If visiting Laos you are likely to arrive from neighbouring borders, Vietnam on the East or Thailand on the West. Two countries which influence Lao food in a big way. In fact most of Lao food staples are similar or the same as that of their neighbours. Influences of Lanna Food (Northern Thailand), Isaan Food (North East Thailand) and Vietnamese food (Vietnam). Food in Laos little more than a mix of all three.
Here’s what Saffron Travel recommended for essential eating in Laos.
This top-notch noodle dish is probably the most common of Lao food and is a staple not so different to Pho which is synonymous with their Vietnamese neighbours. While common as breakfast Khao Piak Sen also makes good for lunch and pretty much anytime of the day. This tasty soup bowl generally comes as Beef or Chicken served in like broth over flat rice noodles and flavourings of fresh herbs. Often accompanied by optional garnish of chilli oil, lime juice, bean sprouts, long beans, holy basil and cilantro.
The French influence doesn’t come more obvious than Khao Jee which, in short, is a crusty French baguette. Khao Jee is one of Laos’ staple street foods found sold at small, street side stalls in every city. As with all baguettes you can put pretty much anything in them. The popular filling in Laos however is a set filling of pork liver pate, Vietnamese sausage (boiled pork, cha lua), shredded radish and carrot, cuts of cucumber and squeezes of mayonnaise and chilli sauce.
While famous in Thailand’s Isaan region this fiery, minced pork salad originates from Laos. Easily one of my favourite foods in Asia and a must try for any visit to Laos (or Isaan). While Laab does have variations the most popular dish comes with stir-fried minced pork cooked with shallots, coriander, chillies and mint leaves. Salty of fish sauce and sour of lime for seasoning. Note, Laab can be found using raw uncooked meat which I strongly advise against eating. As most of Lao food Laab comes served with sticky rice (Khao Niew) an accompanying staple.
If coming from Thailand you should be familiar with Som Tam. Tam Mak Hoong is the Lao equivalent although the term Som Tam is easily interchangeable. This fiery green papaya salad brings the signature sweet, sour, salty and hot signatures of the region. Tam Mak Hoong easily recognised by large mortar and pestles and bright red tomatoes. In the large mortar and pestle strips of green (unripe) papaya are crunched together with a handful of basic ingredients including palm sugar, lime, fish sauce, peanuts and chillies. Other optional Lao ingredients include soft-shelled crab, pickled fish sauce (padek) and Makok a sour olive shaped berry. Eat with sticky rice.
In Vietnam fresh spring rolls are my favourite snack and in Laos they are perfectly replicated. The Yall Dib fresh spring rolls (aka Summer Rolls) are healthy, packed with fresh greens. Traditionally they come wrapped tight in a thin rice paper with ingredients including vermicelli (rice) noodles, fresh herbs, and choice of meat (fresh prawns please). While sauces can vary a phenomenal favourite is a chilli fused peanut dipping sauce. Summer rolls also come meatless / vegetarian and for the unhealthy alternative a fried option (Cheun Yaw) comes with meat and veg rolled in rice paper and deep fried to crisp. Yall Dib cost roughly 15,000 Kip or 60 Baht for 3 to 4 wraps.
The Lao Sausage is not so different to the famous Chiang Mai Sausage next door in Thailand (Lanna Food). A meat treat which fuses the regions signature flavours with sours of lemongrass and kaffir lime and the fiery kicks of chillies and galangal. Fused together with minced pork and pressed into skins. Lao Sausages can often be seen drying at roadsides or strung up at local markets. Unlike the Sai Oua of Lanna Thai food the Laos Sausage comes served with a tasty dry chilli dip (Nam Cheo) and of course sticky rice.
The Lao equivalent to beef Jerky. Not overly exciting but Sien Savanh do make great for nibbling on travels and are often found at bus stations or pit stops along the way. Sien Savanh are small bites of beef, marinated in dark soy, oyster sauce, garlic, pepper and palm sugar. Occasionally with sprinkles of sesame seeds. The marinated beef is left to dry in the sun, catching rays to find the perfect glaze. A quick grilling at roadside street food vendors adds a smokey flavour and the result is a chewy, sticky, nibbletastic beef snack. Sien Savanh come hand-in-hand with a bag of sticky rice and if lucky a spicy tomato chilli dip (Jaew Mak Len).
I always thought ‘Amazing French Food in Laos’ was a myth and when coming next to Beer Lao t-shirts, tubing and backpackers it is hard not to be skeptical. But it is true Laos does have some top notch French Food. Not just roadside baguettes and Vietnamese style crepes I am talking about actual French Restaurants. While obviously the food is more expensive than local Lao food it is well worth paying the extra. You are still paying a fraction of what you would in France. Coming from the pretension and overpriced wine of Thailand – Laos has become my sanctuary for affordable fine dining.
One of the most sought after beers in Southeast Asia, a favourite with Southeast Asia’s backpackers and now found exported through Europe. Beer Lao is hard to avoid in Laos and is said to have 99% share of the beer market in Laos. It is everywhere and as far as beer goes it’s not so bad. If bored of the regular Beer Lao (as you will be) you can always try Beer Lao Black brewed with a roasted malt or Beer Lao Gold more expensive but not more delicious.
Dubbed the Cheapest Alcohol in the World. This potent rice whisky is a popular moonshine liquor often found in illicit distilleries throughout Laos. A favourite with rural folk Lao-Lao is roughly 40% proof alcohol and is made by steamed distillation using hulls of sticky rice (Khao Niew) and crumbles of yeast balls. The result a clear, potent liquor which tastes a little like old bread. Lao-Lao costs roughly zero Kip as people happily hand you free shots to see if you can handle it. For the more adventurous there are less palatable blends with lizards, snakes and scorpions. While these concoctions are often found bottled as tourist trinkets the practice of dissolving insects and reptiles in alcohol still exists. Bottoms up.