While Laos might be poor in terms of financial resources, it is definitely rich in culture, personality and culinary attractions.
Whether you are in the process of planning your trip to Southeast Asia or are already travelling through the region, visiting Laos comes highly recommended. Stopping off at cities like the relaxing Luang Prabang, or the picturesque capital Vientiane are often the highlights of many people’s trips.
So if you do decide to visit Laos, or you are yet to make up your mind, this guide to the best local food available to sample in the country should help you out.
Larb in Laos
Larb is perhaps the national dish of the country and due to the strong culinary influence of Laos, it should be familiar with anyone who has eaten the local delicacies of the neighbouring countries such as Thailand and Cambodia. The dish itself is best described as a minced meat salad which might not sound all that appealing at first but as there are many different varieties on offer, it is definitely worth exploring and sampling the different versions for some culinary surprises.
While the raw meat versions, which are equally as popular as the cooked meat Larb dishes, might not be as palatable to foreign tastes, the range of different meats used should make at least some versions of Larb a popular choice for travellers. Chicken, beef, pork, fish and duck are all popular choices while the vegetarian option usually heavily features mushrooms.
As this is a true Lao dish, it will be a fiery one that should be eaten with caution thanks to the high chilli content. It is usually accompanied by a side serving of sticky rice and raw vegetables in true Laos and Isan fashion.
Tam Mak Hoong or Som Tam
Known as tam som or tam mak hoong in Laos, and som tam in Thailand, green papaya salad is a staple dish in both countries. The main ingredient of the dish is unripe papaya which is shredded, tasting unlike it does when in its ripened state. The mix of sour, hot, salt and sweet flavours from the other ingredients combine to make a unique tasting dish that is very refreshing. This makes it ideal for the hot and humid climate of Laos and Isan.
The list of possible ingredients that could potentially find their way into this pounded papaya salad dish is long and depending on where you order it and how, it could contain anything from dried shrimp, whole black crabs, raw Thai eggplant and many other local delicacies.
Tam som can be very spicy, thanks to the heavy use of chillies, so it is worth pointing out that the strange looking side dish of raw vegetables is actually there to help soothe the burning sensation in your mouth should your chef be making a particular potent batch of tam som that day.
The dish is also popularly served with a choice of sticky rice, which is ideal for mopping up the sauce; deep fried chicken; grilled chicken; fresh rice noodles; pork rinds or on its own.
The Lao Sausage
This is an interesting dish, and due to the scarcity of traditional western sausages in Southeast Asia, can attract many foreigners due to its similar appearance. However, while this dish has its own merits, it shouldn’t be seen a replacement for its western cousin.
One main difference in the taste and production method of the Laos sausage is the part where, in its raw state, it is left out for a few days and kept at room temperature in order to ‘sour’ or ferment. This gives the sausage a distinct taste and sets it apart from more traditional meat products of this type. The use of sticky rice as an ingredient for the filling is also a novel choice.