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Laos’ cuisine is as nuanced and unique as its people. With regional flavours and dishes, you’ll find different menu items in the north and south. With a typically spicy, citrusy and funky flavour profile, Lao food is an adventure for the palate. Check out these top Lao dishes.
Tam Lao is a version of spicy young papaya salad that has black crab, dried shrimp, tomatoes and the pungent Lao fish sauce, padek. This dish is served spicy with a generous portion of dried red chilies. The funky spicy flavour is cut with a bit of sugar and citrus.
Tam Taeng is a cucumber salad that can be eaten alone or mixed with khaopoon (fermented rice noodles) or khao niao (sticky rice). In addition to cucumbers, shrimp, long beans, tomatoes and peanuts may make an appearance. Chilies and citrus make up the dressing.
Yam Patu is tuna salad, Lao style. As Lao has no ocean, the dish is usually made with canned tuna that’s mixed with fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, ginger and garlic. Lemongrass, tomatoes, chilis, onions, cilantro and scallions are heaped onto the plate and topped with the tuna mixture.
Charcoal-grilled green eggplants are cooked until they are blackened to make this Lao salad. The charged skin is peeled and strips of the flesh are tossed with hard-boiled egg, citrus, fish sauce and chilli dressing. Other common ingredients include shallots, dried shrimp and cilantro.
Laap Naam Tok is a version of Laos’ diced meat salads (Laap) made with medium rare beef. It is usually eaten by hand, scooping up the salad with a handful of sticky rice rolled into a ball. In addition to beef, lemongrass, fish sauce, shallots, mint and cilantro give the laap its flavour.
Yam Het is a mushroom salad and is an umami-rich vegetarian dish made with grilled oyster or wild mushrooms. Seasoned with mint, shallots, cilantro and, of course, lime, soy sauce, chilis and lemongrass, it’s a delicious dish served warm.
Fresh water fish is a staple of the Lao diet and steamed fish with citrus is served both at home and in restaurants. Lao chefs steam vegetables, rice and fish in bamboo baskets that fit over special aluminium vessels that hold water and are placed over open coals or on a gas range.
Thot Mak Ew is deep-fried pumpkin. A variety of heirloom squash is available at markets around the country. It is cut into cubes before being stir-fried with chilies, garlic, onions and shrimp paste. The squash is not mushy and instead has texture and crispness despite being fried.
Pak Bung Fai Dang is a staple throughout southeast Asia and Laos is no exception. Stir-fried morning glory (also called water spinach or river spinach) is fried with red chilies and whole cloves of garlic. The sauce is a sweet and has a savoury mixture of oil, oyster sauce, fish sauce, sugar and sometimes pork stock.
Pa Duk means catfish. Many Lao farmers dig their own fishing ponds where they raise cat fish or other fresh water fish to eat and sell. One common dish made with the fish is laap pa duk, where the fish is grilled, chopped into small pieces and served with Kefir leaves, galangal, citrus and lemongrass.
Ping Kaa Muu or grilled pork neck is served with all manners of jeow, or spicy dipping sauces that usually come in small plastic bags, half-filled with air and sealed with a rubber band when you buy it on the street or for takeaway. The meat is chewy and often served with a bag of greens.
Sai Oua Kuang is deliciously seasoned herbal pork sausage. Each region has its own flavour profile with famed versions coming from Luang Prabang. The texture is a bit more crumbly than what you might be used to, but it’s aromatic and perfect for dipping in jeow or eating plain.
Ping Gai or grilled chicken is sold at roadside stands throughout the country but is famed in the town of Seno, a junction point for truck drivers headed south from China or west from Vietnam in Savannakeht province. The birds are grilled whole between bamboo skewers, often with the feet and head still attached.
Kaeng Jute or plain soup is just that – plain soup. It’s not spicy. It’s a subtly flavourful pork or chicken broth seasoned with lemongrass, garlic and cilantro. Often served with glass noodles, individuals can season it to taste with one or more of the four condiments found on tables across the country: sugar, sliced chilis in vinegar, dried chilis and chilli paste.
Luk Sin Pa are round fish balls served either on a skewer or as a part of a meat medley in a fer or khaopiak soup. These springy white meatballs are made of minced fish and spices, mixed until they are a consistent paste texture then hand-rolled and boiled or fried.
Khaopiak Kaho or rice soup is a variation of the khaopiak (wet rice) fresh noodle soup. White rice is served in a chicken or pork broth with meats such beef, pork or chicken. The soup is served with lime and cilantro.
Khaopoon Pa is a soup traditionally served at weddings and ceremonies that’s made from fermented rice noodles (Khaopoon) and a chunky orange fish broth. Served with galangal and lemongrass for flavour, greens and sprouts are added to the soup as well.
Traditional Lao kitchens are outdoors, away from the house in a covered shed. Much of the cooking is done over hot coals on cement stoves. Kua Mee Kung or baked shrimp and noodles are prepared in a clay pot.
While dessert (khanom) is not as prevalent in Laos as it is in the West, there are sweets worth exploring. Custards and jellies are just as commonly eaten alone as they are put into soy milk or teas. Khao Pat is fruit custard topped with powdered sugar.
This coconut curry served over fermented rice noodles is flavoured with galangal, lemongrass and chilis, but it’s not overly spicy. The coconut milk sweetens and dulls the spice of the chilis. The dish can be served with bean sprouts, cabbage or basil.
A favourite mild jeow or dipping sauce is jeow mak lin, or tomato jeow. Tomatoes are roasted over a charcoal fire then pounded in a mortar and pestle with roasted garlic, onions and herbs. Served with sticky rice or lightly steamed vegetables it’s a delicious dip.