What to eat in Laos
Laos Food and Drink are great reasons to visit this country of hill tribes, French colonial architecture and the mighty Mekong. Laos cuisine is similar to those in neighbouring countries and combine fresh fruit, vegetables and glorious spices. There’s a western influence too, as Laos was a French colony from 1893 until 1953. It’s not uncommon to find great French-style baguettes and superb Lao coffee in roadside stalls.
Laos recipes may draw on influences from Northern Thailand and Vietnam, but regional specialities make it worthwhile drawing up a checklist of what to eat and drink in Laos.
Food in Laos – Dishes You Must Try
Laos Sticky Rice
Laos sticky rice is a traditional staple of any Laos menu. Laos Food without sticky rice feels as though it’s missing a major item. In Laotian, sticky rice is “Khao Niew”. It’s much preferred to standard steamed rice and is usually served in a small woven basket. The stickiness of the rice allows you to roll it into small balls, mop up sauces and eat with your hands. A customary Lao meal usually includes sticky rice, vegetables and a spicy sauce that you dip the rice into.
Laab translates as luck or good fortune, although you can find variations in Northern Thailand, it originates here in Laos. Laab consists of chopped meat mixed with shallots, roasted rice, lime juice, fish sauce, mint, coriander and chilli. Laab is essentially a meat salad – pork, chicken or beef and is served at room temperature.
Laab is also known as Laap or Larb and you’ll see it on a menu followed by the Laos for which meat it contains. Meat based Laab is cooked by stirfrying, however, if fish is the main ingredient, then it’s usually “cooked” in lime juice, like ceviche. Laab is usually eaten with a plate of raw vegetables and either ordinary or sticky rice. Laab combined with a Green Papaya Salad is my all time favourite Laos Food.
Laab Moo = Pork Laab
Laab Neua = Beef Laab
Laab Gai = chicken Laab
Laab Pa = Fish Laab (you may also find the fish species in the name)
Tam Mak Hoong – Green Papaya Salad
Papaya salad is a salad made from sliced raw papaya, garlic, chilli, peanuts, sugar, fermented fish sauce and lime juice. In Laotian, Green Papaya Salad translates as Tam Mak Hoong. It’s a combination of spicy and tasty, and with a primary ingredient of fruit makes you feel good. Ignore the copious amounts of sugar in the recipe. I’m sure it’s good for you.
If you’re venturing into Laos from Northern Thailand then you’ll recognise this dish, although the fish sauce – padek gives it a slightly more salty taste. Fish sauce is used in both countries, but here in Laos it’s made from the mud fish, which seems to be a stronger, grittier flavour.
Or Lam – Pork Stew
This is a Laos Pork Stew, but Or Lam sounds much better than stew doesn’t it? It’s native to the Hmong people of Luang Prabang and despite being called pork stew is mainly made with vegetables – the meat being optional. Or Lam is made with beans, eggplant, lemongrass, basil, coriander, chilies, mushrooms, cilantro and green onion. Sticky rice then thickens the stew.
As the English name suggests, this is a stew and it takes a long time to cook. “Or” – or “oh” translates as “to put in” – so you put in whatever is to hand. The local vine or root herb, “sa kan” is added to give a bitter taste, but while it can be chewed, you shouldn’t eat it.
Sai Oua – Sour Pork Sausage
Sai Oua is made from chopped, fermented raw pork. It’s seasoned with lemongrass, sometimes ginger, kaffir lime leaves, shallots, cilantro (coriander), galangal and then flavoured with fish sauce.
Fresh chilies are usually also inserted into the meat. It’s really tasty. Sai Oua originated in Luang Prabang and is usually served with a dry chilli dip and sticky rice.
Yam Salat – Luang Prabang Salad
Finally. A Laos dish that doesn’t have fermented fish sauce or copious amounts of chilli. It seems almost sacrilegious to be eating it, yet it does have the key staples of Lao ingredients. Fresh vegetables.
Yam Salat combines lettuce, cucumber, tomato, watercress, mint, coriander and spring onions. Chopped peanuts, sliced boiled egg, crisped shallots and a sweet, but slightly sour egg based dressing are used to top the salad. It’s seriously good.
Pizza from Phan Luang, Luang Prabang
You have to give me a pass. It’s been nearly 18 months in South East Asia. And I needed a pizza. Really. And I know it’s not really Laos food, but this deserves a shout out. That it came from Luang Prabang wasn’t really relevant. But. When you’re in Luang Prabang and the pizza craving gets you, head along to Phan Luang (details here). You won’t regret it. Wood fired oven, fabulously friendly Lao-Canadian owners and a pizza base to die for.
Kaipen – Fried Seaweed
Kaipen isn’t really seaweed. It’s more like river weed, or freshwater green algae. It’s studded with sesame seeds and sundried in the thinnest of sheets. When you place your order, the sheets are quickly fried in a pan and served with chilli paste – Jaew Bong.
You won’t find Kaipen everywhere, so be sure to order it when you spot it. It’s an interesting snack, that I’m glad to say we tried, but I won’t rush back for more.
Sundried Almonds from the Bolaven Plateau
Some of the best freshest food you will eat in Laos is that which you buy on the side of the road. The almonds that we bought as we wandered down to the Tad Phasouam waterfall, while motorbiking around the Bolaven Plateau were amazing.
