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Copper Presents Laos: Beyond Borders with Chef Mark Arunsaphai


How well do you know your Asian cuisine? We have to admit, with the abundance of culture in South East Asia we could easily be dealing with dishes being fused or overlapping in origin. How sure are you of that bowl of Laksa being Malaysian? What about your plate of Thai papaya salad?

More importantly, how does one ensure that traditional Asian dishes stand the test of time while allowing them to be entwined and fused with modern gastronomical methods?

Enter fusion chef Mark Arunsaphai.
A Lao-full Tale of Flavours
I had the pleasure of attending one evening at Copper’s two-day event which was aptly named "Laos: Beyond Borders”. Our palates were indeed set sail on a course that went beyond our borders of understanding ingredients, flavour and texture.

What better place than to choose Copper, Chef Chai’s restaurant? A local culinary genius who is always more than ready to expand our Malaysian dining experiences with his expertise and creativity.

After being greeted warmly by Copper staff and led to my table, a small woven basket arrived on my table filled to the brim with chunks of yellow “chips” and large, black pieces of some rootlike
item. My questions were put to rest when I was informed that these were actually local Laotian snacks – the yellow chunks being cured bamboo shoots and the black ones were actually oyster mushrooms. I was forewarned that they would induce endless snacking, and true to their word before the evening had ended yours truly was on her second basket munching away without guilt!

Now for it, the entire degustation menu of Laos: Behind Borders

Dish #1: Amuse Bouche

We started with this lovely bite-sized appetiser made of raw prawns and sago. It was flavoured well with a garlic chilli lime sauce with tomato chutney and featured the crispy exoskeleton of the prawn as
decoration. It carried a zing and zest to the palate and right away I knew I was in for a flavourful adventure for the evening!

Dish #2: Khao Poon Nam Kraatit (Rice Noodles + Crab Meat)

This is Chef Mark’s daring take on our local darling, better know as Laksa. In fact, Khao Poon is also be known as Lao Laksa. While perhaps you might not find your usual fare of Malaysian ingredients it is nonetheless a spicy affair with a coconut broth that is both creamy and tasty. With the fresh crabmeat on the side paired with that fresh crunch of beansprouts, I must say it wasn’t bad at all. The broth seemed to get thicker and richer as I continued eating. I had to resist the urge to lift up the bowl and drink up the remains of the soup for the sake of decorum! Delish!

Dish #3: Green Lipped NZ Mussels, Tom Yum Hollandaise, Soy Pearls

Here’s where you see Chef Mark showcase his Kiwi roots. Chef Mark was born and raised in Wellington, New Zealand. Having worked under the finest of chefs and establishments, Chef Mark is a genius of pushing fusion by reinventing it with traditional ingredients. When the mussels were served they were coated lovingly with a fine smothering of Hollandaise sauce, the twist or “kick” as we say, being the added Tom Yum while being paired with soy pearls. One bite was all it took to introduce me to the smorgasbord of flavours and textures hidden in that shell! No ingredient was overcrowded by the other, it was as if they had decided among themselves the order of which flavour would present itself first.

Dish #4: Salmon Larb Tartar, Rice Cracker, Cured Yolk and Wasabi Tobiko

Traditionally, most eaters would hail Larb as a Thai dish whereas in actual fact, it is a native Laotian dish eaten everywhere. Think of it as a meat salad containing a riot of greens, herb (namely chilli. Basil, lemongrass, mint, coriander and parsley), spices and meat that can either be cooked or served raw at times. Chef Mark doesn’t disappoint and thoroughly displays his skill and finesse in fusing modernity by using salmon and yet still retaining the flavour of Lao culture through the spice and herbs within the Larb. Here’s another fun fact, did you know that your favourite Thai papaya salad or better known as Som Tam is also of Laos descent?

Dish #5: Golden Snapper, Laos River Weed, Citrus Beurre Blanc, Bok Choi
Our next fish dish came with a beautiful citrus Beurre Blanc sauce. The snapper was topped with an interesting paper-thin cracker. Fellow fans of seaweed or Nori would note the similarity of these thin sheets but the distinctive difference would be how they are
prepared. If you look closely you might see remnants of dried garlic and tomatoes laced onto the sheet amongst the sesame seeds. Overall, from crispy it becomes somewhat milky in the mouth
during eating and is extremely flavourful and again, addictive. I can see how this is also one of the most common snacks of the locals in Laos.

