Food and photos in Luang Prabang

Last week Kees was coaching young botanists (new grads form NUOL) and other staff from the Pha Tad Ke Garden in Luang Prabang. The garden isn’t open to the public yet as it is still being landscaped and plants take a long time to grow, but it should open in a couple of years time. The garden is on the opposite side of the Mekong River to Luang Prabang so getting there every day involved a tuk tuk ride followed by sliding down a steep river bank, into a very skinny, very long boat (shake shake…) and across the river. Early mornings the mountains and river banks were shrouded in mists. Two pullover temperature. Then the morning exercise came – clambering up the bank (the river is very low!) We did this for five days.

Botany staff and Kees
Photography workshop

After a morning’s work we’d eat lunch, cooked in the local village. Here is a sample of the dishes:

Soop pak
Soop pak

The sook pak had both ginger and sesame seeds and lots of succulent long beans. This was accompanied by sticky rice and a chicken lahp which had beautifully balanced flavours.

Chicken lahp
Chicken lahp

Another day we ate aw lahm, which sported the whitest, freshest pieces of sakharn I’ve ever had and lots of  black mouse ear mushrooms.

Aw lahm
Aw lahm

A very mildly spicy, mildly sweet-sour chicken dish incorporated finely sliced lemon grass. It also had Kaffir lime leaves and lots of onion.

Fried chicken with lemongrass
Fried chicken with lemongrass

Of course, one day flash-fried kai pen (river weed) was served:

Kai pen
Kai pen river weed

While Kees and The young botanists were using the big Canon cameras I tripped around the botanical garden with my little “slip in your purse” Fujifilm Finepix with auto disabled. I haven’t got around to examining the photos in fine details, but here’s one of the inside of a sida flower (guava)

guava flower
Bee’s view of a guava flower

And this is torch ginger flower:

Ginger flower
Ginger flower

Our Lao cookbook wins a Gourmand World Cookbook Award

The Gourmand World Cookbook Awards have just announced the best cookbook of the year, 2010,  for 57 countries, and Food from Northern Laos – The Boat Landing Cookbook (Galangal Press) won the award for Laos. We are very happy, as the book contains heaps of Lao recipes, descriptions of ingredients etc and has Lao script, so such recognition hopefully will promote Lao food throughout the world. One of these 57 books (chosen from around 8,000 entries) will be the « Best Cookbook of the Year ». The shortlist will be announced in January, and the « Best in the World » will be proclaimed March 3, 2011 in Paris, in a glamorous awards event at the Theatre Le 104, within Le 104, the new Artistic Center of the City of Paris. In January we think they will also announce the Best Asian Cookbook award and other categories, so, fingers crossed! Whoppee!

Read about it here: Press Release, December 14, 2010 Cookbook Winners!

Visit their website Gourmand World Cookbook Awards

Prickly ash berries, wild pepper, Zanthoxylum rhetsa ໝາກແຂ່ນ mak ken


Wild pepper
Wild pepper, Prickly ash berries

Mak ken is used widely in northern Laos. The berries are smaller than Sichuan pepper, but they taste virtually the same. They may be a wild variety. Only the outer casing is eaten. The black seeds are removed before cooking as they are very bitter. Mak ken makes the tongue tingle and go numb. The berries are roasted, pounded and used in jeow, stews and sa low ( a Tai Lue dish from Muang Sing). Akha also use them in their recipes.

Baci at Ban Chalensouk

Baci at Ban Chalensouk
Baci at Ban Chalensouk

In my last article I described the preparation of Khmu food before the baci ceremony, held in October 2010 at Ban Chalensouk, Luang Namtha province in Northern Laos. Kees and I were happy to be honoured guests and to help our ‘grand daughter’, Khamsouk, celebrate her graduation from college and triumphant return to her village.

