Classic Laotian Dishes: How to Eat Well in Laos
Posted on 22/03/2019 2:21:53
Officially known as the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Laos is one of the few countries in Indochina that has not kept much of its French Colonial heritage, and this socialist state is the only fully landlocked country in Southeast Asia. Located between the 14th and 23rd parallels, this tropical country has a climate that is monsoon-oriented and a geography that ranges from thick forests and jungles to vast plains and plateaus and the rugged mountains that stretch as high as 2,800 meters above sea level. A popular destination for the adventurous tourist, Laos is a country where you can travel freely and experience the true local culture more easily, thanks to the low restrictions and the even lower cost of travel and living.
Food in Laos is definitely not for the faint-hearted, and is vibrant, colorful, and full of herbs and spices, and guaranteed to tantalize your taste buds. The famous “padek”, a fermented fish sauce, has a very distinct taste and fragrance, and insects can be found on most restaurant menus, including crickets, ants, and silk worms. Laotian cuisine also includes the heavy use of chilies, making the food a little spicier than most people are used to. Served sautéed or grilled, most Laotian dishes come with a side order of rice, the main staple of the Lao diet.
Classic Laotian Dishes You Must Eat
Often badly translated as “Meat salad”, Laap is one of the true staple foods of Laos, and a real heavyweight in Lao cuisine. A mainstay of Lao cuisine, the meat in this dish is often eaten raw, and the dishes are prepared with freshly-butchered meats of all kinds. The meat is normally minced, then sometimes quickly flash-fried in a wok (if eaten cooked), adding the famous padek to the meat, as well as a wide range of fresh herbs, including local mint, cilantro, and spring onions. Lime juice and toasted sticky rice flour is added, which gives the Laap its distinct flavor. Some versions of this dish can contain bile, which adds a unique bitterness to the dish, and is very different to the Laap version you will find in nearby Thailand, as it is much heavier on the herbs.
Across much of Asia, blood is a common ingredient in cooking, and Laos is no exception. However, whereas most countries stick to pig’s blood, in Laos, pig, goat, and even duck blood are commonly used. Paeng Pet uses fresh blood mixed with the cooked and minced organs of the animal the blood comes from, including intestines, liver, kidneys, lungs, heart, etc. Lots of herbs are added to the dish, along with some peanuts and fried shallots. Raw red-hot chilies are added to the dish before serving, making it one of the spiciest dishes of the country, and the addition of lime juice stops the blood from curdling into lumps. Add a little shrimp paste as you eat each mouthful, and you have a delicious dish you will want to come back for.
Jaew actually refers to any kind of dipping sauce you can get in Laos, and this country has an endless abundance of dipping sauces for every dish, or just to dip your fish crackers in. Made using a pestle and mortar to grind all the ingredients together, most Jaew contain a blend of chili peppers, vegetables, and often the delicious padek, the fermented fish sauce, or even fermented fish themselves. Mostly eaten locally just with vegetables and sticky rice, as well as a squeeze of fresh lime juice. The most common types of Jaew are made with roasted eggplant (Jaew Ma-Keua) and pork meat and cracklings (Jaew Moo).
Pronounced “aw lahm”, this dish is made by using pork fat instead of vegetable oils, and often includes the tough buffalo skin and the local “spicy chili wood” that cannot be found outside Indochina. Herbs such as dill and basil are added for flavoring, and the dish is made into a thick sticky broth, and perfectly pairs with the Laotian sticky rice. The fibrous spicy chili wood is not meant to be swallowed, and each mouthful should be chewed to get all the flavor out and then spat out, which leaves the tongue feeling like you just crunched on a spicy Sichuan Peppercorn.
Khao Piak Sen
One of the best introduction dishes to Lao cuisine, Khai Piak Sen is a dish of rice noodles that is a popular snack in the country. An iconic dish with the backpackers in Indochina, it takes hours to make and starts with a strong and rich meat stock. The rice noodles that are used are usually handmade and thick, so you get a really filling meal for very little. The noodles are blanched in the soup and the starch gives the broth a thickness akin to western gravy, the complete opposite to most of the watery soups of Laos. Fresh herbs, hot chili peppers, and shrimp paste can be added at the table to taste, and top with crushed dried peanuts.
A common dish in Indochina, the Lao version of Khao Soi is made without using coconut milk, and has a stronger blend of tomatoes. Minced pork is slowly cooked over a charcoal fire, before roasted chilies and chili oil are blended in to make the dish spicy. A blend of herbs, such as basil, cilantro, parsley, and spring onions are ground in a mortar and pestle and added to the meat, along with galangal and lemongrass, and the small sour local tomatoes, and the dish is commonly served with salad and fresh watercress and mustard leaves.
