Landlocked, mountainous in the north and bordered by the Mekong River on its western border with Thailand, the land and waters of Laos yield fresh dishes that vary wildly across regions and seasons. Water buffalo, wild boar, and river fish—the Lao peoples' main sources of protein—betray close access to rice fields, jungles, and rivers.
While Lao food bears some resemblance to Thai cuisine, the differences are deeper than they appear at first glance. Unlike Thais, the Lao also cook with dill and mint, with a preference for fresh greens.
The Lao disdain sweet food, preferring bitter and herbal flavors in their meals. And the Lao predilection for eating with their hands dictates the form and temperature of their foods (the Lao never serve food piping-hot!).
The Lao define themselves by their habit of eating sticky rice (khao niao), a grain that most other Southeast Asian cultures relegate to snacks or desserts. In fact, the Lao joke that their national name comes from the phrase luk khao niao, or “offspring of sticky rice”.
Every meal for the Lao is a sticky-rice meal, with this staple served at room temperature in a woven bamboo basket called a thip khao. The Lao eat sticky rice by balling some up in their right hand, using this wad to pick up an accompanying meat or vegetable, and pop the lot in their mouths.
A typical Lao family meal includes thip khao full of khao niao, and most of the rest of the traditional Lao dishes listed below served at the same time. Buddhist devotees spend mornings waiting in a line to give monks their day's allowance of sticky rice, in a tradition called Tak Bat.
Whether you call it laap or larb, this traditional dish retains its essential Lao identity despite its popularity in Thai restaurants.
Laap essentially consists of chopped meat and innards—pork, water-buffalo beef, duck, or chicken will do—mixed with fish sauce, coriander, mint, chili, spring onion, and lime juice, along with dry-fried rice grains that impart a subtle nutty flavor, then cooked. Sticky rice and fresh vegetables accompany a hearty serving of laap, wherever you go in Laos.
Tourists tend to have their laap freshly cooked, but purists in Laos and northern Thailand occasionally like to have laap served bloody and raw, called laap seua, or tiger laap (presumably because this is how tigers prefer their food—heavy on the gore).
The Lao hate wasting excess sticky rice, preferring to cook any surplus into dishes like nam khao. This crisp rice salad consists of sticky-rice balls, deep- fried and mixed with spring onions, peanuts, sliced shallots, peanuts, herbs, and slices of a fermented pork sausage called som moo.
The sausage gives the dish a sour top note that goes surprisingly well with the astringency of the herbs and the edgy full-bodied texture of the crispy fried sticky rice. To eat nam khao like the locals, have some fresh greens on the side, like lettuce: diners wrap up little morsels of nam khao with the greens before eating.
Tam Mak Houng
You've probably heard of the Thai version of this spicy green-papaya salad called som tam, but Laos' tam mak houng rejects som tam's sweetness, preferring the intense umami imparted by fermented crab and a Lao-specialty fish sauce called pa daek.
These ingredients go into the green papaya along with tomatoes, chili garlic, and lime juice—pounded in a mortar-and-pestle, and eaten with sticky rice, tam mak houng is a classic Lao side dish that accompanies many meat preparations on the family table.
Thanks to the mortar and pestle used to make it, tam mak houng's name literally translates to “pounded papaya”.
Combined with sticky rice and tam mak houng, this grilled chicken dish completes a classic Lao dining trilogy, served everywhere from Vang Vieng to the Isan regions of northern Thailand. The chicken dish kai yang—also a regular on many Thai restaurants—is identical to this Lao roast dish.
To make ping kai, Lao take a whole chicken, halve it, pound it flat, and marinate it in a combination of fish sauce, cilantro, turmeric, garlic, and white pepper before roasting over a low charcoal-fueled flame.
The marinade varies across regions, with the addition of soy sauce, oyster sauce, and other ingredients as you travel across Laos.
Luang Prabang's khao soi noodles may share common roots with Myanmar's own onn not khao swe, but the resemblance stops at the noodles. The Lao take on this noodle dish uses a clear pork broth, instead of one with a coconut-milk base.
The flat rice noodles give the dish its name; soi means “to cut”, and Lao noodle-makers often still cut noodles with scissors. The noodles garnished with tomatoes, chilies, fermented soybean, and ground pork before being drowned in rich, thick pork broth, are served along with fresh watercress leaves, mint, Thai basil, and lime.
The noodles are widely acknowledged to be Luang Prabang's official noodle soup, mostly due to the watercress which grows thickly around the former capital city.
Former descriptions of Lao cuisine tended to downplay everything but the sai oua, as New York Times food writer Amanda Hesser learned a few years ago: “Until I visited,” she recalled, “the most elaborate description I had been given of the cuisine was that it was 'like Vietnamese but with better sausage'.”
Today, Lao sausage has ceded the high ground to laap but remains a constant ingredient in several Laos favorites, including the aforementioned nam khao. But Lao sausage can be eaten on its own, as cooked in markets across Luang Prabang.
There is no one type of Lao sausage: variants include those made in Luang Prabang, usually made with fatty pork and a healthy heaping of herbs and chilies; naem, a rice-infused, fermented pork sausage that gives nam khao its name; and an extra-spicy version made with water buffalo beef.
Make your way to a Vientiane street food stall and you'll find plenty of river fish in abundance, stuck on bamboo skewers, seasoned with chopped kaffir lime leaf, galangal, lemongrass, cilantro, and lime juice before roasting with skin on.
A skewer of ping pa counts as traditional Lao “fast food”: Eaten on the go with a hearty serving of sticky rice, it's a great and flavorful meal for pennies apiece.
Khao Nom Krok
A serving of khao nom krok makes for a perfect end to your night-market shopping jaunt. As served in Luang Prabang, vendors make a batter of rice flour, sugar, and coconut milk, cook it in a cast-iron custom frying pan, then serve it hot.
You'll find them in little clusters, served on banana-leaf plates; each bite reveals a crisp outside that gives way to a soft, almost melty interior. They're plentiful and cheap, too, selling for about 20 cents a piece.
As you go south, the khao nom krok changes substantially: In Pakse, a savory khao nom kok comes with a chopped-pork stuffing and a sweet-and-sour dipping sauce.