Have you heard of the TREE Alliance? No? Neither had I until my visit to Luang Prabang. TREE stands for Training Restaurants for Employment and Entrepreneurship and is a global alliance of restaurants collaborating to help former street youths, as well as marginalised young people and adults.
I learnt about this alliance because Dad made it a point to visit one of their restaurants, their latest addition in fact. Called Khaiphaen, it is named after a popular Laotian street snake made of crispy Mekong River weed unique to Luang Prabang.
TREE restaurants are training grounds that aim to provide high quality service and food. More importantly, they are social business with the higher aim of providing former street youth the skills required to become employable in the hospitality industry.
Based on a proven and highly successful model combining hands-on, on-the-job training with life skills education, the training and social support provided are tailored to individual needs of the students, building their confidence and empowering them to build a better future for themselves. So you could say that Khaiphaen is a vocational training restaurant.
Khaiphaen is run by Peuan Mit, an organisation founded by Friends-International in Vientiane in 2004, in partnership with the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare to address the needs of street children and young people in Laos. The restaurant also has a small gift shop attached to it that sells products made by families to help their children stay in education.
I have to say that I was pretty impressed by their menu. To start off, I needed a cold drink and immediately flipped the menu to the drinks section. My choice of Makphet's Hibiscus and Lime Daiquiri was very refreshing and not to mention cooling. The award-winning Makphet is one of the other TREE restaurants and is situated in Vientiane.
We chose a few dishes from the Veggie Lover section of their menu. Because we were at Khaiphaen, we had to order their Khaiphaen and Rice Sticks with Tomato and Hmong Mushroom Dips. Needless to say, nothing was left on the plate, except for the banana leaf. Mum and Dad particularly liked the dips.
As for me, I really liked the Crispy Tofu with Khaiphaen Salt and Spicy Green Mango Dip. Sour and salty tastes combined together went exceptionally well with my drink.
Dad felt like having meat and we agreed to try what sounded like an interesting combination of spices and flavours. We were not disappointed by the Crispy Cinnamon Pork Belly with Ginger Pumpkin Mash and Hibiscus Honey. Although we thought the pork belly was just normal, the ginger pumpkin mash and hibiscus honey really stole the show. My aunt more or less licked the plate clean.
Mum wanted to try their laksa, to see how different it was from our Malaysian laksa. She ordered a bowl of Mekong River Fish and Coconut Laksa with Prawns, Rice Noodles and Banana Blossoms. Even though it had coconut in it, it was not as milky and had a strong fishy taste, perhaps due to the Mekong River Fish. The rice noodles they used were also a thicker kind compared to what we are used to in Malaysia.
We wanted to have some greens and so ordered a plate of Green Beans with Browned Butter, Cashew and Lime. Crunchy and flavoursome, this one.
And there was no way that we would end the meal without dessert. We tried a Pumpkin Tart with Toasted Sesame and Ginger Five Spice Ice Cream. It would have been a meal on its own, as it was so compact and filling. I really liked the exotic taste of the Ginger Five Spice Ice Cream.
Last but not least, we had Sandan's Cashew Crusted Banana Fritters with Kaffir Lime and Coconut Ice Cream and it was one of the best versions of pisang goreng I have ever had. To add kaffir lime to the banana fritters was just genius. Sandan is one of the other TREE restaurants and is situated in Sihanoukville, Cambodia.
As the washroom was upstairs, we had to climb the steep and narrow stairs to get there. There was a class in session upstairs. They were having a Maths class. It instantly made me think, perhaps, one day I could contribute to this cause by teaching, too. One day.
I wonder if it was my background and experience as an educator, I felt so much during my meal here. Observing them trying their hardest to speak in English, to serve us, to explain to us the dishes in a foreign language, to exude confidence in a setting totally unlike what they are used to, I nearly teared at one point. I am ever so thankful for the people with the heart, soul and audacity to fight for a better future for these kids/youths from marginalised or at-risk backgrounds, or who before this called the streets their home.
Rest assured, all profits from TREE restaurants are invested in the students who train there and the social support programs designed to assist them on their journey to become skilled, happy and productive individuals with a more secured future. It was clear from my dining experience here that my meal here was not just for me, it was for the youths training here. It was to support their training and education, to help them build a more hopeful future.
100 Sisavang Vatana Road, Ban Wat Nong, 06000 Luang Prabang, Lao PDR (between the French Institute and the Mekong River)
Tel: +856 30 515 5221 / 71 524 135
Monday to Saturday 11:00am to 10:30pm (kitchen closes at 9:30pm)