Masterchef in the jungle? Food in northern Laos gets serious…
Recently Forest Retreat Laos was lucky enough to get 2 volunteers for a month, who not only taught the Lao staff there a lot about hospitality but were so excited by the abundant fresh produce available at Luang Namtha’s famous morning market, that they decided to put their cooking skills to the test and embark upon Luang Namtha’s first “Jungle Food Challenge“!
The main cause of Jack (from Spain) and Cass’s (from Australia) excitement was the fresh seasonal produce from the jungle (which you can read many posts on), which Luang Namtha is famous for, many of these fruits, berries, seeds, nuts, roots, leaves, shoots and flowers cant be found ANYWHERE ELSE in the world!
So essentially Jack and Cass wanted to try cooking fusion dishes using ingredients that most likely no other westerner in the world has used before, and the results were delicious! This challenge went on for 6 days, usually with Forest Retreat’s Bamboo lounge being full of customers, that were skillfully being wined and dined by the Lao staff at the same time this challenge was going on (one of the rules was the customers come first!).
Jack Cosson has trained as a chef in Europe and Cass Hay is a “foodie” from way back and has managed cafe’s in Australia. Jack with his professional training and euro-cooking style ‘vs’ Cass with her Asian heritage (her mum is Chinese-Malaysian) and life long passion for creating good food…an excellent match!
Challenge 1: Tomato theme: who can come up with what amazing Tomato themed dish using Luang Namtha delicious local Tomato?
The results: Jack came up with a ultimate gazpacho featuring stuffed tomato and Cass came up with a play on choo chee fun (a Chinese dish of steamed, filled fresh rice paper rolls); fresh rice paper filled with tofu, mushrooms, lentils, a tomato lemongrass and lime leaf sauce, and banana flower, tomato, Thai basil and balsamic garnish
Challenge 2: Mushroom theme: Luang Namtha has an amazing array of mushrooms, with a constantly changing seasonal stock from the jungle as well as shitake, wood ear, oyster, enoki, straw and many other species available all year round. So who can use what mushrooms to create the most interesting and tasty dish?
The results: Jack came up with a mixed mushroom terrine, spiced pumpkin and sesame tofu. Cass created a tofu steak, bed of lentils and tsi mushroom, fried enoki, roast oyster mushrooms, shitake sauce and kim chee combo.
Challenge 3: “Childhood memories” theme: this nights concept was to come up with a dish that you remembered or were influenced by in childhood, an inventive one!
The results: Jack decided to create an edible ode to his Granddad Rudi which was crispy potato pancakes, Bolognaise sauce and picked cucumber garnish. While Cass came up with 3 memories from her youth consisting of a ginger fragrant mushroom and sesame rice congee, followed by proper baked beans over sticky rice and coconut cream, and to finish, a caramelized sweet potato and jackfruit curry tucked inside and baked in banana leaf; Lao style!
Challenge 4: Any 10 jungle ingredients, 20 minutes and no prep time challenge: this means Jack and Cass could choose any 10 ingredients from the Luang Namtha fresh market, but the had only 20 minutes to do all the preparation and cooking!
The results: Jack created local watercress soup with fresh peas and tsi mushroom. Cass countered with coriander and mint pesto on fresh rice noodle sheets, toasted endamame (soy beans) and cherry tomatoes. Cass also made it with 30 seconds to spare on the clock, while Jack was over by 1.5 minutes. Not bad considering Forest Retreat was packed out with fascinated customers at the time!
The Final Challenge: for the last competition, Jack and Cass would choose ingredients for the other to make an amazing dish out of! This means the selection of a combination of ANY of the weird and wonderful ingredients from the Luang Namtha fresh market, including insects, internal organs, spices, Bamboo rats..the possibilities were endless. But Jack and Cass were kind to each other (kind of).
The results: Jack came up with the following from what Cass chose for him a cauliflower, roasted banana flower and tamarind puree, roasted baby eggplant, courgettes, sautee’d green amaranth pods, fried tofu and tofu noodles. And finally Cass created this from what jack chose for her: charred chili, garlic and mandarin sauce feat. jungle olives, sweet potato and dill mash, spiced roasted eggplant, bitter melon with garlic and banana chips.
So this was it the end of Luang Namtha’s first ever jungle food challenge. Both Jack and Cass came out with some truly delicious dishes many times using ingredients they had never seen or cooked with before. There can be no clear winner; Jacks professional training and slick style was given a really good run for its money by Cass’s imagination and ability to put together some damn good flavors.
In conclusion, there really is some AMAZING fresh foods to be found in Laos, especially Luang Namtha. Go into Forest Retreat Laos and see what the changing specials of the day are!