Lao cuisine, even if it is little-known in the West, has had a major influence on the cuisine of neighboring countries like Thailand and Cambodia.
Since Lao people come from a region which is now part of China, their cuisine is distinct from that of the rest of Southeast Asia. For example, Lao meals include many raw vegetables, and their savory dishes are never sweet. They use some ingredients ignored in other countries; like galangal, pivotal in Lao cuisine.
Laos, like Vietnam and Cambodia, was largely influenced by France, and this is still clear in some aspects of the local cuisine. Baguettes and ca fay (Laotian coffee) are sold on the streets of Vientiane, the capital city, and French restaurants are quite common.
Some dishes you shouldn’t miss during your trip to Laos are: larb, a meat-based salad with mint leaves, chili, and fish sauce; pho, a noodle soup originating from Vietnam with sliced pork or beef; and papaya salad, with a strong taste of salt and spices.
- Enjoy the cuisine that has made a major impact on Thai food.
- Try laap, the unofficial national meat dish, with contrasting, rich flavors…
- …or som tam, a spicy and savory papaya salad.
- Try the many kinds of excellent tropical fruit, from mangosteen to honey mango.
- Get to know the local table manners and pay homage to your hosts.
A traditional Lao meal consists of different courses such as a soup, greens, and a stewed or mixed dish. There is no particular order to follow when eating the different dishes and soup is sipped throughout the entire meal.
The most important food to Lao people is rice; it is eaten with almost every single meal. It is so important that Lao people call themselves “descendants of sticky rice” (luk khao niaow).
Like every other cuisine in Southeast Asia, Lao cuisine uses many different herbs and spices. The combination of herbs and spices gives to each dish a characteristic flavor that will delight your taste buds.
Fish paste and soy sauce are used as condiments: the former mostly as dipping for meat and fish, the latter to add flavor to noodles, soup, fish, and meat.
Let’s look now at some of the individual ingredients.
Rice and Noodles
Sticky rice is the country’s staple food. Some variations are sticky brown rice and khao lam, glutinous rice cooked inside bamboo sticks. There is a basket of rice near the table at every meal, which is closed once the meal is over.
Besides the classic sticky rice, Lao people also like to consume:
- Glutinous rice, with opaque grains;
- Cellophane noodles, transparent noodles made from mung-bean starch and water; and
- Khao poon, fresh rice noodles made from fermented rice.
Herbs and Spices
Lao cuisine uses an incredible number of different herbs and spices present in almost every recipe.
Galangal and lemongrass are perhaps the most popular. Galangal is mostly used for soups, while lemongrass is also used for stews and marinades.
Most of the herbs and spices are used to add flavor to soups, stews, or marinades. Some of the most popular are: coriander, mint (also eaten raw), kaffir lime, ginger flower or root, chili pepper, garlic, and Asian basil.
Sauces and Dips
The traditional fish sauce used in Laos is called padaek, containing chunks of pickled or fermented fish. Unlike other fish sauces in Southeast Asia, padaek is made from freshwater fish, and is used for many dishes, especially papaya salad, called tam maakhong.
Popular dips for meat and fish dishes are:
- Jaew mak khua, made from roasted eggplant;
- Jaew mak len, made from roasted sweet tomatoes;
- Jaew bong, sweet and spicy paste made with roasted chilies, pork skin, and galangal;
- Jaew padaek, made from fried padaek fish pieces, roast garlic, chilies, and lemon grass.
One peculiarity of Lao cuisine is that many vegetables are used as side dishes and eaten raw. Banana flowers, Asian basil, Lao coriander, Lao eggplant, mint, wild betel leaves, and many more are eaten raw to accompany dishes like curries, soups, and stews.
Cucumber is usually eaten as a garnish or as a substitute for the papaya in salad. Salads are common (also meat-based ones), and among the most popular are:
- Tam som: with Lao chili peppers, lime juice, tomatoes, padaek, sugar, crab and shrimp paste (the pastes are optional);
- Tam mak guh: made with spicy green bananas; and
- Tam mak thou: spicy green long/yard bean salad.
In Laos you will find plenty of tropical fruit. Depending on the season, you may be served with a combination of papaya, banana, pineapple, melon, or mango.
Apples, grapes, and Asian pears (imported from China) are available in many places. During the cold winter months, it is easy to find citrus fruit such as pomelos and tangerines.
April to July is the high season for fruit. Honey mangoes are creamy and sweet; mangosteens, lychees, and rambutan are all worth a try.