Sindad – Lao Barbecue
Barbecuing in Laos is the same as everywhere else in the world. Find a round metal dish, put it on top of a cooking platform, then add some oil or fat on the grill. Add chicken, pork and vegetables. Serve by the pool.
Khao Jee Laos Baguettes
You’ll find French style baguettes on every street corner in Luang Prabang – with every variety of fillings from tomatoes, carrots, cheese, pork, avocado, chicken and bacon. The Laos touch adds a squirt of chili sauce. Be sure to stock up for any bus or Mekong river trips.
You’ll also find baguettes for breakfast with fried eggs or omelets wherever you stay, at the halfway point on the river trip between Luang Prabang and Huay Xai and in Huay Xai to take across the border. Be sure to stock up before you head into Thailand as you’ll sorely miss them.
The BEST baguettes that we had in Laos were in Vientiane – while we waited for a bus to the Buddha park. No. Wait It was a roadside vendor on the Bolaven Plateau, when we grabbed a couple for a picnic at the Tad Fan waterfall. The most popular filling in Laos is fabulously reminiscent of Vietnam’s Banh Mi – pork liver pate, pork, shredded radish and carrot, cucumber with a seasoning of mayonnaise and chilli sauce.
Khao Piak Sen – Lao Noodle Soup
Noodle soup is one of the most common dishes in Laos. It’s very similar to the Vietnamese Pho is traditionally a breakfast dish, but you can enjoy it at any time of the day. Khao Piak Sen begins with flat rice noodles, over which you pour a beef or chicken broth and add fresh herbs. Khao Piak Sen, or “wet rice strands” – but don’t let that put you off, the noodles are thick, round and chewy. The noodles are made from a mix of rice and tapioca flour.
It’s also possible to have this as a dry dish – without broth. Chicken or Pork can be added as a topping and then garnish. A separate plate of garnishes with chilli oil, lime juice, bean sprouts, long beans, basil and cilantro (coriander) allow you to tailor an individual taste.
Another noodle soup, made famous by the soup of the same name from Vietnam, Pho is pronounced “Fer”. Pho is everywhere in Laos. First you choose your noodles – flat or thin rice noodles. Secondly you pick your ingredients from fish balls, pork balls, sausage and sliced pork.
The broth is flavoured with herbs and spices. A separate plate of raw vegetables and herbs allows you to season to your individual taste. Adding part of a chopped chilli gives added zing.
Steamed Fish in Banana Leaf
I’ll admit it. I was noodled out. So when we were the only customers all evening in what felt like a Lao front room we were easily upsold to the steamed fish in banana leaf. I don’t know what type of fish it was, but steamed in coconut milk inside a banana leaf, it was wonderful. A cold BeerLao and a serving of sticky rice and we were in heaven.
Yall Dib – Fresh Spring Rolls
Fresh spring rolls, also known as summer rolls will be familiar to you if you like the Vietnamese snack of the same name. Rice noodles, fresh herbs and a choice of meat are wrapped tightly in thin rice paper.
My favourite way of eating them is to dip them in a spicy chili peanut sauce. The same rolls are also available as a fried option, which you’ll find on menus as Cheun Yaw.
Locals do drink tap water in Laos, but there’s no guarantee that it’s safe to drink. Bottled water, however, is cheap and easy to buy throughout the country. We always use bottled water, both for drinking and cleaning our teeth in SE Asia. The only time when we drank tap water was on a visit to the Gibbon Experience, which provides safe drinking water in their treehouses. Since we travelled to Laos we’ve invested in filter water bottles – which allow you to drink tap water, they’re great and they save a fortune AND the environment.
The main beer of Laos is easily recognisable, in that its name is BeerLao. Beerlao is the name of a range of beers which the Vientiane based, Lao Brewery Company (LBC) produces. While the hops and yeast that help produce this beer are imported from Germany, the beer is actually based on locally grown jasmine rice. Most bars and restaurants sell Beerlao Original at 5% alcohol by volume (ABV) – the original lager beer.
Dig a little further and you’ll find Beerlao Gold (which claims to have a good scent and non-sticky texture (??!!) and Beerlao Dark, somewhat stronger beer at 6.5% ABV.
The second brewing company that holds a licence from the government of Laos is the Laos Asia Pacific Brewery – a joint venture between the Government of Laos, Heineken and SBK consultants. From this company comes Namkhong Beer at 5% ABV. Namkhong Special – also 5% ABV – is brewed with black rice – a premium, nutritious rice in Laos, it’s often known as Beer Khao Khum (Black Rice Beer).
Lao Lao Drink
Despite what you might think, this isn’t actually the same word repeated twice. In the Lao pronunciation the first Lao translates as “alcohol” and the second means Laotian.
Go to any restaurant or roadside food stall in Laos and look for plastic drinks containers full of fruit and vegetable.
These are the ingredients of the fresh fruit shake. And once you try them you’ll be returning on a regular basis. My personal favourite is watermelon, although avocado and lemon comes a close second.
Since French colonists began planting coffee beans on the higher altitudes of the Bolaven plateau, Laos has had its own supply of coffee.
And it’s good stuff. Find yourself a small roadside shack on the Bolaven plateau and indulge for a few kip.
Eating and drinking in Laos isn’t expensive – as you can see from our huge budget underspend here. There’s a western influence in most tourist areas, so even if you don’t enjoy the sweet and sour, spicy and hot flavours that characterise Laos food then you’ll never be short of choices. If however, Laos cuisine is your thing, you’ll be in foodie heaven.