From Dish #1 all the way Dish #5 one can’t help but notice that the taste profile of the dishes carry the distinctive spicy-sour similar to our usual Thai food fare. However in comparison, one would note that for Lao cuisine, the spiciness is dialled down a little bit and the usage of herbs and spices is increased greatly. You can taste the prominence of galangal in the dishes which is widely used in South East Asia including our very own Malaysia.

After all that intense spice and sourish goodness, it was a refreshing mouthful when they served our palate cleanser - Lychee, Butterfly Pea & Mint Granita.

Dish #6: Luang Prabang Chicken Roulade, Jaow Muk Kherr, Spiced Carrot Puree I love this dish! The chicken roulade was seared to perfection and with the Jaow Muk Kherr and Spiced Carrot Puree, it definitely carried a distinctive taste thanks to the dark coloured eggplant dollop present with the chicken and carrot puree. I especially loved the pickled carrot medallions garnishing the chicken as they were sour from being preserved.

Chef Mark named this dish Luang Prabang because it is his favourite place in Laos. This location in Laos is full of historical value and this particular dish is one of the most popular dishes in this nation, not to mention that this is a royal recipe that has been handed down through the ages!

Dish #7: Australian Short Ribs Orh Larm, Sticky Rice, Mushrooms and Bamboo Shoots

The final dish before dessert came piping hot and steaming. Australian short ribs in a Lao Orh Larm, which at first glance I thought was gravy but turned out it was a spicy, soupy stew made of mushrooms, bamboo shoots and eggplant. I could taste intensely fresh herbs such as lemongrass, galangal, basil and more. Not to mention a generous ball of sticky rice and mind you, sticky rice is also a Lao household cuisine. In fact statistics show that sticky rice is consumed the most by Laotians. So think again before labelling everything as “Thai” from now on! 

Dish #8: Coconut & Vanilla Mousse, Coconut Tapioca, Mango Sorbet, Dragonfruit Salsa with a Pandan Sponge
The final crowning dish of the night was this beautiful mess of fruit, mousse, coconut tapioca and sorbet with a cute pandan sponge on the side. This serves as a wonderful reminder of just how
much variation there is to Asian food.

The night wouldn’t have been complete without some signature drinks too:

#1: Tom Yum Cocktail

The first drink - Tom Yum Cocktail - arrived in my typical Malaysian mind as a murky and milky concoction with onions floating in the drink but when it came I was completely surprised.
It was a clear liquid drink that upon the first swig contained the spiciness of Tom Yum and was fizzy and punctuated with floating accents of lemongrass. For extra heat one could use the lemongrass shoot and crush the long chilis inside the drink too.

#2: Butterfly Pea Spriz
THIS had me obsessing over it and resulted in a second serving! The distinct blue thanks to the Butterfly Pea flower petals or better known here as Bunga Telang, it had a light and sweet floral tinge to it. Swirl it together with the lime juice and it turns a nice shade of purple-pink. The after taste which I couldn’t quite put the ingredient was apparently a secret item added in by the wife of Chef Mark, Jenna.

#3: Lao Coffee

I was told by Chef Mark and Jenna that Lao Coffee is produced and shipped off to France. To be a consistent Parisian choice of coffee is a clear indication that Lao Coffee must have achieved certain levels of quality, so when they served me my cup of coffee I knew I wasn’t going to be disappointed. Strong and bold, I was impressed with my cup of Espresso as I sipped it while chatting with the hosts through the night.

Twas an eye-opening evening to be seated at Copper and enjoy a proper Asian-fusion dinner. The chefs obviously took great care in selecting a journey of flavour, texture and ingredients to entice their guests’ tastebuds and enjoyed themselves bringing together the best of both East and West into their cooking.

My heartfelt thanks to Jenna who personally took it upon herself to chat with the guests and impart to us Lao tradition, food facts and cultural nuggets here and there so that the experience and appreciation of Laotian cuisine could be further deepened. I enjoyed myself immensely that night and my biggest congratulations and well done to Chef Mark and Chef Chai for providing us with such a scrumptious and gastronomical experience!

Words & Photo by guest writer: Catherine Ong
Instagram: @john3sixteen

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