The fear of food poisoning causes many people to deny themselves the exploration of Laotian food. It’s a pity, because this wonderful country offers an interesting and flavorful cuisine, one quietly hiding between two internationally famous neighbors — the Thai and Vietnamese. Perhaps the landlocked location of Laos made spreading its culture more difficult than for its western and eastern neighbors. The opinion that Lao cuisine is similar to Thai is apparently erroneous, or rather reversed, as the northeast region of Thailand – Isan – was once a Lao territory. Therefore, it’s the food of northern Thailand that retained Laotian characteristics. One way or another, influences in the whole region of Southeast Asia interpenetrate and you can find a common denominator between cuisines of any pair of countries.
In opposition to their aforementioned neighbors, the Laotians eat using bare hands. Chopsticks are only used with noodle dishes. Because of the lack of cutlery, the dishes are either dry or dense to facilitate eating, while the sticky rice, as opposed to the ordinary rice, makes for a great “scooper-upper”. Food served in restaurants strongly differs from what people eat at homes. The tourists always get a spoon and a fork but if you watch or eat with the locals, you will see that sometimes they’ll eat even a spicy noodle salad using their hands. A local version of curry (Keng Pet or Gaeng Pet) is actually a soup. It can be eaten by soaking sticky rice balls in the liquid. The meals are usually eaten on the floor, on a special bamboo mat, or by a low table.
You will have a hard time finding an oven in Laos. Most dishes are prepared on ubiquitous grills or on a clay brazier, giving them a pleasant, smoky aroma. Apart from the Thai-imported fish sauce, the favorite, very characteristic addition to Lao dishes is padaek — a local, fermented, unfiltered “mud” made of freshwater fish, much more pungent and smelly than the Thai or Vietnamese amber liquid. Monosodium glutamate, a Chinese influence, is amazingly popular and faved by Laotians, and as our cooking instructor told us, if the locals encountered a sign on the restaurant door stating “We don’t use MSG” they would just turn around and go to another place.
Laotians love eating meat. All animals (rodents, birds, frogs, insects) are a good source of edible protein. Nothing gets wasted and if a buffalo is killed, all parts of the animal are sold and eaten, such as the offal, skin, bile, blood… Laotian cuisine is also full of fresh vegetables and herbs and the cooking often starts with pounding the shallots, garlic, lemongrass, chilli and numerous aromatic leaves in a mortar. Desserts rarely appear after the meal but are eaten as snacks between the meals, usually in the form of fresh fruit.
Below you can find a list of six basic and very characteristic dishes which we recommend to try in Laos, regardless of the region.
Sticky rice aka khao niaow!
The most distinctive element of the Laotian cuisine. This special glutinous rice variety is first soaked in water for at least four hours and then steamed in a special cone-shaped bamboo basket. Cooked rice is stored in another, cylinder-shaped basket. A Laotian family consumes a large basket of rice every day, using it as a base of almost any meal. In the local transport we often noticed packed lunch in the form of a dry piece of grilled meat and a clod of sticky rice. Apart from the white variety, we have also encountered its beautiful purple sibling.
The simplest Lao meal is sticky rice with a taste-carrying dip called jeow.
There are plenty kinds of these sauces: made of tomatoes, eggplant, peanuts. The famous, jeow bong, is made of buffalo skin and chillies. In general, the veggies are first put in a hot brazier to blacken, then they’re peeled. That’s how the dip becomes distinctively smoky in taste. To eat, tear a piece of sticky rice, shape it into a ball and shovel a little bit of jeow into your mouth. No second dippings with the half eaten ball!
Lao version of the Vietnamese pho. I’ve written about it more than once because I feel it’s a must-try. The single most popular breakfast choice which you can get in any of the eateries in the morning and often during the day. We ate it numerous times and although the quality varies greatly, some of these bowls I will keep in my memory for ever. My favorite version contains tomatoes and thin and hard rice noodles. The contents of the bowl are just a base to be enriched (“making it more perfect”) using a personal choice of additions placed on the table, including extremely spicy peppers, chilli pastes in oil, fish sauce and shrimp paste, herbs and other greens, limes, sugar and MSG crystals… We encourage you to do what the Asians do and start your day with a bowl of hot soup. It is hard to change habits from the home country but in fact it turns out much better both when it comes to taste and money in comparison to the local knock-offs of the western dishes such as instant pancakes or English breakfast with imported meat, quite expensive here and both of very low quality.
Tam Mak Hoong (papaya salad)
An absolute classic which you can get everywhere, obligatorily reeking of padaek fish sauce (the more south you go the more they add) and full of chillies that will make you cry. Because of this, it may not be the perfect meal but rater an aromatic addition to your lunch. It’s worth trying at least once. There is a similar cucumber version, also cut in thin ribbons. Variations of papaya salad are found throughout the region but apparently it was invented in Laos.
Similar to the Khmer amok, mok pa is fish steamed in banana leaves. The Lao version doesn’t contain coconut milk. An aromatic paste is created in a mortar using a few kinds of herbs (dill being the leading ingredient), which is then mixed with pieces of fish and wrapped in banana leaves creating a simple, delicate and really tasty dish.
Laap / koy
The famous salad made of minced meat and chopped greens is served for special occasions. Chicken, duck, fish, buffalo or other meats can be used. Cows are quite rare in Laos and what appears as “beef” on the menus is usually buffalo meat, which contains less fat and is therefore often described as of lower quality. In the restaurants, the meat for laap is fried first, but Lao people prefer a raw version accompanied by lao-lao (the local whiskey / moonshine). The salad appears to be mostly meat but preparing it we were surprised how much greens can be mixed in, such as spring onion, cilantro, lemongrass, mint, banana flower, long beans, sprouts…
In the buffalo version of the salad, buffalo bile is often added to tenderize the meat and add some well-loved bitterness. Offal is also a popular addition, often in the form of finely chopped intestines. In restaurants, you can find vegetarian versions of laap, for example with tofu or mushrooms. It’s delicious, too!