Closely related to Thai cuisine, Lao food is, in fact, more widely consumed than you might think: in addition to the more than two million ethnic Lao in Laos, Lao cuisine is the daily sustenance for roughly a third of the Thai population, while more than a few Lao dishes are commonplace on the menus of Thai restaurants in the West. Although Lao cuisine isn’t strongly influenced by that of its other neighbours, Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants have made their mark on the culinary landscape by opening restaurants and noodle stalls throughout the country, while the French introduced bread, pâté and pastries.
Fiery and fragrant, with a touch of sour, Lao food owes its distinctive taste to fermented fish sauce, lemongrass, coriander leaves, chillies and lime juice. Eaten with the hands along with the staple, sticky rice, much of Lao cuisine is roasted over an open fire and served with fresh herbs and vegetables. Pork, chicken, duck and water buffalo all end up in the kitchen, but freshwater fish is the main source of protein in the Lao diet. Many in rural Laos, especially in the more remote mountainous regions, prefer animals of a wilder sort – mouse deer, wild pigs, rats, birds or whatever else can be caught. Though you may not encounter them on menus, you’re likely to see them being sold by the side of the road when travelling in these parts.
Vientiane and Luang Prabang are the country’s culinary centres, boasting excellent Lao food and international cuisine. Towns with a well-developed tourist infrastructure will usually have a number of restaurants serving a mix of Lao, Thai, Chinese and Western dishes, usually of varying standards, but once you’re off the well-beaten tourist trail it can be hard to find much variety beyond fried rice and noodle soup.
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This top-notch noodle dish is probably the most common of Lao food and is a staple not so different to Pho which is synonymous with their Vietnamese neighbours. While common as breakfast Khao Piak Sen also makes good for lunch and pretty much anytime of the day. This tasty soup bowl generally comes as Beef or Chicken served in like broth over flat rice noodles and flavourings of fresh herbs. Often accompanied by optional garnish of chilli oil, lime juice, bean sprouts, long beans, holy basil and cilantro. Khao Piak Sen costs roughly 10,000 Kip.
While famous in Thailand’s Isaan region this fiery, minced pork salad originates from Laos. Easily one of my favourite foods in Asia and a must try for any visit to Laos (or Isaan). While Laab does have variations the most popular dish comes with stir-fried minced pork cooked with shallots, coriander, chillies and mint leaves. Salty of fish sauce and sour of lime for seasoning. Note, Laab can be found using raw uncooked meat which I strongly advise against eating. As most of Lao food Laab comes served with sticky rice (Khao Niew) an accompanying staple. Laab Moo costs roughly 20,000 Kip.
Sai Oua / Sausage
The Lao Sausage is not so different to the famous Chiang Mai Sausage next door in Thailand (Lanna Food). A meat treat which fuses the regions signature flavours with sours of lemongrass and kaffir lime and the fiery kicks of chillies and galangal. Fused together with minced pork and pressed into skins. Lao Sausages can often be seen drying at roadsides or strung up at local markets. Unlike the Sai Oua of Lanna Thai food the Laos Sausage comes served with a tasty dry chilli dip (Nam Cheo) and of course sticky rice. A serving of Sai Oua costs roughly 20,000 Kip
One of the most sought after beers in Southeast Asia, a favourite with Southeast Asia’s backpackers and now found exported through Europe. Beer Lao is hard to avoid in Laos and is said to have 99% share of the beer market in Laos. It is everywhere and as far as beer goes it’s not so bad. If bored of the regular Beer Lao (as you will be) you can always try Beer Lao Black brewed with a roasted malt or Beer Lao Gold more expensive but not more delicious. Big Bottles of Beer Lao (640ml) cost roughly 10,000 Kip
Tam Mak Hoong
Tam Mak Hoong is the Lao equivalent although the term Som Tam is easily interchangeable. This fiery green papaya salad brings the signature sweet, sour, salty and hot signatures of the region. Tam Mak Hoong easily recognised by large mortar and pestles and bright red tomatoes. In the large mortar and pestle strips of green (unripe) papaya are crunched together with a handful of basic ingredients including palm sugar, lime, fish sauce, peanuts and chillies. Other optional Lao ingredients include soft-shelled crab, pickled fish sauce (padek) and Makok a sour olive shaped berry. Eat with sticky rice. Tam Mak Hoong costs roughly 10,000 Kip
Laos’s best coffee is grown on the Bolaven Plateau, outside Paksong in southern Laos, where it was introduced by the French in the early twentieth century. Most of the coffee produced is robusta, although some arabica is grown as well. Quality is generally very high, and the coffee has a rich, full-bodied flavour. Some establishments that are accustomed to foreigners may serve instant coffee (kafeh net, after the Lao word for Nescafé, the most common brand); if you want locally grown coffee ask for kafeh Láo or kafeh thông, literally “bag coffee”, after the traditional technique of preparing the coffee.
Traditionally, hot coffee is served with a complimentary glass of weak Chinese tea or hot water, to be drunk in between sips of the very sweet coffee, though you’re unlikely to experience this in many places. If you prefer your coffee black, and without sugar, order kafeh dam baw sai nâm tan. A perfect alternative for the hot weather is kafeh yén, in which the same concoction is mixed with crushed ice.