Having lived in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand for the past 11 years, I finally got a chance to visit Laos and was struck by the natural beauty of the country ― everything from waterfalls to rivers to caves to large swaths of undeveloped, unfarmed land ― a rarity in the region.
It really shouldn’t have surprised me to see that simple, natural ingredients were the backbone of Lao cuisine. With fragrances including galangal, lemongrass, kaffir, ginger, tamarind, and coriander, Lao cuisine shares similarities with Vietnamese, Chinese, and more noticeably to Khmer and especially Thai cooking.
You’ll see variations of Vietnamese “pho” (called the same in Lao) but less refined, with different veggies and herbs. (I was once served “pho” with cucumbers and sliced string beans.) Also, stirfries are not as common as in neighboring Vietnam or China. And Laos lean more towards the bitter, astringent, and herbal as opposed to sweet and sour. There’s actually a saying that roughly translates to, “Sweet makes you dizzy, but bitter makes you healthy.”
Everywhere I went, I asked locals, expats, and chefs what they thought no visitor to Laos should leave without trying. Would Lao food fall more towards “unrefined” or “rustic?”
Here’s what they recommended.
1. Klao niaw (Sticky rice)
The foundation of all Lao meals, most Laos prefer sticky rice to regular steamed white rice. In fact, they eat on average 345 pounds of it per person annually, more than any other country. Sticky rice takes longer to digest than regular white rice, so people can go longer without eating, important in an agragarian society like Laos. Expect to see a small woven basket of it at every meal. The rice is rolled by hand into small balls, dipped into food and sauces like jeow, a dry, non-oily chili paste with a bit of buffalo skin mixed in, and eaten with the fingers.
Chef Deinla from Phu Doi Restaurant in Luang Prabang explains the secret to making perfect sticky rice: “Soak the uncooked glutinous rice overnight. Then wash it several times before steaming in a bamboo basket. Halfway through the steaming process, gently flip the rice over”.
Variations include sticky brown rice and Khao Lam, glutinous rice cooked inside a tube of bamboo, infusing it with an earthy, woody flavor. I found it unusual as well that sticky rice is sold by the kilo, so don’t be surprised to see your vendor weighing out a small bag of it instead of giving you a pre-measured portion like you might find in Thailand.
2. Laap (Meat salad)
Probably the best-known Lao dish, laap is a chopped meat “salad” made of pork, chicken, beef, duck or fish, dressed with lime juice, garlic, crushed, roasted rice and herbs and served at room temperature. Kung, a 33 year old translator living in Vientiane says, “We eat it every time family gets together. It’s quick and easy to make and also really healthy.”
The protein used in laap can be raw or cooked. Traditionally, village hunters brought in game. The meat was divided among the community, and with no way to store fresh meat, it was eaten immediately. Popular raw laap variations include fish (the lime juice “cooking” it like a ceviche) and duck (with blood). Diners at restaurants will most likely be offered the cooked version, though.
Another flavor in laap is the rice grains that are roasted then crushed to a powde (kao kua). Not only does it add a fragrant nuttiness to the dish, it also serves to absorb some of the moisture.
Stephane Vigie of Le Restaurant du Crabe D’or in Vang Vieng recommends laap mak kea made with roasted eggplants, prawns, and quail eggs, or the regional laap tao, a seaweed salad collected in the village of Ban Na Thong near the Tham Phu Kham cave, home of a bronze reclining Buddha.
3. Tam mak houng (Papaya salad)
The casual observer might dismiss tam mak houng as being the papaya salad seen everywhere in Thailand, or the milder versions eaten in Cambodia or Vietnam. Actually, there’s a bit of controversy as to whether the papaya salad originated in Isaan, in northeastern Thailand, or in Laos.
The first time I had it, I wasn’t watching the preparation very carefully and was surprised to taste that it was quite unlike the Bangkok version. More basic, I noticed immediately that it was saltier and grittier than its Thai cousin, with mainly spicy and salty notes, thanks to the bpadek, or fermented fish sauce. The Lao version of fish sauce is made from mud fish, and the resulting product is not the clear amber color travelers have come to know from Thai or Vietnamese cuisine, but a dark, thick, opaque, gritty (sometimes chunky) liquid whose strong flavor may be an acquired taste. Also, no palm sugar is added to Lao papaya salad.
A meal of sticky rice, slow grilled chicken or pork with a side of tam mak houng makes for a delicious, filling meal and shouldn’t set you back more than $2-3USD.
