Lao Cuisine - All you need to know
Being a laid-back country, Laos enchants the tourists worldwide via its quiet beauty, enigmatic history, and exclusive cuisine as well.
The taste, color, and fragrance of the foods you find in Laos promise to make up a different culinary story. If having a good appetite for Laos cuisine, why not explore it right away?
Let’s start with more detail about Lao cuisine
Lao cuisine is the cuisine of Laos and Northeast Thailand, which is distinct from other Southeast Asian cuisines.
The staple food of the Lao is steamed sticky rice, which is eaten by hand.
In fact, the Lao eat more sticky rice than any other people in the world. Sticky rice is considered the essence of what it means to be Lao.
Often the Lao will refer to themselves as “luk khao niaow”, which can be translated as “children or descendants of sticky rice”.
Galangal, lemongrass, and padaek (fermented fish sauce) are important ingredients.
The most famous Lao dish is larb ( sometimes also spelled laap), a spicy mixture of marinated meat or fish that is sometimes raw (prepared like ceviche) with a variable combination of herbs, greens, and spices.
Another Lao invention is a spicy green papaya salad dish known as tam mak hoong, more famously known to the West as som tam.
Lao cuisine has many regional variations, corresponding in part to the fresh foods local to each region.
A French legacy is still evident in the capital city, Vientiane, where baguettes are sold on the street and French restaurants are common and popular, which were first introduced when Laos was a part of French Indochina.
Lao cuisine origin
The Lao originally came from a northern region that is now part of China. As they moved southward, they brought their traditions with them.
Due to historical Lao migrations from Laos into neighboring regions, Lao cuisine has influenced the mainly Lao-populated region of Northeastern Thailand (Isan).
Lao foods were also introduced to Cambodia and Northern Thailand (Lanna) where the Lao have migrated. In his book, Culture and Customs of Laos, Arne Kislenko noted the following about Lao cuisine:
Any discussion about Lao cuisine cannot be limited to Laos.
There are approximately six times more ethnic Lao in the Isan region of northeastern Thailand than in Laos itself, which makes it necessary to go beyond national boundaries in search of definitively Lao food.
In fact, with the recent droves of migrants from Isan further south to Bangkok, the Thai capital has in many respects become the epicenter of Lao cuisine.
Some estimate that more Lao are there than in any other city in the world, including Vientiane.
There are also sizable expatriate communities in places like the United States and France that make for numerous culinary variations abroad.
Lao vs. Thai cuisine
Despite there being more ethnic Lao living in Thailand than in Laos and Lao cuisine playing a pivotal role in making Thai food an international phenomenon, very little to no mention of the word “Lao” is found.
This phenomenon is most likely the direct consequence of forced Thaification (1942–present), an official attempt to promote national unity and “Thainess”, where any mention of “Lao” and other non-Thai descriptors were removed and replaced with northeastern Thai or Isan.
Consequently, Thaification has led to social discrimination against northeasterners and the word “Lao” became a derogatory term.
Being “Lao” was stigmatized as being uneducated and backward, thus causing many northeasterners to be ashamed to be known as being Lao.
More recently, as Lao identity loses its stigma, there is now a real sense of resurgence and pride in Lao identity, particularly among the Isan youth.
In the West, even with a sizable expatriate communities, Lao cuisine is still virtually unknown even though much of what is served in Thai restaurants is likely to be Lao or Lao-owned.
In fact, unbeknownst to most people when they eat their favourite som tam, larb, and sticky rice at their favourite Thai or northeastern Thai (Isan) restaurants they are actually eating the Thai versions of traditional Lao food.
This accidental reinforcement of Thaification by the expatriate Lao communities and Lao restaurateurs is well observed by Malaphone Phommasa and Celestine Detvongsa in their article, Lao American Ethnic Economy:
Unlike […] ethnic specific stores, Lao-owned restaurants are doing better in reaching out to the general public.
Although there are some restaurants that advertised as singularly “Laotian”, many Lao restaurants are established under the guise of Thai restaurants and Thai/Lao restaurants to entice mainstream customers.
Because most Americans are unfamiliar with Laotian food, Lao entrepreneurs have aimed to acquire more business by advertising themselves as Thai restaurants: the latter have successfully achieved popularity with the mainstream population.
These restaurateurs would then incorporate Lao dishes onto the menu.
