed it down with the last of my half-carafe of the house white–a sprightly cuvee snagged for just $7–and made my way back to my guesthouse, where I passed out in a gourmand’s reverie.

Full text of the New York Times article, “To Eat in Laos,” by Amanda Hesser, published July 13, 2005, follows. Click on “Read the rest of this entry” to see it.

FROM my seat at an outdoor table at the Café Ban Vat Sene I had a privileged view of the afternoon’s civic unrest. The traffic on the main street of Luang Prabang, Laos’s third-largest city (population 16,000 at its core), had come to a halt. Poised nose to nose in the avenue were a large dog and a bellicose lizard. Children gathered to watch. I clutched a glass of Lao beer as the dog growled and lunged and the lizard leapt at the dog’s snout. When the dog finally began to get the upper hand, the lizard wisely high-tailed it into a bush. The traffic resumed its customary slow pace and I resumed drinking my beer, which, like most food and drink in this town, tasted mighty fine.

Laotian food hasn’t yet made it onto the world stage, and that may be because most people treat lush and tiny Laos like Luxembourg and Andorra — countries too small, too obscure, to bother with. Until I visited, the most elaborate description I had been given of the cuisine was that it was ‘’like Vietnamese but with better sausage.'’

By now, the country is used to being slighted. When Alix de Fautereau, a French artist, was commissioned to paint murals in the royal palace in 1930, she painted the eyes of the Lao people blue (mostly they are brown). And even though the Pathet Lao, a violent regime, overthrew the monarchy in 1975, it barely registered with the rest of the world (it’s hard to get your fair share of ink when you live next door to Pol Pot).

The city of Luang Prabang was once known throughout Laos for its exceptional food because the royal family, who had the best cooks, resided there. After the Pathet Lao sent several members of the royal family to re-education camps (where it is presumed they died), people went back to cooking more simply, and the composed cuisine of the monarchy went into hibernation.

But lately Laos has made remarkable culinary strides, and in Luang Prabang, at least, much of the turnaround can be credited to Yannick Upravan and Gilles Vautrin, two business partners. Mr. Upravan, whose family fled to France in 1980, and his French partner, Mr. Vautrin, have opened three exceptional restaurants and a cafe within several hundred yards of each other. Their latest, 3 Nagas, is devoted to traditional Laotian cooking, where it is served in an open-air room with a floor the color of ox blood. If 3 Nagas were transported to New York, the lines would stretch out the door.

The night my husband, Tad, and I first dined there, it was the off-season and the restaurant was nearly empty. Soon we were eating kaipen — a rustic cousin of nori made from riverweeds that are cut into spongy squares and fried — spread with a roasted chili, garlic and buffalo-skin paste called jaew bong. For about three seconds, the paste was sweet and pungent, and then fire blazed through my mouth. We drank khao kam — a fizzy and delicate pink rice wine served in a stemmed glass with a slice of lime. This was followed by water buffalo stew, thickened with crushed eggplant and flavored with galangal, a spicy forest vine called sakhan and tiny astringent eggplants the size of marbles; minced fish and banana leaf salad; pork sausage flush with lemon grass; and a dish of fried eggplant and minced pork.

Nothing we tasted reminded us of Thailand or of Vietnam. Every flavor vindicated the distance we had traveled; every sip of that rice wine told us we were in Laos. The restaurant 3 Nagas stands out not merely in Luang Prabang but in all of Southeast Asia, a region filled with sophisticated restaurants designed for Western tourists. Most of those places, like the Metropole in Hanoi and the Oriental in Bangkok, conform to Western tastes, toning down the heat in dishes — defanging them — and adding reassuring props like salads and fried rice.

At 3 Nagas, you get Western comforts — white tablecloths, professional service — but almost no Western concessions on the menu. ‘’The idea we have is we don’t want to adapt,'’ said Mr. Vautrin, 49, a tall and reserved man who rides his bicycle everywhere. Mr. Upravan added: ‘’If they don’t like it, it doesn’t matter. They just have to try.'’

Traditional Laotian cooking involves a lot of game, wild boar and river fish, as well as the occasional bug and water monitor. Because Laos, which is wedged between Thailand and Vietnam, is landlocked, there are no ocean fish.

‘’If you give a Lao a fish from the ocean, they won’t like it,'’ Mr. Upravan said. ‘’They’ll say it doesn’t smell of the earth.'’

Luang Prabang, which is in the north, is surrounded on three sides by river — the Mekong and Nam Khan rim the town, merging at the southern tip of the city before gliding on toward Vientiane in the south. River fish are on every menu.

Mr. Upravan, 35, a fit man who looks as if he belongs at an art gallery in SoHo, was born in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, and lived there until he was 11 and his family escaped to France. He later graduated from École Hôtelière de Thonon, the famous hotel school in southeast France, then worked for Télé-Restaurant, a large catering company in Geneva. On a visit he made to Luang Prabang in 1994, his grandmother asked him to come back and open a business in a building she owned.

Seeing that tourism was on the rise, he decided to open a guesthouse and asked Mr. Vautrin to be his business partner. As they renovated the place, they realized it was not large enough to be a guesthouse — but that it was perfectly suited for a restaurant.

And since they had been taking their meals at local restaurants, they saw that there was an empty niche in high-end dining. In 1999, they opened L’Éléphant, an open-air affair with twirling fans and rattan chairs straight out of ‘’Casablanca.'’ A great success, the restaurant serves pared-down and elegant food, blending French and Laotian cooking in such specialties as Mekong fish stew, river fish in a delicate mustard and butter sauce.

