Updated: May 15, 2019
The Full Book
Sabaidee 🙏 Thanks to Scoot and their latest super discounted airfare promotion, we got to visit Laos for the first time on a string and a song. Louangphabang or UNESCO World Heritage Site of Luang Prabang to be specific; Specific to my desire to check out Paste Laos which opened last November in this unknown city to me. Before we flew in though, a logo appeared on Paste's instagram feed that read 'Laos Vientiane' serving Thai cuisine. WOW.
If you've been to the original fine dining set-up in an older luxury mall in Bangkok where chef Bee Satongun resides, then you would have tasted her heirloom Thai recipes which the dedicated chef has been using for over 30 years. The one-Michelin-starred restaurant dishes are also influenced by Modern Thai Cooking cookbook published in both Thai and English in the 1970's as shared rather passionately by founder and chef-entrepreneur Bee, who incidentally is also Asia's 50 Best Restaurants' Best Female Chef in 2018. The hardcover cookbook was written by two women who successfully defined modern cuisine before their time. Girl Power! More on this visit in June as we're planning to visit Paste Bangkok this month before updating the dining report.
"In Thai cuisine, there is complexity of combined flavors. no one flavor should stand out from the rest. Everything has to be perfect (each and every flavor) so that when you put it in your mouth, you can taste the fresh herbs as well." - chef Bee Satongun of Paste Bangkok in conversation, February 2018
I don't believe in coincidences, but every meeting with a person, whether fleeting or over-extended, is destined and for a purpose. Back to Laos...
As described on the official website as creative plant-based Lao food, "Paste Lao Food is built on the recipes of the great Phia Sing, adhering 80% to his authentic historical Lao recipes, while employing 20% creativity to layer and shape the dishes into modern masterpieces." Chaleunsilp Phia Sing was the royal chef amongst many other positions which this multi-hyphenate held till he passed on in 1967. His recipes live on as they were well-documented and published in English 15 years after his death.
Here we were at the brand's very first overseas outpost, and were we hungry! Straight off the plane, after a speedy check-in at the hotel nearby, we were ready to inhale everything in the kitchen. Our reservation, by the way, was easily made on Chope's website. But first, how pretty is this place *squeals*
Spanner Crab Salad
To be eaten in one bite, our first snack was this meaty chunk of sweet spanner crab on sticky chili jam or jaew bong that's sweet and spicy at the same time, and usually engages chili, galangal, water buffalo skin and other local ingredients. Find also sliced shallots, lemongrass, fried garlic chips, ginger torch flower and river weeds that completed the aesthetic. All these fresh herbs on fried betel leaf dotted with puffed rice.
Coconut Cream Wafer
A little crucible made of coconut cream wafer was filled to the brim with the cream, and then topped with traditional spicy dried king prawn relish, a mint leaf and dill, both herbs used frequently in this country of seven million people. I stuffed this whole thing in my mouth and allowed the creaminess to take over, then waited for the spiciness to kick in shortly after but the latter didn't really happen. So it was just sweet with a little crunch.
Watermelon & Mekhong River Fish Salad
Fresh, fresh, fresh! Opening this degustation was this salad that's one of Paste Bangkok's signature dishes using grounded salmon. However, the fish used here was caught directly from the Mekong River - the giant catfish. The flesh was dried and made into fish floss before being fried with sugar, and combined with crispy shallots and roasted galangal powder. Coriander and sweet basil make up the greens with some fish roe and pink Chain of Love flowers. We were advised to have every spoonful of the appetizer with fresh watermelon balls.
The origins of this dish was first observed at the inauguration of the temple of the Emerald Buddha in the year 1809 of the reign of King Rama I. It's pretty amazing how we can relive a part of history with this sweet plate! The white granulated sugar though proved a little too much for me, so most were swept off before each bite. It seems that Laotians tend to stay away from sweetness in a savory dish so the sugar may have been Thai influenced.
Luang Prabang Salad
Sometimes referred to as Yum Salat or "Salad of Salad", this dish gets its inspiration from the original all-vegetarian royal recipe that was a Laotian-French fusion it seems. The one we had was all-together umami (not vegetarian) with additions of salted quail's egg, generous sprinkling of cured salmon roe, crispy sea kelp and Asian watercress. Jicama crackers and fried shallots for some crunch, and butterfly woodsorrel leaves lent a touch of acidity to the creamy dressing that's traditionally composed of lime juice, shallot oil and fish sauce. This one used some kaffir lime leaves and perhaps rinds for more intense fragrance.
At first glance I thought this was a kind of curry that was in-between a wet one and a dry one. I was not expecting it to be a salad dressing, but it was. It would have been great over some steamed white rice or the local sticky rice.
