Lao Cuisine: some of the best food you will ever eat.
Lao cuisine is fresh, vibrant, herbaceous, textural, packed full of flavour, and some of the most delicious food I have encountered while travelling. It is difficult to understand why such a wonderful cuisine is not as widely known around the world as some of its neighbouring countries are, such as Thailand, Vietnam and China. The Lao people love hot chillies and most importantly sticky rice, the main staple in almost every meal. In fact, many Lao people refer to themselves as “Luk Khao Niaow” or “descendants of sticky rice”.
Glutenous rice is cooked in a woven basket and steamed over a pot of hot water. The result is sticky rice, a delicious, slightly chewy (yet soft) rice that is often used to scoop up food with the fingers. Notable flavours seen in Lao cooking include Padek (Lao fish sauce), lemongrass, and galangal, in addition to garlic and shallots. Dill also features in many dishes, a sign of the French Colonial influence, as is coffee and baguettes. Other herbs used include mint, coriander, and kaffir lime leaf, with betel leaf, pandan leaf, banana flower, bamboo shoots, and tamarind all extensively used in Lao dishes.
While Loa cuisine varies from region to region, meals are usually served with fresh raw greens, vegetables and herbs on the side. Savory dishes tend to have strong flavours (bitter, salty, spicy, sour) and are usually never sweet. The important bitter element is provided by either pea eggplant or bitter greens and herbs. Popular proteins include fish, chicken, duck, pork, buffalo, and goat, however, rodents, frogs, bats, bugs, birds and blood are all commonly eaten. In fact, the Lao people waste nothing and the whole animal is utilised, something western cultures should be doing more.
A popular breakfast or snack food in Laos is noodle soup, an influence of neighbouring Vietnam. Called "Feu", the broth is packed full of flavour and is served with meat, vegetables, noodles, and herbs. Sweet foods are eaten as snacks between meals, usually made using coconut, sticky rice, tapioca, mango, and banana. A favourite, especially in Luang Prabang, are khao nom kok (Lao coconut pancakes). These delicious treats aren’t really pancakes as such and are made in a Dutch pancake pan with 3 simple ingredients; coconut milk, rice flour, and sugar.
Jeow is another popular dish which is eaten with most meals in Laos and is basically a type of dip that scooped up with sticky rice. There are many different types of jeow such as eggplant, tomato, and sour peanut. Often, some of the ingredients are blistered over hot coals to give it a beautiful smoky flavour. Jeow Mak Keua (eggplant dip) is a particular favourite and is made by blistering eggplants and chillies until blackened and then peeled. The chilli is pounded in a mortar and pestle along with garlic and salt, then adding the eggplant and coriander it is pounded to a soft paste. Finally, fish sauce and spring onion are added to make this awesome, smoky taste sensation.
Probably the most famous dish in Laos is laap, which is essentially a salad with minced meat or fish. Popular meats include duck, chicken, pork, buffalo, and fish, all of which may be cooked or served raw. Fish sauce, lime juice, chilli and shallots are added to the minced meat, in addition to herbs like coriander and mint. Finally, the dish is sprinkled with toasted rice powder which gives laap its distinctive flavour. Variations on this dish include the addition of garlic, lemongrass, or dill and other herbs and vegetables. Laap is a wonderfully fresh dish that is not only healthy but absolutely delicious.
Lao sausage (Sai Oua) is a popular type of sausage made from pork mince, pork belly and skin, which is roughly chopped and seasoned with chillies, coriander, fish sauce, galangal, garlic, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, and shallots. This smoky sausage really packs a punch in the flavour department, and you’ll find it difficult to stop at one.
Another dish with a smoky flavour is Orlam, a Luang Prabang specialty which is like a stew. This thick, rich and complex dish can be made with pork, chicken or beef, although many Lao people cook it with dried meat, buffalo, fish, or squirrel. The addition of chilli wood gives orlam a hot peppery and chilli like flavour which tingles the tongue similar to sechuan pepper. Of course, the wood cannot be eaten and is just there to flavour the dish. Orlam also contains lemongrass, eggplant, lao basil leaves, dill, spring onion, fish sauce, and a few other herbs and spices. It really is a very tasty dish.
Khaiphaen is an interesting snack food, made with dried riverweed collected from the Mekong and other rivers in northern Laos. Women collect the long strands of bright green algae from the river during the dry season. After cleaning, the riverweed is pressed into rectangular sheets and seasoned with a liquid containing water, olives, and tamarind. It is then topped with garlic, tomato, and sesame seeds and sun-dried for around one day. This delicious snack pairs well with any type of jeow (dip) washed down with an ice cold Beer Lao.
Another snack that goes well with beer is Oua Si Khai, which is stuffed lemongrass. This highly fragrant and delicious dish uses roughly minced meat perfumed with garlic, shallots, coriander, kaffir lime leaf, and salt. The meat is the stuffed inside a lemongrass stalk that has been scored lengthways to make a “basket” to hold the stuffing. It is then basted with egg and deep fried until golden and crispy and the meat takes on the fragrance of lemongrass and the other herbs and aromats.
These dishes are just a few examples of the amazing flavours of Laos. There is so much more to this cuisine, and as more people visit this awesome South East Asian country, Lao food should become more mainstream around the world. Until then, if your tastebuds have been tantalised and you would like to experience this magical place for yourself take a look at our A Taste of Laos Food Adventure Tour.