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.
With Chinese origins, this dish became popular in Laos and neighbouring Thailand thanks to the early Chinese settlers. The name is apparently due to its popularity with those coming home drunk after a night on the town and in need of an easy to make dish. Although maybe it was named this way because it’s so spicy that is can only be eaten with a cold beer to temper the heat of the chillies…
Either way this dish is similar to the popular pad see ew dish that is served everywhere in Thailand and it too makes use of flat and wide rice noodles, soy sauce, greens and pork or chicken, not to mention a healthy dose of chillies.
This is a popular soup dish that is based on rice vermicelli, using it as its main ingredient. It can be found in Laos and its neighbouring countries and often features a range of meats including chicken or pork and it can be made using coconut milk or not.
When featuring coconut milk, the dish takes on a creamy, yet still soupy texture and flavour while the version that forgoes the calorie-dense coconut milk is more plain and subtle in taste. Khao poon is fortified with other typical Lao ingredients such as the ever-popular fiery chillies so beloved in the region as well as fish sauce, lime and garlic.
The above dishes should give you some good choices to begin your exploration of Lao cuisine so now it’s time to take a look at a few desserts from the country. Khao tom is a popular choice and unsurprisingly for the region, features rice as its main ingredient. This time the rice is of the sticky variety and the accompanying ingredients include banana leaves in which the rice is wrapped.
This Lao dessert can be served either sweet or savoury with the former including coconut milk and banana, while the savoury version could be filled with pork fat and mung beans.
Pork dessert might not sound that appealing on first glance but if you try it, you might be pleasantly surprised.
Laotian Bananas in Coconut Cream
This is another pretty simple dessert recipe that you probably won’t have come across outside of the country. The main ingredients are of course bananas, which will in most be cases be the smaller local variety, also popular in Thailand. The banana is cooked in a delicious mix of coconut milk, sugar and salt, in line with the Lao tradition of mixing sweet and savoury elements in one dish. This dessert is served warm and makes a lovely sweet and tasty end to any meal.
Hopefully you should now have some ideas of what food to seek out when you first hit the ground in Laos. While there are many great dishes out there not on this list, these you help you get started, and remember, if you don’t like a dish the first time, try it again somewhere else as most come in a range of varieties and styles which change from region to region and even chef to chef.
About Joe Fylan
Joe Fylan has written 41 posts in this blog.
Joe is from the UK but has been living in Bangkok for the last three years where he has spent as much time as possible exploring the rest of Thailand and South East Asia. When Joe is not travelling he enjoys reading, writing, photography, keeping fit and spending time with his kids.