Lao is home to some pretty exotic food and ingredients. We had seen some really unusual things in the markets but of course had no way to cook any of them or any clue where to begin if we did.
The local restaurants weren't much help either, most being tailored to more western tastes or else with menus in Lao and completely undiscernable.
Tamarind to the rescue!
This cute little place down by the river is run by a husband and wife team who are committed to preserving traditional Lao foods in the best way possible, by cooking them and then letting people eat the results. Brilliant.
Specifically they offer something they call the Adventurous Lao Gourmet. With 24 hours notice, you can let the chef know about anything you're interested in trying, anything you've seen on the streets, and then along with a host of other unusual dishes, they'll cook it up in an impressive multi-course meal.
It's like they read my mind.
We started with platter of various salads, dips and appetizers. The green paste in the middle is river weed with dill and green onion.
The rolls are wild betel leaf wrapped around tiny seeds called mak sun phot which translates as "fruit sour too much" and it's a pretty damn accurate description.
Some of the other offerings include: oyster mushrooms with coconut milk; baby jackfruit salad; pounded water bug with chili; wild fern with egg; dried pickled greens with garlic salt; lotus stem grilled in banana leaf; banana flower salad; pounded garlic leaf with chili; su pak (pepper wood) with sesame; and pork skin with toasted coconut powder.
Everything was delicious, although the water bug paste was a bit too shell-y for me. The flavors are aggressive. If something is spicy or sour or bitter, it's really spicy, sour, or bitter. It was great to have a lot of items together so you could switch back and forth and not get overwhelmed with one particular taste.
Following, came some more challenging fare.
Clockwise from upper left: Ant egg salad; moth larvae (2); bee larvae; cured pork in banana leaf; pork and mint balls (2); stir fried whole frog with onion and herbs; padaek (year old fermented fish paste); and pickled fish with ginger in the center.
My favorite were the bee larvae. Served simply steamed, they taste just like honey if honey wasn't sweet. You peel off a few pods, wrap some sticky rice around them and you're good to go!
Less awesome were the moth larvae (don't you love using that word to describe multiple dishes?). These guys were a little too musty and gritty for me.
I did dig the ant egg salad though. Dressed with mint and lime, they had a pleasant texture and a sour pop.
The padaek was so full of intense umami my salivary glands imploded.
The frogs had good flavor but in a moment of Montey-Python-comes-to-life, they were rather too crunchy.
A selection of soups followed.
Left to right: Squash; Pak Now (bitter greens and smoked, dried fish); Snake with galangal.
The soups were nice but didn't stand out like some of the other dishes. Or it could have been that I was so full I had trouble lifting my arms.
In a fit of headless gluttony we managed to sample some of the restaurant's famed amok. This one was pork, egg, and the slightly bitter tang tree flower. Very well done and nicely balanced.
Dessert was the weak link, consisting of different combinations of rice flour, sugar, and coconut. Not bad but nothing special. I did like that the one in the middle. It's called ka nom key meow which translates to "sweet cat poo." Classic.
At $25 bucks a person, this meal was some of the best food money we've spent the entire trip. If you're in Luang Prabang I can't recommend it highly enough. It's not something you'll find anywhere else.
Ban Wat Nong, Luang Prabang
T: (020) 777 0484
Open for lunch and dinner, closed Sunday