4. Oh lam (Stew)
Originating from the Hmong of Luang Prabang, oh lam is a stew mainly made from vegetables: beans, eggplants, gourds, black mushrooms, then seasoned with lemongrass, chili, and coriander and finally thickened with sticky rice. Ho or Oh is loosely translated as “to put in”, which implies that this stew is a hodge podge of whatever ingredients are on hand. But the key ingredient is sa kan, a bitter root herb.
Chef Deinla walked me through his version of oh lam and pointed out that the sa kan is basically the woody stem of a wild vine and not meant to be eaten. Instead, it can be chewed, releasing the astringent, almost peppery menthol, oils, and then spit out. Sometimes meat is included, often water buffalo or crispy fried pork skin. Because it takes a long time to cook, oh lam is usually made for special ceremonies only. Kung told me, “It’s enjoyed by old people more. Young people don’t have the time to make it.” That said, it has a unique, earthy taste that I’ve never come across anywhere else in SE Asia.
5. French-inspired food
Part of French Indochina for about 60 years, it’s not surprising to see vestiges of colonial France in Laos like faded yellow buildings, French signage, and of course, the food. The Lao have adopted the baguette, and khao jie pate (or Lao Sandwich), stuffed with pork pate, assorted greens and jeow bong (chili paste), is sold everywhere as a quick snack.
You’ll also find some delicious French-Lao fusion food, French flavors and techniques combined with local ingredients and spices. An example is the “Trilogie de rouleaux de printemps” at La Signature in Vientiane – fresh springrolls but with distinctly French fillings like marinated feta (with bellpepper coulis), salmon tartar, and smoked duck dipped in pesto. (As a bonus, check out the colorful night market with its distinctive red tents that sets up along the riverside, just at the end of the small street as you exit.)
Or you could go all out for straightup French cuisine, at more reasonable prices than you can find almost anywhere else. One of my favorites was La Belle Epoque in Luang Prabang, featuring handpicked organic vegetables from the banks of the Mekong or their own garden. In addition to the fine French food, the setting is incredible. The property is designed to look like a French country manor, completely transplanted to a quiet Luang Prabang suburb.
In Vang Vieng, Le Restaurant du Crabe D’or serves up fine French cuisine, and as a bonus, has the most perfect view of the Nam Song River with the Phou Si mountains as a backdrop.
Some other amazing dishes I tried included:
- Kai phaen – a cousin to Japanese nori and a Luang Prabang speciality, but made with river weed. It’s used to flavor curries and soups but is also deep fried in paper-thin sheets with a sprinkling of sesame seeds for a delicious snack or eaten with sticky rice
- Sai oua – I was leery at eating this Lao sausage when I saw it hanging in long links everywhere, curing in the sun. But once I had a taste of it, served up wit a homemade tomato and garlic dip, I was hooked.
These were places where I either ate or came as recommendations:
- To learn how to make some of these dishes yourself, cooking classes at Lao Experiences (Vientiane) came highly recommended
- For a different culinary experience, visit the Organic Farm in Vang Vieng. Part community project, part restaurant, part small business, the Organic Farm specializes in products made from mulberry (the leaves of which feed silkworms) and surprisingly, makes its own delicious goat cheese.
- Sylvie, a French-Japanese expat who’s been living in Laos since 1996, recommends Coconut Garden (Luang Prabang) and Kua Lao (Vientiane) for great authentic Laotian food
- Phu Doi Restaurant at Kiridara (Luang Prabang) – I’d recommend the Luang Prabang Sampler ($7USD) which includes a quartet of deep fried pork encrusted with sesame seeds, stuffed lemongrass, and Luang Prabang sausage served with a petit papaya salad. Oh Lam and Laap (both $8USD) are both on the Lao menu. Come early to catch the views of Mount Phou Si.
- For a fun, cheap street food experience, try the tiny alley simply known as “Food Street” at the west end of Luang Prabang’s Night Market. Vendors set up huge tables in the cramped but friendly alley heaped with vegetarian rice and noodle dishes. The best part is you can load up your plate with as much food as you can for only K10,000 (or USD 1.25). Grilled meats and fish are extra, starting at K10,000 per skewer.
For more information on planning a trip to Laos, check out the following articles and resources:
- Read our Laos Indie Travel Guide
- Read How to Plan an Extended Trip in Southeast Asia
- Read How a Pencil Made Me Appreciate Life
- Read Trading Places – Laos
To read more from author James Pham, check out his author bio page.