The Moh Pohn ties the first string on Kees
The Moh Pohn ties the first string on Kees

Spiritual and ritualistic practices are important to most Lao people. The baci, also called sou khuan, is an ancient pre-Buddhist ritual traditionally conducted by Tai speakers, now widely practised by other Lao citizens, including Kmhmu, who have their own spiritual beliefs and way of doing things. The baci is the most popular Lao traditional ceremony celebrated at special events, whether a marriage, a homecoming, a welcome, a birth, a welcome or even to help cure sickness. Tom Butcher and Dawn Ellis, in their book ‘Laos’, London, a wol book: Pallas Athene, 1993, describe the baci ceremony in detail. This particular baci was held in Khamsouk’s new shop/house. It’s wired for electricity ready for when the power is hooked up. That won’t be for some time yet, though.

Tying strings
Kees trying strings on Khamsouk

The baci ceremony includes the ritualistic tying of cotton threads to ensure blessings of the spirits on specific persons, activities, or places. It is also an important gesture of reconciliation and is believed to restore the natural order of things (Source: LNTA).

After the baci, we adjorned to the tables outside for the feast and lamvong dancing to a local (highly amplified) live band. Lamvong is a circular folk dance, with the women on the outside of the circle and the men on the inside, and each couple dances slowly around each other while progressing around the main circle.

Dancing the lamwong
Dancing the lamwong at Ban Chalensouk
Young people dancing
Khamsouk and friends dancing lamvong

Its certainly not hip-hop.  Messages are far more subtle. But it IS a dance of courtship and building of social relationships (without looking at each other or touching, however). It certainly holds people’s interest, old and young – the dancing went on for 7 hours, mainly lamvong, with maybe half an hour of line dancing interspersed! Its a bit risky doing line dancing in Laos for too long!

Lao hai Kmhmu
Lao hai Kmhmu

In the afternoon the lao hai was opened and we imbibed. This is home made Lao rice wine fermented in a pottery jar (hai). Its very tasty and never drunk alone, always at least two people suck the equivalent of 2 glasses full from straws (or these days, IV leads). The jar is then replenished with the same amount of water, and two or more other people take over the drinking. The people who get first crack at the jar get the strongest alcohol, because the water dilutes the brew over time. Occasionally it is stirred with a stick to mix in the water.

Drinking lao hai at Ban Chalensouk 2
Drinking lao hai at Ban Chalensouk – Khamsouk’s Dad on the right
Lao hai drinking
Dolly and friends enjoy Lao hai. Both men touch the IV line so the drink is shared.

With Beer Lao, toasts of Lao lao and Lao hai, it is very difficult to remain vertical after a while. Naps are highly recommended throughout the festivities, which gaily continue regardless of where the guests are for a while!  Starting at 11 am, the band packed up at 7 pm. So a slow fade out on this article The next blog will cover making khao poon, Kmhmu style ‘the morning after’.

Party at Ban Chalensouk
Party at Ban Chalensouk – still doing the lamvong at 6 pm!

More about the book

The Boat Landing Guest House and Restaurant
The Boat Landing Guest House and Restaurant

The delectable food of northern Laos is given its full due by the people of The Boat Landing Guest House and Restaurant who have distilled Luang Namtha Province’s culinary highlights into a menu that presents the rich flavours and aromas of local food.

The recipes from this ecolodge’s kitchen have been shared by Patsanee (Joy) Khantisouk, Nouanchan (Chan) Khantisouk, Kulamany (Tuey) Kulavady and their colleagues with culinary researcher and dedicated foodie, Dorothy Culloty, who presents them in Food from Northern Laos: The Boat Landing Cookbook.

Packed with regional culinary detail and photographs taken in local kitchens, the cookbook records the restaurant’s salute to the special cuisines of a number of the area’s ethnic groups as well as recipes from local villages. These little-known recipes make the most of natural resources from Luang Namtha province’s mountain forests and lush riverine valleys.

Luang Namtha is one of the most Northern provinces of Laos, bordering on Yunnan province of China and Burma. It is home to the largest variety of ethnic groups in Laos. Preciously fairly isolated and difficult to get to, recently the province was made more accessible to tourists and traders by the opening of a new road from the Thai border and a new airport.

Nestled on the bank of the Namtha River, the ecolodge is the pride of the Khantisouk family who are of Tai Yuan ethnicity. The cookbook, which tells their story, shines though Kees Sprengers’ vivid photographic portrait of the province and its ethnic groups. Although food holds pride of place in this volume, it is also a loving and learned record of northern Lao who preserve their culture through their kitchens.