Khao Jee Pa-Tay
One of the few remnants of the French colonial heritage of Laos is the local version of banh mi, known as Khao Jee Pa-Tay. French bread made into sandwiches with a variety of delicious fillings, this amazingly tasty snack can be found all over Laos. The breads are much larger than their Vietnamese cousins, and the range of fillings is limited only by your own imagination. And at around a foot long, these baguette sandwiches are the best way to eat and walk in Laos. Fillings normally include a thick layer of pate, strips of pork sausage and spears of cucumbers, whole green onions, carrots and pickled turnips, strips of grilled pork, hams, bacon, and all topped with a variety of dressings, usually the local sweet and spicy red sauce.
Sai Oo-ah is the ultimate in sausages in Asia, and the taste of these delicious little bangers will have you ordering more before you finish the first plateful. The perfect balance of being juicy and firm, yet still springy to bite, they are fatty and meaty and with a smoky aroma. Made from a mixture of pork belly meat, pig skin, minced shoulder and pork fat, they usually include galangal, chopped spring onions, cilantro, tons of locally grown dill, and the usual spicy red chilies. Eaten hot straight from the grill, they are a great snack, or you can buy them wrapped in a banana leaf to take away with you to eat later, if you can last that long.
The locally made banana-leaf wrapped dish that has more infinite combinations than anything else in Lao cuisine, Mok are traditionally made from fish, spices, herbs, and pig brains, bamboo shoots, and a whole host of other ingredients that are the choice of the cook. If you are not sure what it contains, then ask. Mok is great eaten with sticky rice, and the most popular are Mok Samong (pig brains) and Mok Naw Mai (warm bamboo salad), and they make a great breakfast.
One of the most vibrant local vegetable dishes, Soop Pak is a mix of herbs and vegetables with added sesame seeds, often using string beans, spinach, or cashew leaves. The vegetables are blanched and mixed with the herbs, before the huge quantity of sesame seeds is added to hold the dish together and add a somewhat nutty taste.
Where to Eat the Classic Dishes
Pa Kham Than Restaurant, Vientiane
The Pa Kham Than Restaurant, on Asean Road in the Sibounheuang District of Vientiane, is one of the best places in Laos to get a good plate of Laap, and is one of the best restaurants in the city for many other dishes. Specializing in the different forms of Laap from around the country, the Pa Kham Than is renowned for using every part of the animal in their dishes, with nothing going to waste. And if you want to try their other delights, go for the fried pork with intestines (Moo Yang), the sour and bitter Blood Soup, a nice steaming plate of blanched cow’s intestines (Sin Luak), or a range of amazing dishes using ingredients you will never find outside of Asia. On Average, a meal for two can cost as little as 123,000 kip, or about US$14.80, for four main dishes with sticky rice and soup.
Anna Duck Grilled, Vientiane
If you are looking for a restaurant that specializes in duck, then the Anna Duck Grill in the Vatnak Village area of Vientiane (just around the corner from the Australian Embassy and the American Ambassador’s Residence!) is the place to go. Comprising of a large yard area with small thatched wall-less huts as well as regular tables, this unique restaurant offers every form of duck dish you can imagine, and everything is freshly slaughtered, and cooked before your eyes in the semi-open kitchen. The restaurant may specialize in everything duck, but also has a range of other dishes, including beef liver steak, fish sour soup, placenta soup, roasted ox hearts, and a lot more. The dusk dishes range from 30,000 to 50,000 kip, which is around three to seven dollars per plate.
Café Toui, Luang Prabang
Located on the Sisvangvatthana Road in Luang Prabang, Café Toui may be a small place with a limited number of tables, but it has often been rated as the best place to eat local traditional cuisine in Luang Prabang. Unlike many of the up-market resto’s in the city, Café Toui has many of the traditional dishes you cannot find in the posh restaurants, including duck heads, river fish baked in banana leaves, stir-fried beef in ginger and snake bean sauce, Mok Pa, and a wide range of other local and traditional dishes. An elegant and bijou diner, Café Toui has great service and many of the standout local dishes that you can expect in Laos. And they also have their own Café Toui Homestay rooms for those that want to keep eating. Prices range from 35,000 to 50,000 kip, or around 4-7 dollars per dish.
Laotian dishes are typically spicy, with a heavy use of herbs and vegetables, as well as offal and entrails that have made them unique in Asia. Most foods are actually eaten with the hands, as sticky rice is the main staple of the Lao diet, though chopsticks are also often used. Spoons are available for the soups. For any tourist to Laos, the foods and unique cuisine will make it a trip that you will never forget, and the delicious dishes will make you want to come back for more.