The cuisine of Laos is distinct from other Southeast Asian cuisines as the Lao originally came from the north in a region that is now part of China. As they moved southward they brought their traditions with them influencing food in Northern Thailand as well as Cambodia.
These are the top dishes I found in my stay in Laos:
1. Larb (laap, larp or lahb)
A type of Lao minced meat salad that is regarded as the national dish of Laos. It can be made with chicken, beef, duck, fish, pork or mushrooms. The meat is flavoured with lime juice, fish sauce, roasted ground rice, padaek (made from pickled or fermented fish that has been cured) and fresh herbs. The meat is minced and can be cooked or raw and is mixed with mint, chilli and optional vegetables. It is usually served with raw vegetables and sticky rice.
2. Tam mak hoong (Spicy Green Papaya Salad)
This is a spicy green Papaya salad dish made from shredded unripe papaya. There are variations of this in Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. The dish has five main ingredients which are pounded in a mortar; hot chili, sour lime, salt, savoury fish sauce and palm sugar. The unripe state of the papaya means its texture is firm and crisp and thus can withstand being pounded. It also means it is a savoury dish not sweet as some may think when hearing papaya.
3. Khao Piak Sen (Lao Noodle Soup)
You will find noodle soup everywhere you go in Laos. It is synonymous with the Vietnamese dish Pho which is also a country staple. It is a common breakfast dish but can be enjoyed at any time of the day. The bowl comes with a beef or chicken broth which is poured over flat rice noodles and flavoured with a selection of tasty herbs. The soup will normally be accompanied by an optional garnish of lime juice, bean sprouts, basil, long beans, chili oil and cilantro (coriander seeds).
4. Kai Paen with Jeow Bong
Kai Paen is a Laotian snack made with fresh water algae, vegetables and sesame seeds. Mainly found in Luang Prabang the green algae, kai, is collected from the rivers when they are at their lowest. Once washed in the river and then dried for a day it is pressed and pounded into thin sheets along with vegetables; garlic, galangal (blue ginger), green onions and tomato. It is then sprinkled with sesame seeds. The Kai Paen is often served with a sweet and spicy Lao chili paste. This paste is made with chilies, ginger and a variety of other Laotian ingredients. Its distinguishing feature is water buffalo skin.
5. Khao Pun
This is a popular soup where sweet and spicy nam kathi (coconut sauce) is poured over rice noodles. It is a long – simmered soup made with pounded fish, chicken or pork and seasoned with the common ingredients of Laos, lime leaves, fish sauce, ginger, shallots, garlic, chilies and perilla. These noodles are also regularly eaten cold with popular foods naem neuang (barbecued pork meatballs).
6. Khao Jee (Baguettes)
A French – Lao fusion which you can now find on nearly every street corner. Most will give you the option of filling it with tomatoes, lettuce, carrot, cheese, carrot, pork meat and topped with chili sauce. In bigger cities like Luang Prabang you can now grab choices such as chicken, avocado and bacon!
7. Lao Barbeque
The traditional Laos BBQ is a round metal dish which sits above a cement block filled with coals. There is a raised cooking platform where you take a slab of fat and rub it all over the grill before cooking your choice of meat on it; chicken, pork or water buffalo. Around the edge of this raised platform you pour in a broth wait for it to heat up and cook your vegetables and noodles and mix in an egg if you want to.
8. Lao Sausage (Sai Oua)
This refers to a popular type of sausage made from chopped fatty pork seasoned with ginger, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, cilantro, shallots, garlic, chilies, fish sauce and salt. Another variant is the ‘soured Lao sausage’ which uses Lao sticky rice as an additional ingredient which is allowed to ‘sour’ at room temperature for a couple of days. Two more types are the ‘Mam’, beef liver sausage, and ‘Sai Gork Leuat’, blood sausage.
9. Ping Kai (grilled chicken)
A whole chicken, or one cut into pieces, is marinated in black pepper, garlic, coriander root, fish sauce and salt and is then cooked over hot coals. It is often served with sticky rice and sometimes with raw vegetables. Many dip it into spicy sauces such as the Jeow Bong mentioned earlier.
10. Oh lam (Stew)
This dish originates from the northern Hmong of Luang Prabang. It is a stew mainly made from a selection of vegetables; eggplants, beans, black mushrooms and gourds. These are then seasoned with chili, lemongrass and coriander. Ho or Oh is loosely translated as ‘to put in’, implying put in whatever you have but the main ingredient is the bitter root herb sa kan. This is served with sticky rice.