Some fool gave me a machete!

Admittedly, it was a pretty small machete, and they also gave me a small vegetable knife, vegetable peeler, wok, burner and spatula. Are you with me yet? Today, in the spirit of "finally getting round to things", I got round to going to Cookery School. I have been promising myself for trip after trip and never managed it, so at 1000 hours this morning I rolled up to the Tamnak Lao Cookery School which is attached to the excellent restaurant of the same name, having done my pre-read and having observed the advice of the Australian lady who owns the place to skip breakfast. What a sound piece of advice that turned out to be, as you will see later.

I had done my pre-read so I had some idea of what to expect and also learned a lot about Lao culture which is so bound up in their cuisine. Communal cooking and eating are an essential part of the social fabric here. In fact, the Lao have an expression along the lines of "food eaten alone never tastes good." I would have to agree to disagree on that one, as the food I have had here is uniformly superb but you get the idea. The class was full at 12 people, about an equal mix of men and women, some couples and four singles. Poor old Liz, a late 20's (I guess) Australian drew the short straw and got me. She was really nice about it, and we got on like a house on fire. By about the third dish we were just doing things without even discussing them, we had got it down fairly well.

A quick introduction with the two instructors Leng Lee (the thin one) and Phia Yang (the not quite so thin one. I cannot speak highly enough about these guys, they were superb. At the end of the day I asked the owner of they had started out as chefs and she told me they weren't chefs at all, she had picked them for their communication skills (and obvious patience) and they had gone from there. As (H)mong, they would not even have cooked these dishes much, if ever, as their tribe has a different cuisine. I found this incredible given the quality of the food they dished up all day.

Into a couple of tuk tuks and off to market, the big Phousi Market on the outskirts of town. I love roaming about markets but it is always difficult trying to find out what unusual things are due to the language barrier but Leng very patiently explained what things were, and what they were used for in cooking. The one that amazed me was what he called spicy wood. It looked like lumps of dead wood about twi inches in diameter. Aparently, the Lao grate it and use it in cooking as it has a chilli like taste. It was also a working trip. When Leng was giving us the guided tour, Phia was off buying the produce we were going to be using that day and came back laden with plastic bags full of all kinds of things.

Back to base, and the fun really began. Donning a very fetching pinny decorated with elephants we gathered round whilst Leng demonstrated Lang Prabang salad. As the name suggests, it is a local delicacy and I had a delightful version of it yesterday. This could not be simpler and includes the simplest "mayonnaise" in the history of cooking. Well, the call it mayo but it isn't really although I do urge you to try this recipe at home, it is so quick and simple apart form the boiling of a few eggs. Don't worry, I am not going to set down every recipe in detail. LP salad is a salad of mixed leaves and the local watercress (use any leaves you have and UK watercress would be good. Make the mayo, which consists of two egg yolks, two tablespoons of oil and the same of white vinegar, one tablespoon sugar, 1/2 teaspoon white pepper and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Then beat the life out of it in a mortar and pestle or use a blender. Dress the leaves with some of it and reserve some. Arrange the salad on the plate andthen pour the remainder of the mayo over the top. Sprinkle some ground unsalted peanuts and a small amount of cooked pork mince (optional) over the top and garnish with coriander. How hard was that? Literally 10 minutes work tops.

This was to be a feature of the whole day. Nothing they made took more than about 10 minutes to make and by the end we were knocking up dishes in about 15. It really is fast food made with a minimum of equipment and containing a maximum of flavour. I loved the way the guys taught. They demonstrated it thoroughly once and then let you get on with it. While one of them did the washin up (nice touch) the other one was prepping for the next demo. They weren't wandering about watching you although no dobt they would have assisted if you got in trouble. I really do not see how you could though. We were working off a very good recipe book, and the cooking principles are childishly simple.

OK, this is where the trouble starts, we made that and, after a teabreak, another dish of fried rice noodles with chicken and veg, so that was lunch.

Outside to eat, and by one o'clock I was stuffed. I do not eat much in the heat of the day here. Back into class and they demonstrated another three dishes of which we had to pick two and then a further two of which we had to pick one. Are you beginning to see the problem here? One thing they demonstrated although we did not make is another local delicacy, Jeowbong, which is LP chilli paste. I like pet (spicy) but even I blanched a bit at a recipe where the first ingredient is 50 dried red chillies. Yes, you read that right. Along with a few other things it makes a paste and would you believe, it is not that hot? Honestly. It keeps for six months in the fridge so there will be a big batch of that on the go when I return, it is gorgeous and goes with most Lao traditonal food. I am sure the neighbours will be delighted with the smell of the chilli and the twenty or so chopped garlic cloves!

Without boring you completely with recipes, just a couple more thoughts on what was a truly memorable day. Firstly, Laap Gai (chicken laap) which is one of the most popular Lao dishes, adn I love. It requires taking chicken and attacking it, there is no other word, with the machete until it is reduced to almost a paste cinsistency. Liz decreed I looked like the man for the job and I set about with a will. I think she was getting slightly worried by the end of it with my maniacal machete assault. Norman Bates, eat your heart out. Hopefully, the photo will give you an idea.

