Luang Prabang’s beautiful temples, French colonial architecture, and natural beauty have made it a popular spot on a South-East Asia travel circuit. Over the past few years, it has increasingly attracted what Lonely Planet refers to as “well-heeled” tourists – those with money to spend on luxuries and comforts within a backdrop of Asian exoticism. Predictably, expensive hotels, restaurants and boutique shops have proliferated, making Luang Prabang a little bubble of prosperity within one of the 20 poorest countries in the world.
Over time, Luang Prabang has developed a reputation for excellent food and coffee. You can eat fine French cuisine here, drink imported wines, take cooking courses with internationally renowned chefs, and purchase locally produced gourmet foodstuffs such as goats cheese, spice mixes and oolong tea. A destination for foodies indeed.
We arrived in Luang Prabang with our tastebuds zinging in anticipation, and although we had to eat some mediocre food on our way to gastronomic bliss, we have indeed eaten well here. This post presents some highlights, beginning with our new shared passion – finding the perfect coffee to start our day (yes, I’ve managed to get Colin addicted to coffee!!).
As in Vietnam, the best coffee is not to be found in cafes targeting tourists, but in the scruffy little shops frequented by locals. All the locals we asked recommended a particular shop down by the river. This open-air shop – sandwiched between a smokey barbeque stand and a noodle vendor – is only open between the hours of 6.30-11am. There we fell head over heels for Lao coffee, brewed over an open fire to a luscious syrup that turns your lips and teeth dark brown as you drink it. The coffee is served in a glass with two teaspoons of sweetened condensed milk, and costs only 3,000 kip (about 50 cents NZ). Complimentary green tea is provided and deep fried pastries are available for dunking in your coffee.
Vegetable stew at The Big Tree cafe – dark with eggplant, warm with chilli, crunchy with woodear mushrooms, loaded with virtuous vegetable goodness (and arriving, unexpectedly, with a few tasty chunks of pork crackle).
Spurred by the recommendation of Lonely Planet and the staff at our hotel, we decided to splurge on a nice dinner at Tum Tum Cheng. Unfortunately, this complimentary nibble turned out to be the highlight of the meal: dry, unsalted peanuts served with thin slices of fresh lemongrass and a small pile of salt. This moreish combination went perfectly with the house “French white wine”, which proved to be highly drinkable.
Hardly Lao food, this salad at Saffron Cafe nonetheless became a mutual favourite for lunch. The combination of salad greens, boiled egg, crispy bacon bits, croutons, raw vegetables, ripe mango and tangy lime vinaigrette was exactly what we craved on several hot days in Luang Prabang.
In addition to the salad, we also became addicted to Banana Macchiato’s at Saffron. Their Banana Macchiato is a banana smoothie poured over espresso and it is unbelieveably good. The bitterness of the strong coffee provides an addictive contrast to the creamy, sweet banana-ery liquid. If you want your marriage to remain intact it is a mistake to order only one of these to share. Seriously, why has no-one in New Zealand thought of this before? It’s nothing short of a taste sensation that we will do our best to recreate at home (wherever that ends up being).
Fish Laab from the excellent restaurant at our hotel. Laab is a popular Lao dish made with fish, chicken, pork or tofu. It is essentially a cold salad. The cooked protein is mixed with a variety of herbs including banana flower, lemongrass, spring onion, garlic, shallot, coriander and a touch of chilli. It’s delicious pared with the traditional accompaniment – sticky rice. I love eating food like this – light and nutritious, but intensely flavoured.
Stir-fried vegetables with chicken, again from the restaurant at the hotel. While it may not sound very exciting, this dish was lovely and we ate it several times – perfectly cooked vegetables in a sweet-salty sauce that makes you feel virtuous (after maybe one too many banana pancakes) without feeling like you are missing out too much (on more pancakes).
Coconut custard topped with caramelised ginger at Coconut Garden Restaurant. This was simply divine. It was served cold, and the best part was a layer of hard caramel at the bottom of the cup which had half-melted into a liquid caramel sauce. Sweet, creamy custard, slightly chewy ginger, and the slightly bitter edge of burnt sugar – bliss in every bite.
Pork Laab – this one we made ourselves at a cooking course run by Tamnak Lao Restaurant. I’m so glad we learnt how to make this dish as it’s one we will definitely make again. The pork version is particularly good. On this course we also made another excellent dish – a mellow pork and chicken curry. The curry began by frying a scary amount of garlic and shallot which thankfully transformed into sweet, soft, nutty nuggets melding gently with the coconut milk curry. The curry was only mild in terms of heat, like most Lao food, although a sweet chilli chutney (jeowbong) is provided on the side for extra spice if desired.
Luang Prabang salad at Tamnak Lao. This was another great salad, featuring boiled egg and a small amount of friend pork mince and peanuts built over a combination of watercress, cucumber and fresh mint. Versions of this salad appeared on menus throughout town.