Although there are many similarities between Lao and northern Thai cuisine, certain foods will distinguish a true Thai restaurant from a Lao-owned restaurant would be the inclusion of “sticky rice” on the menu…
There is now a growing movement to promote Lao cuisine led by Chef Seng and executive chef Phet Schwader, to name a few.
Rice and noodles
- Rice – Khao
- Glutinous rice – Khao Niaw a type of rice grown mainly in Southeast and East Asia, which has opaque grains, very low amylose content, and is especially sticky when cooked.
- Cellophane noodles – Sewn Lon: transparent noodles made from mung bean starch and water.
- Khao poon: are fresh rice noodles which are made from rice which has first been fermented for three days, boiled, and then made into noodles by pressing the resulting dough through a sieve into boiling water.
- Rice noodles – Sewn Pho: noodles that are made from rice. This should not be confused with Vietnamese pho. Though the word has Vietnamese origin, the dish it refers to in Laos might not be the same as Vietnamese pho.
Vegetables, herbs and spices
- Asian basil – Bualapha: eaten raw with feu.
- Bamboo shoots – Naw Mai, used in stews or boiled as a side dish.
- Banana flower – Makpi: a raw accompaniment to noodle soup or cooked in others.
- Chili pepper – Makphet: seven popular types.
- Climbing wattle (acacia) – Phak Kha: used in soups, curries, omelettes, and stir-fries.
- Coriander (cilantro) – Phak Hom Pom: both leaves and seeds added to dips, marinades, and a wide variety of dishes.
- Cucumber – Mak Teng: eaten as a garnish or as a substitute for green papaya in salad.
- Galangal – Kha: typically used in soups, mixed dishes, and marinades.
- Garlic – Kathiem
- Ginger flower: May Khing
- Ginger root – Khing
- Kaffir lime – Mak Khi Hut: typically used in soups and stews.
- Khaipen: dried sheets of edible Mekong River algae, similar to nori.
- Lao basil – Phak Itu: used in soups and stews.
- Lao coriander – (“Lao dill”): used in stews and eaten raw.
- Lao eggplant – Mak Khua: small and round Kermit eggplant, used in stews or eaten raw.
- Lemon grass – Hua Singkhai: used in soups, stews and marinades.
- Lime – Mak Naow: common ingredient to many dishes.
- Mint – Bay Hom Laap: used in goy/laap, and eaten raw.
- Midnight horror – Mak Linmay: a bitter green, eaten raw.
- Mushrooms – Het: used in soups and stir-fries.
- Neem (kadao) – Phak Kadaw: Azadirachta indica or neem, a bitter vegetable often eaten raw.
- Papaya (green) – Mak Hung, shredded and used in spicy papaya salad.
- Rattan shoots: typically used in stews (bitter).
- Scarlet wisteria – Dork Khe: blossom eaten as vegetable in soups and curries.
- Sa khan: stem of Piper ribesioides, used in stews.
- Shallot – Bua daeng
- Tamarind – Mak Khawm: sour fruit used in soups or as a snack.
- Tamarind leaf – Bay Mak Khawm: used in soups.
- Tomato – Mak Len: eaten as a garnish item or in papaya salad.
- Turkey berry – Mak Kheng, Solanum torvum: typically used in stews and curries.
- Water spinach – Phak Boung: Ipomoea aquatica, stir-fried, steamed, or eaten as raw vegetable accompaniment.
- Wild betel leaves – Phak Ilet: Piper sarmentosum, a green, eaten raw.
- Yanang leaf – Bay Yanang: used as a green colouring agent and as a seasoning or thickener for soups and stews.
- Yard long beans – Mak Thua: eaten raw, in stews, and can be made into a spicy bean salad (tam mak thoua).
Pastes and sauces
- Fish sauce (nam pa) – clear fish sauce: used as a general condiment.
- Padaek: Lao-style fish paste.
- Soy sauce
- Century egg (khai niaow ma; lit. ‘horse urine egg’)
- Pig blood curd
- Pork belly “three-layer pork” – Sin Mu Sam San
- Dried water buffalo skin – Nawng Khewm used in jaew bong and stews.
Fruits in Laos may consist of watermelon, pineapple, sugar apple, (custard apple or sweetsop), longan, litchi, Asian pear, mango, rose apple (water apple), banana, jackfruit, rambutan, young coconut, orange, sweet tamarind, papaya, durian, sugarcane, pomelo, sapodilla, guava, star, apple, mangosteen, melon, santol, langsat, grapes, corossolier (soursop), mak yom, and mak num nom.
