Chef Manoi leaps to a win with her innovative cuisine.
What an invitation. Could I head to the Crowne Plaza hotel to help choose a winning chef as part of the Sustainable Tourism Solutions Expo? Well, of course. I love food and cooking.
When I arrived, the four finalists were checking out their tables. They were given some basic equipment and a collection of ingredients featuring the staples of any Asian meal: rice, chilies, fermented fish, onions, a whole fish, and garlic, plus herbs, sauces, and fruits. Some had brought tool kits, like any good mechanic.
But a surprise emerged: a bowl containing some very angry crabs, along with crickets, and bowls of gorgeous Lao honey. These were the secret ingredients and chefs using one or all would be awarded extra points. One of the five judges looked a bit uncertain. Crickets are not a staple in the US.
As the sweating red sun disappeared over the city, the four chefs took their places, and suddenly, it was on. A flurry of chopping, mixing, slicing, pin-boning, and blending along with looks of intense concentration. The clock ran for 45 minutes, then it was knives and whisks down. And our turn to try each creation.
I admit it was a hard choice. They all did very well. But it was Manoi Wong Ophaso who owns and cooks at Kitchen Lounge who emerged the winner with her tasty fried fish fillets and cricket flavored fried rice.
Later I talked to Manoi who spent 18 years in New York, “I always loved food and was raised in a family who had restaurants along with construction.” I learn that Manoi comes from a strong cooking heritage.
“In New York, I worked all over the place from Thai fusion to Chinese, to French and Mediterranean. I had to learn enough Chinese, Spanish, and French to work with the other chefs and kitchen staff. I am grateful for what I learned,” said Manoi. From NY, Manoi brought her energy and humor. She works with a permanent smile and ease of movement in the kitchen. “When I returned to Laos, it was clear I wanted to cook. I tried baking bread then we opened the restaurant Pintoh, until I realized Asian food is not my thing.”
As she talks, Manoi is replicating the meal she made for us. She is content to chat while preparing the lunch telling me that’s she is sad at the current trend of takeaway food. I had mentioned that few people I know cooked these days. “I want people to know what a home-cooked meal tastes like; to be in control of the ingredients. Cooking gives you an awareness of the environment as you are always watching the effects of weather on food plants, and watching the seasons. And besides, there are so many markets around Vientiane with organic seasonal food.”
“I am a savory person. My great love is pasta, and I often make my own pappardelle. That fits with my love of simplicity. But when it’s all over, success depends on the clientele and what they find fabulous.” And with that, she serves us lunch – which is fabulous!
Fish on Cricket Fried Rice with Shrimp Paste Aioli
Note this dish requires you to be adventurous as there are no set quantities. Cooks are encouraged to be guided by taste.
Filet the fish, making sure you pin-bone all the hidden ones along the fin line.
Sprinkle with salt. Take one stick of lemongrass and pound with the back of a cook’s chopper to release the fragrance. Chop into several pieces and put in a pan with the fish, some fish sauce and lemon/lime juice. Remove from pan when cooked through and let sit.
Deep fry the crickets until crispy. Pound in mortar and pestle until well broken up. In the same pan as you fried the fish, add finely chopped galangal, lemongrass, a spot of fermented fish, and garlic with some finely cut green chili. Add the crushed crickets and toss with lime juice. Add the cooked rice and toss it again. Add salt and other flavors you feel would fit, like fish sauce. Toss until the rice is also slightly browned.
Serve with an Aioli made from olive oil, garlic, egg yolk, lemon juice, plus a bit of shrimp paste, and a spoon of honey.
Kitchen Lounge can be pre-booked a day or two
in advance, for your own personalised menu and more details you can contact via:
The cooking competition was a part of the Sustainable Tourism Solutions Expo held in Vientiane from 27–28 September. To learn more about this event, visit: stse.la
Text BY Melody Kemp
PHOTOGRAPHS BY Phoonsab Thevongsa / GIZ