What's Cooking in... Laos

By Sandra Scott
This item appears on page 52 of the December 2016 issue.
Chef Ning preparing for the cooking demonstration aboard the ship. Photos by Sandra Scott

I have found a great way to remember trips and also engage guests with my travel tales. I serve a dish using a recipe from one of the countries I have visited, and when friends or relatives ask, “What is this?” I have the perfect opportunity to tell them about the recipe and my visit. 

Such was the case when I recently served Tam Mak Hoong (or, more traditionally, Dtam Mak Huhng), also known as Green Papaya Salad, which my husband, John, and I learned how to make while aboard the RV Mekong Explorer in Laos in February 2014.

Before setting out on the Mekong River cruise in Laos, John and I visited the Plain of Jars, a place I found intriguing. Scattered across the plain near the town of Phonsavan are thousands of massive stone jars in about 90 groups that date to between 500 BC and AD 500. 

The area was off limits until about the year 2000 because the Ho Chi Minh Trail ran through it and the US dumped tens of millions of cluster bombs in the region from 1964 to 1973. John and I were told that the biggest resource in the area was the metal from the bombs, subsequently used to make fences, plows and other objects.


A few of the ancient stone jars in the Plain of Jars — Laos.
Adding the shredded papaya, carrots and tomatoes. Photo by Sandra Scott

The stone jars are various sizes, the largest ones weighing 10 tons. It boggles my mind that 2,500 years ago people were able to move and chisel these massive stones.

Legend has it that the jars were created for the king of a race of giants to store the rice wine that was used in the victory celebration when the good king’s army defeated the evil king. As much as I like that legend, the most recent archaeological researchers claim that they were part of a funerary practice. 

Chef Ning presenting Tam Mak Hoong. Photo by Sandra Scott

While the cruise we took is no longer offered on the Mekong Explorer, the company we used offers several cruises on the Mekong Sun. Contact Mekong River Cruises (22/2 Sakkarine Rd., Ban Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang, Lao PDR; phone/fax +856 71 254768, cruise mekong.com).

From April to September, a 6-day cruise with Mekong River Cruises starts at $830 per person, double occupancy, and an 8-day cruise starts at $1,640 per person, double.

During our cooking lesson aboard the ship, we learned that the recipe for Tam Mak Hoong originated in Laos and spread to other Southeast Asian countries. 

 Chef Ning told us that Lao people make the salad almost every day. The perfect food on a hot afternoon, it has a refreshing, slightly spicy taste.

Sandra Scott can be reached by email at sanscott@gmail.com.

Plated Tam Mak Hoong with peanuts. Photo by Sandra Scott
One of several fields of jars in the Plain of Jars — Laos. Photo by Sandra Scott
Using a mortar and pestle to mash the beans, chilies, garlic, shrimp paste and sugar. Photo by Sandra Scott