Despite being influenced by neighboring cuisine like Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and French cuisine, Lao culinary customs still have distinct characteristics that make Lao Cuisine different.
Lao people enjoy fresh food. Lao is known as a tropical country with the ideal weather that is suitable to grow various types of fruit and vegetables. They usually prepare everything from scratch, rather than use pre-prepared ingredients.
They believe that the freshness of the ingredients will make their food more delicious. Herbs such as galangal and lemongrass are favourites and padaek (Lao fish sauce) appears on every table. Meat and fish are usually grilled or steamed which retain more nutrition and low in fat. Their desert is also often served with fresh fruits such as mango, pineapple, water melon and dragon fruit.
Laos has its own specialties in every region. For example is kaipen, a fried snack made of fresh water weed eaten with jaew bong or a sweet and spicy Lao paste made with roasted chilies, pork skin, galangal and other ingredients are the most favourite dishes in Luang Prabang. You should ask the locals or tour guides if you want to know what’s best to eat in each town.
Food in Lao New Year or other occasions is like those in daily meals. Lao cuisine represents different meaning through various dishes such as Khao poun (a fermented rice vermicelli) signifies life piling up over the years, while aab means luck. At the end of harvest celebrations or others, a greater variety of foods and more sweets, desserts and alcohol are served. These are great opportunities to reinforce village reciprocity and solidarity.
Buddhists usually offer food to monks from the local temple when they file through the village or city early in the morning. Among some southern minority groups, many buffaloes were killed for food. Fortunately, thanks to the government, the number of buffaloes and other animals sacrificed reduces significantly within all the ethnic groups.
Lao dishes you must try
1. Minced Meat Salad (Laap)
One of the most well-known dishes for tourists to try is Laap. It is made from chopped or thin sliced meat or fish that is mixed with lime juice, fish sauce, mint, coriander, spring onion, chili and uncooked rice grains that have been dry fried and crushed. It is usually accompanied by vegetables including eggplant, fresh chilies, mustard leaves, and lettuce. It can be eaten with ordinary rice or sticky rice and is usually served with fish/meat soup depending on the main ingredient being used.
Laap is a dish that is particular to Laos and is often served on special occasions such as weddings, Baci Ceremonies or other celebrations due to its meaningful representation. Lao people believe that eating Laap brings them luck and good fortune. These days, it is served everywhere, tourists can easily find and enjoy it in many Lao restaurants around the country. It is useful to ask if your laap is well- cooked as visitors, because locals prefer eating it raw, particularly fish laap in some parts of the country.
2. Sticky rice (Khao Niaw)
Sticky rice is traditionally eaten in every Lao meal. It is traditionally steamed in a cone-shaped bamboo basket, and placed in a covered basket where it is eaten alongside many dishes. It is easy to roll into small balls, dip into food and eat with your fingers.
In Laos, citizens eat more sticky rice than anyone else in the world. Lao people usually live in an extended family, especially in the countryside. They would enjoy home cooked meal together, sitting on the floor around a Lao-style table called a pa kao or ka toke. A traditional daily meal is simple and normally consists of sticky rice, other kinds of meat, fish, or poultry, especially some natural vegetables eaten with various kinds of sauce. They are dry, spicy, and very delicious.
3. Green Papaya Salad (Tam Mak Hoong)
Green Papaya Salad is typically made with shreds of unripe papaya. It is of Lao origin, but served in different varieties around the region. Locally known in Laos as tam som or the more specific name tam mak hoong. This dish is a spicy mix of green papaya and many addition ingredients pounded together in a traditional mortar and pestle. The dish combines the five main tastes of the local cuisine: sour lime, hot chili, salty, savoury fish sauce, and sweetness added by palm sugar. It’d be difficult to avoid tasting this delicious dish at least once while travelling in the country.
4 . Wet Noodles (Khao Piak Sen)
Khao Piak Sen is a chewy noodle soup that has a similar consistency to Udon, but it is made with rice instead of wheat. It is Lao-style flat noodle soup with beef and chicken balls in clear broth, topped with spring onions, fresh tomato slices, raw bean sprouts, basil leaves and served with chili oil/paste, lime, fish sauce, freshly grated ginger, and other condiments.
Khao Piak Sen makes a perfect dish with its simplicity without requiring too much ingredients. The special factor is the broth, which should be slowly cooked with bones for the best flavour. It is definitely a common comfort food, especially for a cold day.
5. Baguettes (Khao Jee)
The French influence doesn’t come more obvious than Khao Jee which, in short, is a crusty French baguette. Khao Jee is one of Laos’ staple street foods found sold at small, street side stalls in every city. As with all baguettes you can put pretty much anything in them. The popular filling in Laos however is a set filling of pork liver pate, Vietnamese sausage (boiled pork, cha lua), shredded radish and carrot, cuts of cucumber and squeezes of mayonnaise and chilli sauce. Khao Jee costs roughly 10,000 Kip or 40 Baht.
6. Crispy Rice Salad (Naem Khao Tod)
Nam Khao Tod is a fresh salad from Laos that includes deep-fried rice balls, chunks of soured pork sausage, peanuts, grated coconut, fish sauce, dried chili peppers, and other ingredients. It is traditionally eaten as a warp by filling the individual lettuce leaves with the Nam Khao mixture, topped with fresh herbs and dried chilies.
The traditional Lao method of making Nam khao involves seasoning a batch of cooked rice with red curry paste, sugar, salt, and grated coconut, and then forming the mixture into tightly packed large rice balls to be coated with eggs and then deep-fried to form crispy rice balls. Prior to serving, the crispy rice balls are broken into little chunks of rice and then mixed with the rest of the ingredients to form the eventual crispy rice salad. Crispy Rice Salad is usually served as an appetizer and it is slowly gaining popularity in the West.
7. Lao beer
Regarding drinks, Laos is famous for Beer Lao, or fresh juices made from lime, sugar cane or coconut, as well as fruit shakes. While Lao beer is not technically food, it is an essential companion of any dish when in the country. It is the most famous brand of beer found in Laos, and widely considered to be the best tasting beer in the region. Lao beer is traditionally served with ice in small glasses, where it is enjoyed amongst friends and families.