Melon carving is also a popular tradition in Laos, where artists may carve beautiful flowers and other designs into fruits such as watermelon. Fruit arrangements are also common, and these are done during special occasions such as weddings and other ceremonies.
The typical Lao stove, or brazier, is called a tao-lo and is fueled by charcoal. It is shaped like a bucket, with room for a single pot or pan to sit on top.
The wok, maw khang in Lao, is used for frying and stir frying. Sticky rice is steamed inside of a bamboo basket, a huad, which sits on top of a pot, which is called the maw nung.
A large, deep mortar called a khok is used for pounding tam mak hoong and other foods. It is indispensable in the Lao kitchen.
Grilling, boiling, stewing, steaming, searing and mixing (as in salads) are all traditional cooking methods. Stir-frying is now common, but considered to be a Chinese influence.
Stews are often green in color, because of the large proportion of vegetables used as well as ya nang leaf.
Soups/stews are categorized as follows, tom, tom jeud, kaeng, and kaeng soua.
Ping means grilled. It is a favorite cooking method. Ping gai is grilled chicken, ping sin is grilled meat, and ping pa is grilled fish.
Before grilling, the meat is typically seasoned with minced garlic, minced coriander root, minced galangal, salt, soy sauce, and fish sauce, each in varying quantities, if at all, according to preference.
The Lao seem to prefer a longer grilling at lower heat.
The result is grilled meat that is typically drier than what Westerners are accustomed to.
The Lao probably prefer their food this way, because they wish to keep their hands dry and clean for handling sticky rice.
They also typically eat the grilled food with a hot sauce (chaew) of some sort, which takes away the dryness.
Lao food differs from neighboring cuisines in multiple respects.
One is that the Lao meal almost always includes a large quantity of fresh raw greens, vegetables and herbs served undressed on the side.
Another is that savory dishes are never sweet. “Sweet and sour” is generally considered bizarre and foreign in Laos.
Yet another is that some dishes are bitter.
There is a saying in Lao cuisine, “van pen lom; khom pen ya,” which can be translated as, “sweet brings you down; bitter is medicine.”
A couple of the green herbs favored in Lao cuisine but generally ignored by their neighbors are mint and dill, both of paramount importance.
Galangal is a cooking herb that is heavily favored in Laos, unlike in neighboring countries. It appears in probably the majority of Lao dishes, along with the conventional herbs: garlic, shallots, lemongrass, etc.
Another distinctive characteristic of Lao food or more properly, Lao eating habits, is that food is frequently eaten at room temperature. This may be attributable to the fact that Lao food served with sticky rice is traditionally handled by hand.
The traditional manner of eating was communal, with diners sitting on a reed mat on the wooden floor around a raised platform woven out of rattan called a ka toke.
Dishes are arranged on the ka toke, which is of a standard size. Where there are many diners, multiple ka tokes will be prepared. Each ka toke will have one or more baskets of sticky rice, which is shared by all the diners at the ka toke.
In recent times, eating at a ka toke is the exception rather than the rule. The custom is maintained, however, at temples, where each monk is served his meal on a ka toke.
Once food is placed on the ka toke it becomes a pha kao. In modern homes, the term for preparing the table for a meal is still taeng pha kao, or prepare the phah kao.
Traditionally, spoons were used only for soups and white rice, and chopsticks (ໄມ້ທູ່,mai thu) were used only for noodles. Most food was handled by hand. The reason this custom evolved is probably due to the fact that sticky rice can only be easily handled by hand.
Lao meals typically consist of a soup dish, a grilled dish, a sauce, greens, and a stew or mixed dish (koy or laap).
The greens are usually fresh raw greens, herbs and other vegetables, though depending on the dish they accompany, they could also be steamed or more typically, parboiled.
Dishes are not eaten in sequence; the soup is sipped throughout the meal. Beverages, including water, are not typically a part of the meal.
When guests are present, the meal is always a feast, with food made in quantities sufficient for twice the number of diners. For a host, not having enough food for guests would be humiliating.
The custom is to close the rice basket, when one is finished eating.
Jaew: a popular type of dipping sauce in Laos.
- 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, galangal and other ingredients.
- Jaew padaek – made from fried padaek, fish, roast garlic, chilies, lemon grass, and other ingredients.
Kap kaem: dishes served as snacks, before the main dish, or with beer.
- Khaiphaen – fried snack made of fresh water algae, usually served with jaew bong.
- Khai khuam – stuffed eggs “upside down”.
