Introducing Laotian cuisine, the underrated yet incredible food from the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia.
When we think of the food in Laos, most of us will know little of what to expect, perhaps imagining that the dishes will be similar to those served in Thailand or Vietnam. However, Laotian food comes with its own charm and unique flavours.
If you’re a foodie, keep reading! We’re going to dive straight in with an introduction to Laotian cuisine, our favourite must-try dishes and the importance of food in relation to Laotian culture.
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The flavours used to make Laotian food are complex and a clever fusion of tastes ensure a balance of sweet, sour, spicy and salty. In addition, Laotian food is delightfully humble, herbaceous and plays an essential role in the culture of the country.
Dishes are often flavoured with sauces, pastes and fermented fish. The following are commonly used:
- Nam paa (fermented fish sauce)
- Paa daek (fermented fish, rice husks, rice dust)
- Nam paa daek (a sauce made from the above)
- Nam phak-kaat (a paste made from fermented lettuce leaves)
- Jaew ngaa (sesame paste)
- Nam kathi (coconut sauce)
It is rare to see a dish served without a dipping sauce, extra condiments, side vegetables and salad. A key component of every meal is sticky rice and this should be eaten with your hand, as opposed to a fork or chopsticks. This style of eating is usually seen during shared meals when friends and family gather to try multiple dishes.
To eat sticky rice, simply follow these three steps:
- Roll the sticky rice into a small portion in your hand
- Gather the sticky rice with another bite-sized piece of meat, fish or salad
- Dip it together in the sauce and eat with your fingers
Remember to always eat with your right hand, the left hand is considered unclean as it is used for personal hygiene.
Key Ingredients In Lao Cooking
- Thai lime leaves
- Lao eggplant
- Papaya (green)
- Tamarind leaf
- Chilli peppers
- Asian basil
- Lao basil
- Bamboo shoots
- Phak Lin May: a bitter green
Top 10 Must-Try Dishes in Laos
1. Khao Jee
We’ll kick off our list of the best food in Laos with a staple dish! Rice is a staple ingredient for many Southeast Asian dishes, and Khao Jee is one of the best ways to enjoy glutinous rice.
Recognised as street food, Khao Jee is a type of pancake made with cooked sticky rice. It has a crispy yet chewy texture. You will see these delicious Lao rice pancakes cooked fresh on the grill, served up with a spicy chilli paste (or fermented fish paste) and even enjoyed as a sandwich filling.
Grilling sticky rice over an open fire is a traditional cooking method from the Isan region. Khao Jee is found across the whole of Laos and tends to be prepared by food vendors for breakfast first thing in the morning.
- Glutinous rice
- Egg (brushed with egg before grilling)
Also known as Lahp, Larb and other variations depending on ethnicity, Laap is a widely popular type of diced meat salad. When travelling around Laos, you may notice some similarities between the local menu and those found in neighbouring countries such as Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
While sticky rice and grilled meat are not uncommon across Southeast Asia, Laap is authentic to Laos. It is for this reason that it is considered to be the National Dish. It usually comes served with sticky rice and fresh salad greens such as lettuce leaves.
Even though this dish is nearly always served with meat or fish, you can sometimes stumble across alternatives. If you are vegan or vegetarian, look out for Laap made using mushroom or tofu. Also, be mindful of the fish sauce.
- Your choice of meat – typically based on what is available such as pork, chicken, duck or beef
- Fish sauce
- Spring onions
- Mint leaves
Are you looking to recreate this dish at home? Check out the following video by Tuk Tuk Box.
3. Khao Piak Sen
Is it even possible to walk past a bowl of steaming hot noodles in a flavourful broth and not feel instantly hungry? The aroma from the wide variety of noodle dishes is always a delight to the senses and Khao Piak Sen is the perfect meal after a long day of travel.
This comforting chicken noodle soup is packed with flavours and textures. It is also considered to be a straightforward dish to cook, meaning you can even try to make it at home!
The broth is made thick from the starch of the noodles, and the chicken is cooked to perfection. If you want to customise the flavour profile, you can add fried onions, fish sauce, soy sauce or fresh chilli to the dish before serving.
- Thai lime
- Rice or Tapioca flour noodles
4. Khao Pard
The sliced pandan custard cake called Khao Pard has a creamy texture, almost like custard. Pandan is a tropical plant that grows abundantly in tropical Southeast Asia. It is fragrant, a rich green colour, and used as a juice, paste, powder and extract.
Pandan will bring a sweet, subtle aroma to almost any dish and is believed to have antioxidant properties, suitable for immune health and restful sleep. Once the custard mixture has cooked and cooled, the Khao Pard is sliced and rolled in grated coconut!
‘Pard’ literally translates to ‘to cut’ or ‘to slice’ and is served at gatherings and enjoyed as a snack.
- Tapioca flour
- Rice flour
- Coconut milk
- Pandan juice
5. Tam Mak Hoong
Be prepared… This fresh, spicy style papaya salad is not for the faint of heart!
