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Spotlight on Luang Prabang (Laos): A Hidden Foodie Gem

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Posted by : Mardi@eatlivetravelwrite, Mon, Aug 02 2010

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Landlocked Laos is often overlooked as a travel destination in favour of her more well-known neighbours Thailand or Vietnam, and is certainly not a country known for its food.  What many people don't know (yet) is that Luang Prabang, the former Lao royal capital, is a UNESCO listed World Heritage site and home to three not-to-be missed food experiences.


A food market is the heart and soul of any city and Luang Prabang's bustling Morning Market is no different.  So much more "real" that the slightly more touristy night market, the morning market is a treasure trove of ingredients frequented more by locals than tourists.

To Westerners, it's eye opening.  The morning we visited, we saw all kinds of offerings - congealed ox blood, (live) eels, grilled insects (worms, grasshoppers and bee larvae just to name a few).  Some of the most intriguing items were the chicken eggs with numbers written on them in pencil.  These numbers represent how many days of embryo is present inside, so you could select a "simple" egg, or one more developed and decidedly crunchy with soft (still edible) bones.  An unusual concept for Westerners, to say the least.  This is a market that you could literally spend days in and still not discover everything it has to offer.  Well worth the early morning!

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Taking one quite unexpectedly and in sharp contrast to many of its neighbouring dining establishments is the decidedly French L'Eléphant restaurant.  Owned and operated by Yannick, a French-Lao, who studied the restaurant business in France and Gilles, originally from Lorraine and a consultant for France Telecom before discovering Laos' charms and deciding to live there over 10 years ago, this is a charming slice of France in the heart of Asia. ??

(beef broth with betal leaves; puff pastry amuse-bouche)

L'Eléphant is housed in a typical 1960's colonial building a stone's throw from the Mekong and offers traditional as well as more creative French and Lao cuisine, making use of their locally grown produce from their gardens.  It is most definitely one of "the" fine dining destinations in this small town, without being stuffy or intimidating.  Like most places in Laos, it's very laid back, yet boasts a menu and wine list that wouldn't be out of place in Paris or New York.  Expensive by Lao standards, it's still wildly affordable for Westerners.  Whilst the French menu looked tempting, we ordered mainly from the Lao menu.

Some highlights were beef broth with betel leaves, lemongrass stuffed with pork and river fish ?en paillotte? stuffed with pork and herbs, grilled in a banana leaf.  For dessert, we couldn't go past the crème brûlée (obviously!).  For us, this was a true culinary high spot in Laos. Not only was the location perfect, the food was exquisite. Delicate Lao flavours served with French flair. Our meal, complete with a few beers (tempting as the wine list was, it was simply too hot to drink wine…) was $42CAD inclusive. Had we been there longer, we would have definitely gone back for the French menu. Next time maybe… (sigh!)

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If you find yourself in Luang Prabang with a day to spare, make sure you sign yourself up for the Tamarind Restaurant Riverside Cooking School

Starting with an early-morning (well, 9am) tour of the Morning Market where you will shop with Chef Joy who explains ingredients unfamiliar to Western eyes and palates, this day-long experience will take you through at least six different traditional Lao recipes (that you get to bring home, along with ingredient substitution suggestions) that you have an active role in preparing (and eating!).  The cooking school takes place in stunning open-air riverside pavilions and is a magical day! We had such a good time and were so impressed with how easy these exotic recipes were that we recreated the experience for friends at home!

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L'Eléphant Restaurant
Luang Prabang - Lao P.D.R
Tel: +856 71 252 482
Fax: +856 71 252 492

Tamarind Restaurant, Luang Prabang, Laos
Opposite Wat Nong
Email: info@tamarindlaos.com
Phone:  +85620 7770484
Bookings by email should be made at least four days in advance of desired date. Classes tend to fill up two days in advance.
US$28 PER PERSON

Mardi Michels is a full-time French teacher and part-time food blogger based in Toronto.  Her blog, eat.live.travel.write  focuses on culinary adventures both near and far because she travels as often as she can!

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Posted: Mon, Aug 02 2010 by Mardi@eatlivetravelwrite
Filed under: Markets, Restaurants, Laos

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