I think my favourite of the day was the delightfully named Khua Maak Kheua Gap Moo. Try saying it aloud and adopting a music hall Chinese type accent, it caused no end of hilarity. It is basically a pork and aubergine dish. I generally don't like aubergine but Liz wanted to cook it so it wasn't a problem and it turned out to be delicious, if I say so myself, I'll definitely be giving that a try at home. Actually I am lucky where I live because between Whitechapel Market which is predominantly Bangladeshi now, and the Vetnames enclave of South Hackney which I can walk to in 20 minutes, I should be abled to source most things with th epossible exception of choko. Anyone who comes to my house for dinner better watch out.

Well, by the end of the event I was full to capacity. None of the groups managed to finish the food alrthough someone seemed to think that the guys took the leftovers back to their villages at night which I found sad. Not sure how true that was though. If any of you are vaguely interested in this place the website is www.tamnaklao.net , have a look. It being broad daylight we didn't know at the time that the whole town and most of the province was suffering a power cut, although by dusk it was back on. So what to do? Well, same as last night, which I haven't told you about, so I took myself to the sauna.

Up a rather uninviting alleyway off the main street is a traditional Lao steam bath and massage place. Now the Lao steam bath differs from a traditonal one like Turkish, or a sauna, like the Finnish in one particular. The premises is up steps and the steam is produced from some apparatus underneath and piped into the cabin. It is more like a steam bath than a sauna being a wet heat. What sets it apart is that the steam is scented with various herbs etc. I spoke to Tong, the owner last night and he could only tell me that one of them was lemongrass with is very discernible, he didn't know the English for the other elements in the mix. Whatever they are it smells divine but, like the cuisine, you had better be able to do hot. Some years ago, I played gigs on tour in Scandinavia where it is a big macho thing to see who can throw the most water on the coals and stand the resultant heat for the longest time. I used to aquit myself reasonably for a foreigner. Like the cuisine, you had better be able to do hot.

Let me set the scene. The cabin is pretty small and no open coals as in Scandinavia. There is a tiny and pretty ineffectual bulb at an equally tiny window at the far end. I suspect this is here merely to stop you bumping into the far wall, as you can't see your hand in front of your face. The only sound is that of the sweat dripping off you onto the matting floor, and believe me you will sweat. 30 seconds and you are basically leaking, it is unbelievably hot. Ten minutes is an absolute maximum there and you emerge, cross to the bathroom where you ladle cold water over yourself. If you need a break between "sweats" you can go and sit in a comfy teak chair where there is always a big pot of the most delicious herbal tea I have ever tasted. I cannot begin to describe the taste to you, but it is very nice. Again, the lack of a common language made it difficult for Tong to tell me what was in it. Whenever you are ready, dive back into the inferno for another roasting. Tonight I witnessed a most bizarre scene there. One of the masseuses had been sweating herself in the ladies steam room, came out and poured a sachet of Nescafe into the herbal tea and drink it with apparent relish. I cannot imagine what it must have tasted like.

Having duly opened the pores and washed off the grime of the day it is time for a good pummelling. I would say that Lao traditional massage differs slightly from Thai traditional massage in the amount of overt violence offered to the recipient, but only slightly. Iron hard thumbs are still thrust into places where thumbs have no business being, joints are nearly seperated, people kneel on your calves whilst they do their level best to seperate your spine from it's attendant musculature and so on. They will crack fingers and toes, manage to find pressure points and generally slap you about in a way that, if delivered in an East End pub would undoubtedly result in unpleasantness. And I pay for this. Why? Because at the end of it I feel great. For some time my right shoulder has been giving me a bit of gip, probably due to my bad posture caused by my back operation some years ago. It is now completely freed up, and I am so grateful. I really do recommend this experience to anyone.

So that is me just about up to date. At least I have an excuse for my typos tonight as most of this has been composed by candlelight, but the power appears to be back on now although for how long I have no idea.

People on the cookery course were asking me today what my plans were, in the way of well-met travellers everywhere, and I took the greatest delight in telling them I hadn't a clue. This is not me showing off, I really don't. I heard a lengthy visa extension is not difficult in Lao so I might revert to Plan A, i.e. Phonsevan, Plain of Jars, then South, into Cambo, then South to North Vietnam, back through Lao into Thailand and possibly Burma but no doubt that will change tomorrow. You cannot believe the joy I derive on a daily basis from this freedom. God, this retirement is a great thing!

I will try and post again soon, if you haven't all been bored to death by now my four loyal followers, I thank you.

PS. I tried to post this but the power cut has just about knackered every wireless connection in this town. Isn't it amazing how htings go? Two years ago I did not even have a mobile 'phone (still don't on the road) and now I am completely fazed because there is no internet connectivity in a country where the electric is switched off as a matter of course at midnight, if indeed there is any at all. I have to get my pre-technology head back on rapidly. I will post this, power permitting, after language school in the morning.

PPS. Thought I would also post the perfect sunset photo!

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