Whilst Thai and Vietnamese food is well-known across the western world, far fewer people are familiar with Laotian cuisine. Travelers in Laos are in for a real treat. Laos food is varied and vibrant, offering the opportunity to try new ingredients and flavor combinations.
Furthermore, the food of Laos has been influential on the cuisines neighboring Southeast Asian nations whilst itself acting as a reminder of the country’s history: French baguettes are sold on the streets of Vientiane to this day.
For traveling foodies, planning where and what to eat will come second only to arranging the Laos visa. The information below provides a brief guide to Laotian cooking in addition to recommendations for the best typical Laotian dishes and where to find them.
What is Traditional Laos Food?
There are many regional variations in Laos cuisine, with different recipes being prepared at home and specialties served at restaurants. Tourists are encouraged to try as much typical Laos food as possible, not only to get a taste for this unique cuisine but also to get an insight into an important part of Laotian culture.
Despite the regional differences, there are a number of ingredients that appear time and again in Laotian cooking.
Sticky rice, khao niao, is the most widely-eaten food and accompanies every meal. It has symbolic importance to the people of Laos and brings people together as a community.
So important is this staple ingredient to the people of Laos that they refer to themselves as luk khao niaow, ‘the descendants of sticky rice’.
As an alternative to khao niao, travelers may also be served glutinous rice or noodles made from either fermented rice or mung bean starch. Each kind of rice and noodle is an excellent accompaniment to stews and other typical Lao dishes.
The sharing of traditional food is a key part of festivals in Laos. The Boun Khao Pansa festival is celebrated by offering Khao Tom (sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves) to the monks in the temples.
Is Laotian food spicy?
A wide variety of herbs and spices are used in typical Laos recipes. Galangal, also known as blue ginger, is one of the most commonly used spices in Laotian cooking and adds a sharp, spicy edge to dishes. Lemongrass, the other widely used flavor, provides a tangy citrus flavor but is not spicy.
Other herbs and spices used in traditional Laos dishes include coriander, mint, kaffir lime, garlic, and chili pepper.
In general Laotian food is spicy but not always hot. Diners who prefer milder food can ask waiting staff to recommend the dishes on the menu which use fewer spices.
What is the national dish of Laos?
The national dish of Laos is usually considered to be Larb, a type of marinated minced meat salad flavored with mint, chili, lime juice, and fish sauce.
The meal is most commonly made with chicken or pork, although beef, duck, and fish are other alternatives.
Larb, like most typical Laos foods, is served alongside sticky rice and vegetable side dishes.
Can you drink alcohol in Laos?
Alcohol consumption in Laos is commonplace and tourists can enjoy a tipple at the many bars across the country.
Beer made from jasmine rice is drunk particularly during the summer whilst Lao Lao, rice whiskey, is one of the most famous alcoholic drinks.
Non-alcoholic beverages include grilled coconut water and Lao coffee which is rich and strong and known across the world for its high quality.
Where to Get the Best Laos Street Food
Street food is a great way to enjoy Laotian cuisine. One of the best places in the country to experience street food in Luang Prabang, a popular tourist destination in the north of Laos.
At the night market in Luang Prabang, locals prepare and sell a wide variety of dishes, from barbecued meat and fish to filled baguettes and exotic fruits.
Vientiane, the Laotian capital, is another great place to enjoy Laos street food. Some of the most interesting options are:
- Ban Anou Night Market
- Lane Xang boulevard
- Pha That Luang market
- Stalls along Mekong River
Typical Laos Food and Recipes
Although there are regional variations, several dishes are served at eateries across the country and well worth trying. Some of the most popular Laos foods are:
- Tam Lao: spicy papaya salad with crab, shrimp, chili, and fish sauce
- Kaipen with jaew bong: snack made with algae, vegetables, and sesame seeds
- Lao sausage: pork sausages flavored with lemongrass, galangal, and other spices
- Kaeng Jute: flavoured pork or chicken broth flavored with lemongrass, garlic, and cilantro
- Jaew mak khua: sauce made from roasted eggplant
Vegetables are generally eaten raw as a side dish in Laotian cuisine to accompany curries, soups, and stews.
Typical Laos desserts
Tropical fruit is typically eaten as a dessert or a sweet snack in Laotian cuisine. Fruits depend on the season including papaya, banana, pineapple, melon, and mango.
Sticky rice is also used in Laotian desserts: Khao niaow mak muang is made with sticky rice and mango. It is sold by street vendors and at restaurants.
Kuay Namuan, bananas cooked in coconut milk is another tasty dessert, this one is generally served warm.
Laos Dining Etiquette
Tourists in Laos should familiarize themselves with some of the most important local Laotian customs and table manners:
- Eat sticky rice with the right hand
- Hold the fork in the left hand and spoon in right, chopsticks are just for noodles
- Be prepared to sit on a mat on the floor if dining in someone’s home
- At a restaurant, order several dishes to be shared amongst the group
- Do not refuse the tea offered at the end of a meal
Although the people of Laos are welcoming and tolerant, to respect their culture and avoid causing offense, tourists should follow the guidelines above.