On the streets, it is common to encounter carts selling fruit by the kilo. We recommend trying the local specialties and avoiding imported fruit (which is often more expensive and not as good).
Every region in Laos has its own specialties, with fresh food from the locality.
Kaipen is a specialty in Luang Prabang: a fried snack made of free water weed and dipped in a spicy paste made with pork skin and galangal (see below). Other dishes worth a try include dried water buffalo skin; aw lam, a thick soup with mushrooms, meat, and eggplant; and ao-lam, a salad with seaweed, served with sesame seeds.
Vientiane is famous for its fish paste (padaek), sour and spicy fish salad (koypaa), and steamed fish and fresh herbs (neungpaa).
If you like fish, Champasak Province offers a wide variety of fish dishes, such as fish salad, fermented fish and pureed fish.
- Larb (also spelled laab): this most popular Lao dish is made with minced meat (raw or cooked) and seasoned with mint, chili, fish sauce, and lime juice. Roughly toasted rice is usually also used.
- Tam mak hoong (or som tam): sour lime, hot chili, salty and savory fish sauce, palm sugar, and papaya are the foundations for the rich flavor of this savory, crunchy salad.
- Kaipen with jeaw bong: a popular snack made with algae, vegetables, and sesame seeds. The algae are first gathered when the rivers are dried, then hung to dry. Finally, they are pressed into thin sheets.
- Lao sausage: different varieties are made of fatty pork with lemongrass, galangal, cilantro, garlic, and other spices. They are usually roasted and served with sticky rice or greens.
Asia Highlights Hand-Picked Restaurants
Choosing the right restaurant is fundamental for experiencing the best cuisine the country has to offer. Both Luang Prabang and Vientiane are full of excellent places for a good meal. We have chosen a few restaurants that are worth a try. They offer high-quality service, a family-friendly environment, and of course, amazing food.
Khaiphaen, named after a crispy snack made from seaweed, is a training restaurant; part of the TREE Alliance, which hires disadvantaged young local kids and trains them.
Located between the French Institute and the Mekong River, the restaurant offers local Laotian food like kao soi, a miso soup with duck, or Mekong river fish and coconut with prawns, besides many different dishes for meat- or veggie-lovers.
Near the National Museum and the Night Market you will find the Blue Lagoon Restaurant, with its elegant ambience and its mix of eastern and western delicacies. They offer Laotian and Swiss-like local tender buffalo fillet and a lot of different fresh salads.
Tamarind restaurant is popular among locals and tourists alike: booking a table is essential. They use only the freshest ingredients to cook Laotian dishes, such as fragrant lemongrass with chicken, eggplant and meat stew, steamed fish with banana leaves, and many more.
You can choose between a Luang Prabang Meal, with only traditional dishes, or an Adventurous Lao Gourmet, a degustation-style (careful-tasting-style) menu.
Lao Kitchen is a contemporary Lao restaurant that tries to adapt classic traditional dishes. Its menu spans stews, Laotian sausages, stir-fried morning glory, spring rolls, and much more. For each dish you can choose the level of spiciness (from 1 to 3).
Little House is a charming café serving excellent coffee coming from Bolavan Plateau, the coffee-growing region of the country. You can choose between medium or dark roast coffee, and between pastries and cakes. The restaurant is owned by the Handicraft Promotion Enterprise, a group collaborating with Lenten tribespeople to produce embroidered handicrafts.
JoMa Bakery Café offers organic coffee grown in Southern Laos and food made with the best locally-produced or homemade ingredients, like their gourmet ice cream. You can find plenty of baked goods and lattes here.
Lao and Thai food share common foundations, as they influenced each other in the past.
The Lao originally inhabited a northern region of China. They moved southwards bringing their traditions with them, and ended up in northeastern Thailand. After these migrations, Lao food was introduced into Thailand and Cambodia as well.
Tips for Eating
Table manners are important, especially when we are guests in another country. Here are some general rules to follow when eating, so you will be prepared to honor your host and his family:
- Take your fork in your left hand and your spoon in your right. Sticky rice is eaten with the fingers of the right hand. Chopsticks are generally used only for noodles and noodle soups.
- In a traditional home, you will sit on a mat on the floor. As a sign of respect, the host won’t raise his head above the guest’s head.
- Tradition requires everyone to sit around a raised platform called ka toke, with dishes arranged on it. Nowadays, however, this tradition is only followed by monks, when they are eating inside a temple.
- When eating in a group, many dishes are ordered so that everyone can try a little of each. It is impolite to refuse tea at the end of the meal, if offered.
- Beverages are usually not part of a Laotian meal.
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