A Quick Guide to Lao Food

When planning an eating tour across Southeast Asia, every foodie dreams of fresh Pad Thai piled high in Thailand and hot photo slurp in Vietnam. With the popular Thai and Vietnamese cuisines stealing the limelight, Laos could easily be an afterthought when planning your foodie dream tour in the region. But don’t make that mistake – there’s a lot to love about Lao food!

Landlocked and therefore relatively isolated for much of its history, Lao cuisine is distinct from that of its neighbours. If anything, Lao food has quietly influenced other regional cuisines, particularly in northern Thailand which was once part of Laos. As people migrated from this area, they took their cooking tastes with them and several popular Lao dishes were adopted and spread as Thai.

What are the key characteristics of Lao cuisine?

Fresh is best!

Nearly every Lao meal is served with a healthy portion of fresh vegetables, greens and herbs incorporated and often with salad on the side. Raw vegetable dishes feature in most traditional meals. Fresh fruit is used in desserts or served on its own.

Packed full of flavour

In keeping with the fresh theme, Lao cooking relies on lots of fresh herbs and spices to provide punchy layers of flavour that tantalize the palate. Also, traditional Lao cooking does not use much sugar to enhance the sweetness in sauces and dressings so you may find things taste different from what you’re accustomed to back home.

Dry, but in a good way

Don’t expect to find creamy curries or oily stir-fries in traditional Lao cooking. With the exception of soups and stews, most Lao dishes are quite dry compared to other Asian dishes. This makes it easier to eat with sticky rice!

Most popular cooking method: grilling or steaming

Grilling and steaming are the most commonly used cooking methods for meat and fish, which means it’s usually freshly prepared and will be less ‘heavy’ than other Southeast Asian dishes.

Three dishes you must eat in Laos

Sticky rice (Khao Niaw)

While Lao food varies slightly by region based on what fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices are available in that area, the one element that unifies the whole country and sets it apart from its neighbours is sticky rice. Steamed sticky rice is a staple of the Lao food scene and the base for many of their dishes.

Sticky rice is usually served in a small woven basket at every meal. To eat it, roll small balls of rice in your fingers and use the rice to scoop up sauces or other food.

Green papaya salad (Tam Mak Houng)

Considered a standout Lao dish, this spicy salad combines shredded unripe papaya with hot chilli, sour lime juice, fish sauce, salt and sugar. Don’t let the papaya fool you – green papaya is not sweet like you usually find in the West and this is a savoury dish. The Lao name literally translates to ‘pounded papaya’.

Laap or Larb

‘Meat salad’ may sound a little strange, but once you taste freshly prepared laap, you probably won’t care. Laap is probably the most famous Lao dish outside of Laos, having been adopted into Thai cuisine as larb. Minced or finely chopped chicken, beef, fish or pork is flavoured with hot chilli, lime juice, fermented fish sauce and fresh herbs and served alongside raw vegetables, salad and sticky rice. You can also find vegetarian versions made with mushrooms in place of the protein.

Try a full day cooking class in Luang Prabang!

Cooking classes are rising in popularity throughout Southeast Asia, and you’ll find no better introduction to Lao cooking than at Tamarind’s Cooking School in Luang Prabang. Situated in a scenic lakeside pavilion and part of the top-rated Tamarind Restaurant, the Cooking School is a perfect way to learn the art of Lao cooking from start to finish.

A full-day class includes a trip to the food market to source the freshest local ingredients, followed by a lesson in how to prepare several Lao dishes (including the famous laap), as well as how to properly make and eat sticky rice. The best part is of course devouring your delicious culinary creations at the end!

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Emily is a native creative nerd. This creative crew member's favourite stop is Bay of Islands.

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