Lao cuisine fit for kings

In the sleepy former home of Lao kings, where stray dogs now roam quiet streets and saffron-robed Buddhist monks seek shade under black parasols, Yannick Upravan has started a culinary revolution.

by: Jon Herskovitz | 26 Sep 2007

Born in Vientiane and trained at one of France's best culinary institutes, Upravan has turned rustic and aromatic Lao food into a gourmet experience at his Luang Prabang restaurant called 3 Nagas, arguably the country's most chic Lao eatery.

The cuisine of Laos, like many other things from the sparsely populated country, has been overshadowed by the offerings from its bigger southeast Asian neighbours Vietnam and Thailand.

But Lao food is distinct. In place of Thai curry, Laos has stews thickened with eggplants. Instead of Vietnam's spring rolls, Lao cuisine offers an array of aromatic and spicy sausages made from pork and water buffalo.

And then there is the staple of the Lao diet – laap. It is a minced meat salad typically made from pork and chicken cooked with mint leaves, lime juice and fermented fish sauce that is eaten with sticky rice pressed into balls with fingers.

Upravan, along with his French business partner Gilles Vautrin, also run L'Elephant, one of the most successful French restaurants in Laos, located about 100 meters from the Mekong River as it flows through Luang Prabang.

Sundried buffalo
Lao cuisine lacks the sweetness found in other regional food and it features abundant fresh greens.

Lao food has oddities that foreigners seldom see such as bats and lizards, and there is the occasional fried insect.

Upravan, 37, escaped to France from Laos in 1980 after its communist revolution. He studied the best of continental food in France then would feast on Lao food at home with his relatives.

"I discovered Lao food in France," Upravan said.

Lao food is abundant and cheap in Luang Prabang. Stalls sell laap packed in plastic bags, river fish grilled with garlic, papaya salad, bamboo stew and chicken steamed in banana leaves.

Upravan, who plans to open another Lao eatery next year, has upgraded the popular local dish of water buffalo dried with roasted chilli in his restaurant by frying it with sesame seeds and herbs.

"Sundried buffalo is workers' food. I try to make it in a way that would make foreign guests amazed," Upravan said.

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