If you travel to Laos, you are likely to arrive from Vietnam or Thailand – two countries that influence Lao food in a big way. In fact, most of the 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 is little more than a mix of all three.
Here’s what Saffron Travel recommends 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 being common as breakfast, Khao Piak Sen also makes good for lunch and pretty much any time 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 an optional garnish of chili 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 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 chili sauce.
While famous in Thailand’s Isaan region, this fiery minced pork salad originates from Laos. It is one of my favourite foods in Asia and a must-try for anyone who plans to visit Laos (or Isaan). While Laab does have variations, the most popular dish comes with stir-fried minced pork cooked with shallots, coriander, chilies, 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. Most of Lao food Laab comes served with sticky rice (Khao Niew) – an accompanying staple.
Thailand is famous for 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 its large mortar, 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 chilies. 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 chili 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 costs roughly 15,000 Kip or 60 Baht for 3 to 4 wraps.
The Lao Sausage is not so different from the famous Chiang Mai Sausage in Thailand (Lanna Food). A meat treat that fuses the region’s signature flavours with sours of lemongrass and kaffir lime and the fiery kicks of chilies 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 chili dip (Nam Cheo) and of course sticky rice.
Not overly exciting but Sien Savanh does make great for nibbling on travels and is often found at bus stations or pit stops along the way. Sien Savanh is 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 beef snack. Sien Savanh comes hand-in-hand with a bag of sticky rice and if you are lucky, you can get a spicy tomato chili dip (Jaew Mak Len).
I’ve 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 that 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.
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 roasted malt or Beer Lao Gold which is more expensive but “not more” delicious.
Dubbed the Cheapest Alcohol in the World, this potent rice whiskey 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 of a clear, potent liquor that 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.
Read our blog about the best time to travel to Laos at the link.