Flavours of Laos
The cuisine of Laos is largely an unknown to most foreigners, nevertheless travellers who do visit Laos are usually very pleasantly surprised with the meals during their visit, and will depart with a new found appreciation for Laotian cuisine.
Food in Laos may not have the complexities or the variety of ingredients as the more well known cuisines of its neighbours – Thailand, Vietnam and China, and it is characterized by its use of simple fresh ingredients which are blended into hearty rustic dishes. Laos’ cuisine is distinct from that of other countries, however it has been influenced by its neighbours to varying extents, and it said to most closely resemble the cuisine of Thailand.
One of the main distinguishing features of the local cuisine is the ubiquitous sticky rice or khao niaw, which is eaten with almost every meal, in contrast to steamed rice which is prevalent in neighbouring countries. Because Laos is a landlocked country, freshwater fish from the rivers is normally used in local dishes, as opposed to ‘seafood’. Herbs such as galangal, dill and mint are also widely used in many Laotian dishes but are not as commonly used in other regional cuisines. Lemongrass, coriander, basil, fresh chilli, tamarind, ginger and kaffir lime leaves are also often used to flavour dishes, along with the roots of certain plants. Other distinguising features are that typically in Laos savory dishes are never sweet, and that meals will usually include a large quantity of fresh raw greens, vegetables and herbs which are served undressed on the side.
A spicy mixture of marinated meat or fish known as larb (or laap) is often said to be the national dish in Laos, and spicy green papaya salad (tam maak hung) is also very popular and is commonly served. Freshwater fish, chicken, pork, beef, water buffalo and duck are the main meats used and vegetables are in abundant supply. Lao meals normally consist of soup, a grilled dish, a sauce, a selection of greens, and a mixed dish (like larb). Most Lao dishes are shared in the middle of a table, and are traditionally eaten with the fingers (especially sticky rice) or with spoon and fork – chopsticks are only used for noodle dishes. The French colonizers not only left behind examples of their architecture but French cuisine is abundant at restaurants in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, and the French bread stick can often be seen in the shopping basket of locals heading home from the market. Exotic fruit is a common dessert and an excellent breakfast accompaniment.
The local Beer Lao is a good brew – quite light and refreshing on a hot day. Lao coffee from the Bolavens Plateau in Southern Laos is highly regarded internationally and a freshly ground local coffee is delicious and a ‘must do’ when visiting Laos.