Eighty-eight recipes form the core of the book. Included are special dishes from Kmhmu’, Tai Dam, Tai Yuan, Tai Lue and Akha cuisine. Each recipe documents how it is prepared locally. Clear and simple directions will let readers replicate the dishes in non-Asian kitchens. The stunning food photography throughout, taken as recipes were being prepared in a village or at The Boat Landing, show the dishes in their indigenous setting.

Aspiring cooks and armchair travellers will find further assistance with

  • An illustrated glossary of ingredients and substitutions (28 pages)
  • A directory of Lao preparation and cooking techniques (10 pages)
  • An explanation of traditional cooking equipment (3 pages)
  • A bibliography, including web links (2 pages)
  • A comprehensive index in English, Lao transcription and Lao script (18 pages)


The Boat Landing staff
The Boat Landing staff

The Boat Landing Guest House and Restaurant is a Tai Yuan ecolodge on the banks of the Nam Tha River, in Luang Namtha province, Lao PDR. It was set up, owned and run by a young local family, Sompawn (Pawn) and Joy Khantisouk, with lots of involvement from their extended families and Bill Tuffin, a visionary American development worker, who has a long-term friendship and mentoring role with the young couple. The Boat Landing has a warm family atmosphere, green and keep-everything-local values, along with a proud desire to expose outsiders to the region’s cultures and natural wonders ( To help guests who are limited by time and lack of familiarity, The Boat Landing’s restaurant has distilled Luang Namtha Province’s culinary highlights into a menu that presents the rich flavors and aromas of local food in a way that is easily understood and palatable. This is one of the over-arching goals of The Boat Landing Guest House: to present local culture in a way that is accessible. The local villagers initially laughed at the ‘peasant’ dishes that The Boat Landing offered. Naturally, they wouldn’t go to a restaurant to eat their own ordinary food; they would want something more exotic like Thai or Chinese food. But sophisticated and worldly foreigners do indeed appreciate northern Lao ‘peasant food’. The food looks and tastes delectable!

The cookbook arose from Bill Tuffin’s vision and Joy’s desire to make Luang Namtha’s cuisine more widely known and valued for its rich cultural diversity and to disabuse people of the notion that Lao food is but a poor stepchild of Thai cuisine. Laos has a culinary tradition that is vibrant, distinct and unique. It can easily stand on its own and deserves recognition.

Since 2002, Kees and I have worked to help make this dream happen. In that year, we (Kees Sprengers and Dorothy Culloty) arrived on the local scene and were soon welcomed into the embracing arms of The Boat Landing. Our initial visit resulted in deep involvement with regional friendships, photography and cuisine which now exceeds seven years. Since then, Kees has photo-documented the everyday life and rituals of the local ethnic groups and much of the rapid, on-going social change in the province, gifting many printed photographs to the villagers. I have worked with Joy, her restaurant staff and local villagers to record the food of Luang Namtha. For half of these last seven years, I also worked as an advisor with the Rural Research and Development Training Center, Vientiane, Lao PDR. For Kees and I, it was important to document the local ingredients, preparation and cooking techniques, and recipes as they are prepared locally, and to make this cultural knowledge available to people interested in South East Asian food. This has meant documenting local produce and suggesting substitutes where ingredients are not available, without compromising flavour. I also wanted to use Lao script, Lao transcription and indexing as well as English so that Lao and English readers could use the book as a communication tool – this information is not readily available in Laos. The book is intended as a tool for Lao and Lao expats as well as for the international market. All recipes have been tested in my Western kitchen and the measurements, ingredients and methods translated into clear instructions for this book. Both US and international measurements and terminology are used.

Since the tragic kidnapping of Sompawn in 2007, from which he still hasn’t returned, a shadow has fallen over The Boat Landing. Heart-sore and deeply concerned for his friends’ wellbeing, Bill made the reluctant decision to leave the country that had been his home for seventeen years. Joy and the family in the meantime continue to run the guest house and restaurant. < ![CDATA[