Eating is a favourite pastime throughout South East Asia and with so many fresh ingredients and flavourful spices, it is easy to see why! As I explore each region, I’ll be sampling local specialties and sharing the near infinite variety of foods that make travelling in this part of the world a culinary adventure. Here are the traditional foods from Laos that I had the pleasure of trying.
A Locavore’s Food Guide to Laos
Introducing the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, better known simply as Laos, a landlocked country in mainland Southeast Asia. My 2016 visit included stops in Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane, Pakse, the Bolaven Plateau and Si Phan Don. Laos is currently a one-party socialist republic and was once a protectorate of the French Colonial Empire. Laos is considered a low-income economy with 30% of the population currently living on less than $1/day and 80% of families living off of subsistence agriculture. In 2015, Laos was ranked on the Global Hunger Index as having a serious level of hungry as over 18% of the population is undernourished. These are issues I hope to explore during my coverage of Laos but to begin let’s celebrate the traditional dishes enjoyed by locals and visitors alike.
Laap (also known as Larb, Lahp, Laab) is a spicy minced protein salad seasoned with shallots, mint, lime, chillies and fish sauce. It can be made with fish, beef, or most often, chicken and served warm or cold. It is often served with fresh greens and raw vegetables but occasionally rice. This traditional dish is widely available throughout Laos but best eaten from a family run restaurant.
2. Khao Jee
Khao Jee, or more frequently known as a baguette sandwiches, may not seem like an example of traditional foods from Laos. However, they are relics of the colonisation of Laos by France in the late 1890s. A significant departure from traditional Asian cuisine, these bread-based sandwiches are served with various fillings including cheese, chicken, bacon, tuna, egg and vegetables that can be combined in infinite varieties. Best enjoyed from a food stall in central Luang Prabang along with a freshly made fruit smoothie.
3. Khao Niaw
Khao Niaw, also called sticky or glutinous rice, is a staple of the Laos diet and is served with almost every meal. Rice cultivation is a major part of both subsistence farming crops and the export economy in Laos. During my visit in November it was possible to see whole families working in the fields from sunrise to sunset harvesting the rice crop. Sticky rice is prepared using stream (as opposed to being boiled) and served in beautiful hand-woven pots. Best eaten by compressing the rice into balls and dipping the balls into curry or soup.
4. Gaeng Pet Gai
Gaeng Pet Gai is a red curry made with fish or chicken, pumpkin & coconut milk. It is similar to a Thai red curry as many culinary traditions cross the borders into Laos but the best dishes feature local ingredients. While there are many delicious versions, the best one I had was made with freshly caught Mekong River fish and eaten on a patio overlooking that same river. Served with sticky rice of course!
Want to know more about the Thai version of curry? I’ll show you how to cook it here!
5. Mekong River Weed
This local speciality is not for the faint of heart. River weed is a green plant harvested from the Mekong River which flows throughout much of central Laos. River weed is often dried in the sun and served as a crunchy snack similar to nori. However, when my friends and I tried it, it was served stir-fried with chillies and had a distinctly squishy texture and pond-like odor. (Apologies for the grainy photo. My lovely friend Jo remembered to capture the moment on her phone whereas I was so enthralled/appalled that I completely forgot).
Have you tried any of these traditional foods from Laos?
Stay tuned as I share my stories from Laos of watching local farmers harvest rice on Don Khong, searching for fresh Mekong River fish at the local market, exploring the French colonial past in Luang Prang and roasting coffee on the Bolaven Plateau! To read all my stories from Laos, subscribe here!