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While Laos has long played little brother to Thailand, the time has come to shed a spotlight on the distinct dishes that make Lao cuisine unique. Many Thai restaurants in the West are Lao-owned and add Lao dishes to the menu. As more foodies discover what makes Lao food stand out, more Lao restaurants are popping up in the States, Europe and Australia. Here are a dozen dishes that show the best of Lao cooking.
Reminiscent of Korean barbecuing at the table, sin dad is a fun and communal dining experience. A bucket of hot coals is set on the table or into a hole cut into the table and a round metal domed tray with a trough around the edge is set on top. Lard is melted onto the tray to prevent sticking and meats and seafood are grilled on top. Stock is poured into the trough, which also catches the meat drippings. Into the broth goes egg, greens, mushrooms, noodles and vegetables to create a soup. Served with fermented soy bean sauce, chilis and garlic, sin dad is a favorite among Lao locals and is a fun, interactive way to share a meal.
Pounded white fish is seasoned with spices and wrapped in banana leaves to steam in a bamboo basket over hot coals to make mok pa. Many Lao houses have banana trees growing outside and the leaves are used for cooking as well as making beautiful folded temple offerings. The fish is pounded with a rub of spices often including kefir leaves, spring onions, chili peppers, basil, fish sauce and salt. The steamed fish is flaky and soft and served with sticky rice. It can be eaten by hand or with a fork.
This thick stew of smoked or grilled meats and vegetables comes from the north of Laos. Or Lam is mildly spicy and features buffalo meat and skin with eggplant, bamboo and other vegetables. While a version of this stew is eaten throughout the country, it’s a specialty of the Luang Prabang region where it was a dish served in the royal palace when Laos was a monarchy. Varieties of this dish can contain pork, chicken or other poultry. It’s served with sticky rice and spicy Lao dipping sauce.
Lao food can, on first inspection, seem very meat and fish heavy. Yum salad is a mild vegetable-based dish made with boiled eggs, lettuce, tomato and watercress in a mayonnaise-based dressing. Ingredients often include peanuts, spring onions, garlic, radish and fish sauce, or padek. Lao padek is a sharp fermented fish often made with anchovies, which is sometimes cooked and other times raw. Lao cuisine often features raw leafy greens and other raw vegetables. Yum salad dresses up these fresh veggies with a delicious tangy dressing.
This snack is sold on the street and served inside a hollow bamboo tube. White or black sticky rice is steamed and mixed with coconut cream and sometimes red or black beans. The mixture is stuffed into the tubes then roasted. Khao Lam is best eaten hot when all the ingredients have sufficiently mixed and melted together into a perfect sweet and filling treat.
Insects like crickets, silk worm pupae, caterpillars, grasshoppers and the famous ant egg soup have been a part of the Lao diet for centuries. Insect protein is just now making its way into the western diet, primarily in the form of cricket flour and granola bars. Adventurous eaters can push their limits with some of the creepy-crawly delicacies in Lao cuisine. This sustainable protein can be a full meal or a fried snack washed down with a cold Beer Lao.
Fresh spring rolls in Laos are inspired by their Vietnamese cousins and served with a variety of sweet and spicy sauces including the perennial favorite: peanut sauce. Standard ingredients include rice noodles, carrot, cilantro, cucumber, bean sprouts and lettuce. Protein can come in the form of shrimp, chicken, pork, turkey or eggs. The fresh crunch of a perfectly balanced spring roll is unmatched.
Dtam Mak Hoong, or papaya salad is a quintessential Lao recipe. Don’t be fooled by the name, which means pounded papaya; this is a seriously fiery hot dish made with strips of the unripened green fruit as its base. The papaya is doctored up with loads of garlic, fish sauce and chili peppers. Lao chefs are known to use upwards of 15-20 “mak pet” in each salad. Optional ingredients include asparagus, string beans, eggplant or tomatoes. A little sugar and citrus cuts the spice. It’s a great appetizer shared with friends.
Laap, sometimes spelled larb, is the national dish of Laos. This minced meat salad is either cooked or served raw and marinated in fish sauce, citrus and chili peppers. The meat base of laap can be pork, fish, beef or duck. Vegetarian laap contains tofu or mushrooms and both styles have vegetables added. It’s served with toasted rice and eaten at room temperature with sticky rice or in a lettuce wrap. This is a star dish of Laos and a must-try.
These fresh rice noodles are made with rice that has been fermented for a few days. It is then boiled to create a dough-like consistency then pressed through a mold to create the noodle shape. Tart with a slightly acidic taste, they are great in noodle salad with tomatoes, mung bean paste, chilis, salt and sugar.
The Southeast Asian jungle is home to many tropical fruits such as melons, pineapples, custard apples, mangoes, rambutan, dragon fruit, guava, mangosteen and the smelly-sweet durian. Fruit shakes and smoothies with yogurt help beat the heat and are sold on the street and in restaurants. Melon carving is a true Lao art form and the results can been seen on banquet tables at weddings and other events.
Lao fried rice is called khao khua or sometimes by the Thai name khao pad. It’s a catch-all dish where all bets are off and anything goes into the wok. Traditional flavors include Thai basil, green onion, carrot, fish sauce, soy sauce, sugar and hot peppers. Order it with veggies or add shrimp or chicken to the mix. Garnished with tomatoes and cucumbers, it’s a comfort food bursting with the flavors of Laos.