Tam Mak Hoong incorporates a long list of ingredients to make a complex flavour profile that combines sweet, salty, spicy and sour tastes all in one. Like the Thai dish Som Tam, the critical difference is in the sauce (and the variety of papaya used).
In Laos, Tam Mak Hoong is prepared with a special ingredient – Padaek, a fermented fish sauce or paste. It has a powerful aroma and is not to everyone’s taste. Nam Pu is also added to the mix, a traditional fermented crab paste.
In Laos, fresh Tam Mak Hoong is served with sticky rice, long green beans, and raw cabbage leaves. It can be enjoyed on its own or as a side dish to grilled meat and fish.
- Green papaya
- Nam Pu
6. Jaew Mak Khua
I know what you must be thinking, Laotian food is full of meat and seafood! Not always so! Here we have a 100% plant-based recipe called Jaew Mak Khua – Laotian smoked eggplant dip.
This recipe uses the mini purple eggplants found across Asia, but if you want to recreate the dish at home, you can use any eggplant (aubergine) you have available. The trick is to cook the eggplants on the grill to create the charred flavour in the dip.
Depending on your luck, this dip may contain fish sauce. Even though it is a traditional food from Laos, many vendors will put a new spin on old recipes.
7. Sai Oua
Sai Oua is a type of pork sausage found across Laos and Thailand, particularly in the north and northeastern region of Thailand. This dish is said to have originated from Luang Prabang in Laos and was once served to Laotian royalty.
Today, Sai Oua, infused with aromatic herbs and spices, is served at almost every local eatery and street food stall for all to enjoy.
There are many variations of the recipe, but no matter where you go in Laos, you can find Sai Oua cooked fresh, sliced into bite-sized pieces, served with sticky rice and a selection of dipping sauces.
- Ground pork
- Thai lime leaves
- Oyster sauce
8. Naem Khao
Naem Khao is a unique salad topped with crispy fried rice croquettes and fermented spicy pork sausage. Wok-fried, crispy, salty and spicy, this savoury delight is a must-try food if you are in the capital, Vientiane.
I’ve got one word for this dish: addictive. Naem Khao is a vibrant dish that has many travellers coming back for more. To eat this dish, simply add some of the salad, a crispy rice ball, sausage and herbs of choice to a fresh lettuce leaf. Pair this dish with an ice-cold glass of Beer Lao, and you will never want to leave!
- Salt-cured ground pork
- Fermented pork sausage (Som Moo)
- Egg (scrambled)
- Coconut (shredded)
- White rice (dried)
- Lime juice
- Fish sauce
- Curry paste (red)
- Pickled garlic
9. Mok Pa
A banana leaf might not look like much, but in Asian cooking, it is often essential. When used for steaming, serving, and preserving, the banana leaf plays a crucial role in traditional Laotian cuisine.
Mok Pa is an excellent example of a dish that relies on the banana leaf. This dish is made up of a combination of fresh fish, herbs, spices and soaked sticky rice. Once all the ingredients have been mixed, the filling is steamed inside the banana leaf until soft and tender.
You might be noticing a common theme when it comes to herbs and spices. In Laotian food, the staple ingredients in traditional recipes are chilli, garlic, onion/shallots, Thai lime leaves, galangal and lemongrass. Furthermore, Lao dishes are almost always served with a large selection of fresh greens and herbs on the side as an accompaniment to every meal.
- Your choice of white fish (tilapia and catfish are commonly used)
- Fish sauce
- Sticky rice (pre-soaked)
- Thai lime leaves
10. Tom Nam Mak Pao
Would you believe me if I said this is a dish made with purple sticky rice and coconut? It is not uncommon to find brightly coloured desserts across Asia. Tom Nam Mak Pao is topped with grated coconut, flavoured with brown sugar, pandan, coconut, banana and palm sugar.
This is a street style dessert and is served up in banana leaves with Khao Gum – purple rice that has been cooked in coconut milk! Yum!
- Coconut milk
- Grated coconut
- Palm sugar
- Purple sticky rice
Food & Culture in Laos
Food sits at the heart of the local community in Laos. Cultural and religious influences mean that the country is rich in diversity and has long integrated ingredients from various regions into its signature cuisine. It is estimated that Laos is home to over 40 different ethnic groups, each with its own unique traditions and cooking methods.
Theraveda Buddhism is the dominant religion in Laos with the remainder of the population practising what is referred to as Ancestor Worship – ethnic minorities that still follow their traditional practices.
Theraveda Buddhists are not required to follow a vegetarian diet as much as Mahayana Buddhists do. Therefore, eating meat is still permissible and it is found on menus throughout most of the region. In tourist areas, most major restaurants, hotels and cafes offer a vegetarian menu, however, vegans may find eating in Laos more challenging than some of the other regions in Southeast Asia.
What is the best food in Laos that you have tried? Let us know in the comments!
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