Taste of Southeast Asia: Dining in Laos
Laotian or “Lao” (drop the “S”) cuisine might be the only cuisine in our series that straddles a fixed political border. Lao cuisine can’t be spoken of without including the food of Northeastern Thailand, and the reverse remains true. The Isaan region of Thailand was under Laos control as recently as 1904, and to this day Isaan retains a strong influence from Lao culture, language, and food.
Lao cuisine has khao niaw steamed sticky rice as its main starch. The rice is formed in the fingers and eaten by dipping or scooping other foods into the mouth. Lao cuisine also features fresh vegetables and herbs such as galangal, lemongrass, and mint, green mango, bitter eggplant, and leafy greens along with sour chili dips. Preserved ingredients feature widely in Lao cuisine including toasted rice, dried chilis rather than fresh, and a fermented fish sauce called padaek. The world-famous Isaan food som tam papaya salad is a version of Laos’ tam mak hung. Foreign influences are found in the French baguettes as well as naem nueang Vietnamese-style hand-rolled sausages in rice paper.
There are two standout factors in Lao cuisine. The first is funk. Padaek sauce has a strong, fermented flavor that is absolutely unique to this cuisine. The second factor is texture. Lao dishes have a symphonic mouthfeel for a true sensory experience: soft rice noodles in slurpy curry, sharp fresh garlic rolled in leathery green leaves, and the forming of a ball of sticky rice around a crisp makrut lime leaf and crunching down on a black-fried chili that falls apart like dry autumn leaves on your tongue. Let’s take a look at Lao dishes you can try on your summer vacations.
Lao Khao Pun
Lao khao poon is a curried soup served with bundles of thin, opaque rice vermicelli noodles. For crunch, the soup is topped with shredded banana blossom, carrots, long beans, cabbage, sprouts, and heaps of fresh mint and basil. This beloved dish is often served at weddings in Laos. Though it’s not a wedding venue, one of the most surprising places to find a great bowl of khao poon is at the restaurant and viewing level of Wattay International Airport in the capital city of Vientiane.
Not technically a food, of-age travelers can’t go traveling to Asia without sampling the beer of Laos. The national commercial beer brewed in Vientiane made by the Lao Brewing Company (LBC), Beerlao can be found on the menu of popular expat restaurants and bars across the ASEAN region. Though it may not have the global distribution of Tiger Beer from Singapore or the tank-top marketing scheme of Chang beer in Thailand, Beerlao it is widely considered by foreigners to be the best of the commercial beers in Southeast Asia. Typically available in dark or light brew, the full range of brews including rice berry and wheat are only available within the Laos borders.
A perfect spot to have a bottle is at Pingpet Phouthin, a typical Laotian shop-house restaurant in Vientiane. Specializing in roasted duck, you’ll find the restaurant thanks to its bright yellow banners advertising Beerlao. Don’t be afraid to drink it with ice to cool off from the Laotian sun.
Ping Sin Nam Tok
One last versatile dish of Lao cuisine is ping sin nam tok. Literally meaning “waterfall,” this saucy dish can be made with beef, pork, chicken, and even raw meats. The dressing is made from crushed chilis, fish sauce, lime juice, shallots, and mint leaves. The key ingredient for nam tok is ground roasted rice that gives the salad a slight smoky flavor and a surface texture almost like caviar. The salad is similar in flavor to another Lao favorite called laab except nam tok is served with substantial pieces of grilled meat instead of mince. Try nam tok at Tamarind restaurant in the heart of Luang Prabang.
From the smooth and herbaceous khao poon to a frosty glass of Beerlao shared over a plate of nam tok beef, the flavors of Lao cuisine are sure to please any traveler. Among the most herbal of cuisines in Southeast Asia, Lao food bursts with aroma and texture.