- Khai nug – steamed, boiled egg made by making a hole in the egg to remove the contents and pouring it back in after mixing the yolk with other ingredients.
- Khua pak bong – stir fried water spinach.
- Look seen – Laotian beef meatballs.
- Mekong river moss – fried moss from the Mekong River.
- Sai kok – chunky pork sausage.
- Sai oua – grilled pork sausage.
- Seen hang – Laotian beef jerky that is flash-fried beef.
- Seen savanh – thinly sliced beef jerky with sweeter taste and covered with sesame seeds.
- Seen tork
- Som khai pa – pickled fish roe.
- Som moo – pickled pork with pork skin (summer sausages).
- Som pa – pickled fish.
- Som phak kad – pickled greens.
- Som phak kai lum who moo – pickled cabbage with pickled pork ears.
- Yaw – Laotian pork roll. Known as giò lụa in Vietnam.
- Yaw dip – a type of spring roll made with rice paper, vermicelli, lettuce, and various fillings including shrimp. It’s usually eaten with peanut sauce or Laotian sweet sauce. Known as Gỏi Cuốn in Vietnam.
- Yaw jeun – fried spring roll.
Sarad: a general name to describe a dish with mixed vegetables, herbs, and spices. Meat salads in Laos are known as larb or laap.
- Larb – a spicy Lao minced meat salad made with fermented fish and herbs. Various meats include fish, duck, chicken, pork, and beef, as well as mushrooms.
- Nam tok – a meat-based salad similar to larb. It can also be made into a stew.
- Pon – spicy puree of cooked fish.
- Tam som – is the following salads made with Lao chili peppers, lime juice, tomatoes, fish sauce/paste, and sugar. Crab paste and shrimp paste are optional.
- Tam khao poon – spicy vermicelli noodles salad.
- Tam mak guh – spicy plantain salad.
- Tam mak hoong – spicy green papaya salad.
- Tum mak khua – spicy eggplant salad.
- Tam mak taeng – spicy cucumber salad.
- Tam mak thua – spicy green long/yard beans salad.
Soups and stews
Kaeng – “soup”
- Kaeng jeut – vegetable and pork soup.
- Kaeng galee – Lao curry.
- Kaeng Nor Mai or Soup Nor Mai – a green stew made with bamboo shoots.
- Or – green vegetable stew.
- Or lam – Luang Prabang style green vegetable stew.
- Tom jeaw pa – spicy fish soup.
- Tom kha gai – a spicy and sour soup made with coconut milk, mushrooms, and chicken.
- Tom padaek – fish stewed in padaek.
- Tom yum – a spicy and sour soup made with lemongrass, and various meats such as beef, chicken, pork, and shrimp or other seafood.
Ahan ping – “grilled food”
- Ping gai – grilled, marinated chicken.
- Ping hua ped – grilled, marinated duck head. It can be considered as an appetizer.
- Ping moo – grilled, marinated pork.
- Ping pa – grilled fish mixed with spices and herbs.
- Ping ped – grilled, marinated duck.
- Ping seen – grilled, marinated beef.
- Ping theen gai – grilled, marinated chicken feet.
- Seen dat – Laotian-styled barbecue. Traditional meats and vegetables are seared on a dome-shaped griddle.
Ahan neung – “steamed food”
- Mok pa – fish steamed in banana leaf.
- Mok gai – chicken steamed in banana leaf.
- Mok khai
- Mok kai pa
- Ua dok kae
- Titi gai – steak in a banana leaf wrap.
Ahan kap khao – “food with rice”: dishes made with rice as the main ingredient. In most Lao meals, glutinous rice known as khao niao, is a staple to the Laotian diet.
- Khao khua or khao phat – Laotian-styled fried rice.
- Khao niao – steamed glutinous rice. Popularly known as “sticky rice”. This type of rice is usually kept in a bamboo basket and is shared among all diners. Different ingredients such as coconut milk and red beans can be added to make the rice into a sweet dessert.
- Khao piak khao (lit. ‘rice wet rice’) – rice porridge. Toppings may contain blood curds, century eggs, fried onions or garlic, and scallions.
- Khao ping or khao chee – baked sticky rice seasoned with eggs. Khao chee is also another name for bread.
- Khao jao or khao neung – steamed white rice. Jasmine rice is generally used. This type of rice is also used as an ingredient for many stir-fried dishes.