Next, they opened the Café Ban Vat Sene, French Colonial down to the wicker chairs and croissants served with banana and pineapple jam. Then the French and Canadian owners of the 3 Nagas hotel, down the street from the cafe, asked Mr. Upravan and Mr. Vautrin to open two restaurants for them. The partners agreed, but wanted to be sure the two places, 3 Nagas and Mango Tree, would be nothing like the ones they already owned.

‘’In French, we say don’t cannibalize, don’t eat your own business,'’ Mr. Vautrin said. So they gave Mango Tree an interpretive menu with dishes like sticky rice risotto, wild boar pâté and kaipen pasta.

Mr. Upravan gets his cooking tips from his aunt, who lives next to L’Éléphant. ‘’All day I can hear her,'’ he said. ‘’At 5 in the morning she is making steamed rice; at 9, I smell the chilies. She cooks all day.'’ He brings her cake and she shares her secrets.

There are still a number of other good cooks in town. Thongdy Pongsack, a chef of the former king who is now 79, spends her days chewing betel and helping her son and daughter run a sausage company. Down the street from 3 Nagas is a traditional soup stall, where you can dine on pork tripe and belly in beef broth with papaya, banana flower and morning glory stems. It is said to be frequented by a former princess.

The success of 3 Nagas, Mango Tree and L’Éléphant have stirred a culinary renaissance; there are now a number of boutique hotels that contain sophisticated restaurants. These new restaurants have effectively resurrected the local cooking, which had been threatened by influences from Thailand and China, and oddly enough, by the country’s increasing prosperity.

‘’Luang Prabang was preserved because there was no money to change,'’ Mr. Upravan said. ‘’People didn’t have money to fix a door, so the door stayed the same.'’ The city was named a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1995, so many of the doors will remain unchanged. But when the money from tourists did start coming in the late 1990’s, Luang Prabang began struggling with the same issues of cultural integrity that many Southeast Asian cities now face. The new capitalism has brought with it silk shops and Internet cafes, in which you will find tourists and monks side by side, tapping away at the computers.

JoMa, an American-style coffee shop, recently opened, serving up lattes and coconut bars. The delicious ice creams at L’Éléphant and the Apsara, another boutique hotel with a good restaurant, come from Paradice, a company in Vientiane owned by a French immigrant.

Traditionally, Laos does have better sausage than Vietnam — everything from blood sausage to slender pork links to water buffalo patties flavored with kaffir lime leaf. Laotians also eat pho, only it often contains more greens than its Vietnamese counterpart. Some of the most traditional foods found in Luang Prabang are bamboo salad; edible leaves filled with eggplant, rice noodles, lemon grass, ginger and coriander; deep-fried eggs stuffed with pork; fish and meat salads called laap; sun-dried buffalo; and pork belly cured with vinegar and garlic and grilled on sticks.

Laos, like its neighbors, depends on rice as a staple. But Laotians eat sticky rice, which they crush into a ball with their fingers and use like a sponge to soak up sauces, instead of using chopsticks. They also eat a great deal of vegetables and herbs, with a preference for bitter, herbal and astringent flavors, the telltale characteristics of Laotian cooking. Mr. Upravan uses this as his authenticity test. ‘’Everywhere I go I order fried vegetables with meat, and if it’s sweet, I know it’s not local,'’ he said.

By catering to tourists, Mr. Upravan and Mr. Vautrin have carved out a fine living for themselves. But they struggle with what they’ve wrought. One evening, Mr. Upravan took me to the night market in town to show me some of the local foods. We were more than halfway through when Mr. Upravan stopped and pointed to a grilled banana leaf packet. ‘’Look, this is knap,'’ he said. Stuffed with fish and herbs, the packet is much like cooking en papillote, in which you preserve all the perfumes of the food inside the packet, and is a typical Laotian preparation. ‘’All these stalls,'’ Mr. Upravan added, ‘’and this is the first knap we see. This is why I’m afraid for Lao food. If it’s like this in 10 years, maybe you will find sushi and miso soup in town.'’

My husband and I later returned to the market and took the advice of Tim Kelley, who documented his own gastronomic tour of Laos on his Web log, runawaychef.com. As Mr. Kelley suggested at his site, we bought a plastic plate for 30 cents from one of the food vendors at the bottom of the hill and made our way to the top, where the best Laotian food is. We piled the plate with grilled sour pork, papaya salad and whatever else we could fit, and ate the food while sitting on the sidewalk.

The pork was succulent, its fat so rich you had to peel it from the wooden skewers. A local guide had told me earlier, ‘’We say the way to keep your husband at home is by the taste of your tongue.'’ I can’t imagine there are too many husbands wandering off in Luang Prabang. Mine was busy devouring our dinner, and wasn’t going anywhere.

Posted by Ali on November 18th, 2006

34 Comments »

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Wendy said

December 8, 2006 @ 3:51 pm

I am a staff of the elephant since 2 month (French in a sabatical year) and would like to tell you we thank you for all the good copliments you made on our food. We will try to improve the secodn dish you had!! ;-)

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Ali said

December 10, 2006 @ 12:54 am

Thanks, Wendy! My meal really was delicious…I was quite impressed with both the food and the service :).

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Pierre said

March 10, 2007 @ 7:41 pm

Congratulations on some fine articles (and even finer dining, it seems LOL). I have linked to your review of the Reef Cafe and will in due course also add a link to this article from our Laos pages at the trivago travel community. Keep up the good work!

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Ali said

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Thanks, Pierre! I really appreciate it.

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