Sitting in traffic on the Chinatown bus gave me a chance to type up these notes from a visit to Tamarind restaurant in Luang Prabang. Run by a Lao and Aussie couple, it fills a great chow niche: translating local foods for people like us who seriously want to learn, but may be hampered by language constraints or an insufficient knowledge base from getting too far just poking around the market. It’s not a substitute for foraging on your own, but I think it’s an excellent option to add to the mix and may reach people who aren't as comfortable with the wet market scene (everyone has to start somewhere!). They do several different “tasting menus,” some of which seemed oriented towards allowing solo travelers to meet up – good to know if you’re traveling on your own -- and plenty of snacks and cute drinks. It’s also very cute spot. Of course, you pay for cute and for great English – prices are about Western standards.
We did something billed as an “adventure” menu. The name seems designed to draw in the ant-egg crowd, but I was pleased to learn from Carolyn, the Aussie proprietor, that she actually meant it to be a more serious exploration of texture and nuance. She was very available to chat about each of the ingredients, which was a hugely important part of the value of the meal.
Course one: dips and vegetables -- the least exotic, but most interesting course. I think it had:
-- jaew makhak: a sour fruit dip.
-- rattan jaew: this was amazing – made from the core of rattan, as in furniture. Not surprisingly, it was like bamboo, but softer and with a slightly different flavor. Probably my favorite of this course.
-- 3 powdered blends for dipping sticky rice:
-- mak phak, or powdered toasted pumpkin seeds, which were nutty and luscious;
-- khae, the river weed you see everywhere in its seaweed form. It tastes much “greener” and chlorophyllier as a powder
-- pak ghat – I can’t remember what this was.
--Sup pak mak mee: typically steamed veggies in leaf with herbs and sesame; in our case, it was steamed jackfruit. Very bitter and good.
-- Various veggies, including kum kadao, a very bitter green; pak GOOT, a spirally fern; and mak fak, a pumpkin vine. The last two were spectacularly good.
--Khao tome: rice and taro inside, a counterpart to the bitter greens
-- Tao: a sticky green, bland and sweet.
Course two: ways of preserving meat. This is meant to show a variety of ways you can keep meat without refrigeration.
--Beef Jerky: certainly the most familiar. A very good, chewy, flavorful version.
-- Brushed pork: like cotton candy, but pork! What could be better? Seriously, it is a deep tawny pile, like insulation, of pork that was dried, and then scraped off with a brush. It melts in your mouth with sweet porky goodness. Nothing freaky or strange about it. I forget what it was called.
-- Pickled fish innards: I’m still fairly adverse to fishiness, so I’m not a good judge here, but this was seriously, seriously strong tasting stuff. It makes pla raa taste like wonder bread. I just dabbed the tiniest corner of my sticky rice into it and retched.
-- Fish preserved in salt and sticky rice--I don't remember this.
-- Moo sod: I think this is the same as naem: raw pork, pork skin, salt and garlic are chopped together, then wrapped in a banana leaf to ferment for a few days, resulting in a rubbery, pink mass. I didn’t care for it too much plain because I’m not big into cold cuts and preserved meat (as you are seeing, my curiosity exceeds my taste buds). But a few days later we cooked with it – just sautéed it with scrambled eggs – and then I really appreciated its salty, flavorful punch.
-- Stuffed bamboo shoot with chicken. Perfectly fine, much better than the one I had at 3 Nagas, though not really all that interesting.
Course three: fodder for blogs, or, various protein sources.
This is somewhat market-based. What I liked was that the proprietor didn’t really sensationalize strange bugs, but just pointed out that they were different textural experiences to try.
-- Frog mok: I expected this to be like other moks I’ve known, chopped up meat mixed with herbs and steamed in a banana leaf. It was, but it was the whole uncut frog, with all the herbs – mostly dill – and sticky rice powder, basil and wild lime leaves packed around it. Steamed whole big frog looks really unpleasant. It was a much, much stronger tasting frog than those I’ve known before.
-- Grilled baby frog: on skewers, small and crunchy, a little dank tasting and really just about crunch.
-- Ant egg omelette. Really wonderful lemon flavor, like a lemo poppy seed muffin.
-- Moth larvae -- duang PAO: these were pretty damn big, maybe thumb size or more. A squirt, then tart, then kind of nasty. Not worth making a big fuss over.
There was also some wonderful veggie thrown in that she called an "earring flower," something like dok daeng.
There was also some other kind of dried or preserved fish that I don’t remember, except again it was very intense.
Course 4: miang padek.
A nice closer was the miang. This one is meant to accompany their pa dek (fermented fish) sauce, which was nicely balanced with fruitiness. It had typical miang accompaniments, along with a lot of herbs--mint, dill, basil, cilantro -- and some lemongrass and veggies like long beans. Of course, we were too stuffed to finish.
Tamarind is hard to miss since it has posted signs all around town, and is in the heart of the massively gentrified historic district. It's right by L'Elephant. This will make sense to you once you are in LP, trust me.