- Nam khao – crispy rice salad made with deep-fried rice balls, chunks of fermented pork sausage called som moo, chopped peanuts, grated coconut, sliced scallions or shallots, mint, cilantro, lime juice, fish sauce, and other ingredients.
Pho or Mee: Noodles are popular dishes in northern and central Laos. These can vary from “wet noodles”, served with broth, or “dry noodles” which are typically stir-fried.
- Pho – Laotian-styled Pho, or rice noodle soup.
- Kaeng sen lon – soup made with glass noodles and meatballs.
- Khao piak sen – rice flour noodles in chicken broth. Similar to the Vietnamese dish, bánh canh, and the Japanese dish, udon.
- Khao poon – rice vermicelli soup, also known as “Lao laksa”.
- Khua mee – pan-fried rice noodles topped with thinly sliced egg omelette.
- Lard na – stir-fried noodles covered in gravy.
- Mee haeng – wheat noodles with vegetables and meat.
- Mee kati – rice vermicelli made in coconut milk.
- Mee nam – wheat noodles in a broth of vegetables and meat.
- Pad Lao – stir-fried noodles mixed with lightly scrambled egg. Similar to Pad Thai.
- Pad ki mao – stir-fried broad rice noodles.
- Pad see ew – stir-fried noodle dish made with Chinese broccoli, and beef, chicken, or seafood.
- Pad sen lon – stir-fried glass noodles.
- Suki – Laotian-styled Sukiyaki.
- Yum sen lon – tangy salad made with glass noodles.
Khong van – “sweet things”: Lao desserts are generally made with the combination of tropical fruits and glutinous rice products. These can vary from types of cakes, to jelly, to drinks, and custards.
- Khao lam – a sweet sticky rice dish made with red beans, coconut, coconut milk, and sugar prepared in bamboo.
- Khao niao mak muang – sticky rice with coconut and mango (picture below)
- Khao pard – jelly-like rice cake, unique for its layers. It’s usually green from the use of pandan leaves as an ingredient.
- Khao tom – steamed rice wrapped in banana leaf. Various fillings include pork, bananas, and taro.
- Khanom kok – coconut dumpling made on a griddle. It may be topped with green onions.
- Khanom maw kaeng – coconut custard cake.
- Lod xong – a green, worm-like dessert made with rice jelly, coconut milk, and liquefied palm sugar.
- Nam van – a general name for a dessert which can contain tapioca and various fruits including durian, jack fruit, and water chestnuts.
- Sangkaya – custard made with Kabocha, a type of Asian squash.
- Voon – jelly made with coconut milk
Lao coffee is often called Pakxong coffee (cafe pakxong in Lao), which is grown on the Bolovens Plateau around the town of Pakxong.
This area is sometimes said to be the best place in Southeast Asia for coffee cultivation.
Both Robusta and Arabica are grown in Laos, and if you ask for Arabica, there is a very good chance the proprietor will know what you are talking about.
Most of the Arabica in Laos is consumed locally and most of the Robusta is exported to Thailand, where it goes into Nescafé.
The custom in Laos is to drink coffee in glasses, with condensed milk in the bottom, followed by a chaser of green tea.
The highly regarded tea is also grown on the Bolovens Plateau.
There are two general types of traditional alcoholic beverages, both produced from rice: lao hai and lao lao.
Lao hai means jar alcohol and is served from an earthen jar. It is communally and competitively drunk through straws at festive occasions. It can be likened to sake in appearance and flavor.
Lao lao or Lao alcohol is more like a whiskey. It is also called lao khao or, in English, white alcohol. However, there is also a popular variant of lao lao made from purple rice, which has a pinkish hue.
In more recent times, the Lao state-owned brewery’s Beerlao has become ubiquitous in Laos and is highly regarded by expatriates and residents alike. The Bangkok Post has described it as the Dom Perignon of Asian beers.
In 2004, Time magazine described it as Asia’s best beer.
In June 2005, it beat 40 other brews to take the silver prize at Russia’s Osiris Beer Festival, which it had entered for the first time.
- Ca fay – Laotian coffee.
- Nam oi – sugarcane juice.
- Nam pun – Smoothie
- Nam mak pow – coconut juice; with or without coconut meat.
- Oliang – iced coffee; black or with condensed milk.
- Saa – Laotian tea.
- Lau-khao – Laotian rice wine.
- Lau-lao – Laotian whiskey.
- Lau-hai – Laotian rice wine made with glutinous rice.
Source: Wikipedia with update from BiiG Travel Laos team