Sour River Fish Soup
Is this tom som pa? A Laotian sour fish soup which derives its sourness from young tamarind leaves and the fruit itself. Chili, sugarcane, shrimp paste (and green tamarind perhaps) do sound like the ingredients that make up the Thai nam phrik spice paste for this dish. Lemongrass and fermented fish sauce were also added to the mix, hence the slightly orangey color of the soup. It was spicy and sour and went well with the meaty river fish that was cooked perfectly tender, and not stiff and chewy which happens sometimes when pots are left to overcook. I really appreciated the restaurant using as many local ingredients and produce as they could for this menu.
Smoky Blue Swimmer Crab Curry
Another of Paste Bangkok's roaring signatures is the smoky southern yellow curry of blue swimmer crab that was definitely smoking awesome. Hummingbird flowers and turmeric were added to the curry. I guess the curry paste, or the 'rempah' as I grew up calling it, is a family secret. And if you saw the huge vessel which the curry was served in, don't freak out. We finished every drop of this, but the curry really wasn't that much. The base of the bowl was quite shallow, around my husband's third finger in picture #4. We loved this one. I can't imagine not having rice or bread with curry. I had to have the sticky rice which is a Laotian staple. Our seasoned tour guide mentioned that on average, each local consumes 22 kilograms of (sticky) rice a month! Apparently the rice grains need to be soaked for hours or even overnight. Then it's steamed in bamboo, and served at room temperature as the locals do.
Laos Duck Curry
Or kalee ped was modeled after Phia Sing's original royal recipe that used a coconut cream base, but it did taste watered down, and the dark meat flavors did not come through this time. Young coconut strips and sliced taro added sweetness and creaminess to the otherwise lacklustre curry. Laotians tend to eat with their hands, and we were encouraged to do so by lightly rolling the rice into a ball and soaking up the curry with it. We stuck to using cutlery because we were just knackered from the Singapore to Laos journey. Next time, we will use our hands!
Stir-Fried Pickled Cabbage & Smoked Pork Knuckle Salad
Som phak means pickled greens. To sum this up in a sentence, the warm dish consisted of stir-fried pickled cabbage, salt cured mushrooms, fermented onion shoots, smoked pork knuckle and white ginger flower vinegar. In Laos, local cooking techniques employed include steaming, boiling, stewing and grilling - all of which one can witness at markets or street corners. However, stir frying is apparently introduced by the Chinese. Can you see the pork knuckles? They are hidden underneath the avalanche of fresh greens, mushrooms, fried garlic chips and century eggs (the jelly bits). We caught sight of some century eggs sold at the morning market the next day, and they were of course colored pink 💓
This was quite unlike anything we've ever eaten before. I do enjoy Laos-styled pickled and fermented ingredients, but this was off the charts especially with the surprise of smoky meat underneath it all. I do regret forgetting to take a picture of the beautifully grilled deboned pork. This calls for another visit soon!
At first look, this looked and smelt like bubur chacha because of the pop of lively colors, and what I thought was coconut and condensed milk "soup". However the melange of fruits and textures made it so delightful to chew on the chilled dessert of smoked coconut strips with palm sugar sabayon, lemon basil seeds and dried mango shards.
Paste Laos has truly defined modern fine dining in this ancient land that still reminds me of the seventies when the living was easy, and the landscape was almost untouched by the "advanced" millenium - manmade structures such as skyscrapers, constant construction, traffic pollution, need for digital detox and getting trampled by unnecessary work pressures everyday.
The restaurant is probably the most expensive table in Luang Prabang starting at 325,000 kip or USD38 plus taxes per diner for the degustation food only, excluding beverage. However, the space as you can see is awash in soothing white, the service was lean but friendly and professional, and the dining ware can rival that of any first world country's top restaurants (at a small fraction of the price). And of course the beautifully executed semi-locavore dishes piqued my interest in traditional Lao cuisine so much, I purchased Traditional Recipes of Laos on Amazon.com while typing out this post.
South East Asia is overflowing with natural land and produce, invaluable treasure troves of heritage recipes and such colorful and vibrant flavors. I can't wait to explore more cities in this area, and read up on the different traditional cuisines and their recorded history. And as the old kitchen is hacked to make way for a brand new one, I am hopping with excitement to try out this region's curries, learning more about what goes into each and every paste, and losing myself in this almost forgotten solo paradise.
The Apsara, Kingkitsarath Rd, Ban Wat Sene, Luang Prabang 06000, Laos
Open daily :
Lunch : 12pm - 2pm
Dinner : 6.30pm - 10pm
Cuisine : Modern Fine Dining Laotian
Seating capacity : 60