Lao Food

I love the better-known forms of Asian food: Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai. And I really liked Burmese food when I was in Myanmar. It's been a major disappointment to me that I haven't found much Lao cuisine that appealed to me. The quintessential Lao dish is "laap" or "laab" or "larb" depending on who's spelling it. Laap is a salad made from minced meat (fish, chicken, pork ...) with lime juice, garlic, roasted ground sticky rice, green onions, mint leaves, chillies, and cilantro. You wrap the laap in a lettuce leaf with some herbs and sticky rice to eat it. I tried it a couple times, but the grittiness of the ground roasted sticky rice and the slight bitterness of the flavour really put me off. Another popular dish here is ping kai - marinated and grilled chicken. This I find delicious. It's marinated in a relatively mild sauce and then grilled on a stick - fish, duck, pork, and pretty much anything else can be grilled the same way. It's strange to see whole fish on sticks stacked up for sale looking like popsicles.

Sticky rice is the starch of choice in the country, and is served with most meals that don't already involve noodles.

Sandwiched as it is between Thailand, China, and Vietnam, Laos has a lot of restaurants serving the cuisines of its three neighbouring countries. I've been eating a lot of Chinese, Vietnamese, and even Indian. You can get a bowl of rice noodle soup with chicken/duck/pork/beef in the smallest town in the country. Sometimes that's your only choice. Good thing it's a favourite of mine.

There are some really strange dishes here. The ones I've read about that set me back for a couple minutes were jaew bawng and nok aen dawng. Jaew bawng is a Luang Prabang speciality, and (according to Lonely Planet) is "a jam-like condiment made with chillies and dried buffalo skin." This is usually served with "dried river moss fried in seasoned oil topped with sesame seeds." Nok aen dawng is a Phonesavan speciality consisting of "swallows stored whole in jars until they ferment." After some thought I realized that I eat fish sauce (a lot, over here) and that consists of fermented anchovies. Somehow, this didn't get me over the hump and on a quest to go try nok aen dawng. I think it's out of season anyway ...

Speaking of fish sauce, the Lao have their own variant: paa daek. Paa daek consists of chunks of fermented freshwater fish, rice husks, and rice "dust." The problem is that the fish is uncooked, and travellers are generally advised to avoid paa daek because of the parasites that are sometimes present in the raw fish.

Two broad spectrums of flavour that are popular here that are seen less in the rest of Asia are "bitter" and "sour." Our guide from Tha Khaek spent several minutes while we were admiring a nearby balancing stone collecting small green berry-like things which he put in the green curry that night (we met him at his restaurant). They were bitter both uncooked and cooked, and it's not a character that goes down too well with other cultures. These two tastes in the dishes have a lot to do with my ambivalence to Lao cuisine.

As I've mentioned, the French left behind baguettes and croissants. Khao jii paa-te is popular in most of the major cities for breakfast: this is a baguette sandwich loaded with a pork-based lunch-meat, pate ("paa-te"), Chinese red pork, a pickle-carrot mix, green onions, cilantro, cucumbers, a spicy red sauce, and margarine. I like them, but if you bite in expecting a western sub you'll be very surprised.

I've pretty much covered lao-lao and Beerlao, but I haven't really talked about Lao coffee. I'm not normally much of a coffee drinker, so you may want to take my comment on the quality with a grain of salt. That said, this stuff tastes really excellent to me and Lonely Planet says it is pretty much the best coffee in the world. The usual way to serve it here is with a quarter inch of condensed milk on the bottom of the glass (along with the already toxically powerful coffee), which you stir in to create a very sweet and dairy-rich concoction. I love it that way, but you can get it black as well. In a week or two I'll be in the south of the country, and I hope to go up on the Bolaven Plateau and visit a coffee plantation.


I ate one of the pieces of ping kai (grilled chicken) in the lower centre of this picture. It cost $0.80US, and was very tasty.