From mouthwatering coconut pancakes to grilled rat.
Luang Prabang is famous for its lush mountains, gilded temples, and orange-robed monks that line the streets at dawn. But more recently, this secluded province in northern Laos has become popular with food pilgrims eager to get an authentic taste of Lao cuisine. Unlike neighboring Thailand and Vietnam, Laos’s gastronomic offerings are little known outside Asia—in fact, many dishes such as laap (or larb) that are often served in Thai restaurants originated in Laos. There’s no better place to get acquainted with this spicy, herb-packed cuisine—a mix of local and French colonial influences—than at one of Luang Prabang’s many food markets. Here, we round up the 14 street foods you can expect to find as you wander the UNESCO-listed paths of the country’s unofficial food capital.
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Whole Barbecued Fish
The Mekong River is the main artery of Luang Prabang and the region’s cuisine takes full advantage of the abundant fresh fish. Along with an assortment of farmed and hunted meats (we’ll get to those) the Night Market on Sisavangvong Rd offer a selection of river fish that are marinated, salted, and grilled whole over coals on a skewer in front of your eyes. They’re served smoky and lightly charred.
If you prefer your seafood without a face, mok pa is another dish that uses local fish (typically catfish) while allowing diners to side-step awkward eye contact with their meal. Flaked fish, rice powder, fish sauce, lime leaves, and kaffir lime leaves are wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled until they emerge as a perfectly steamed, melt-in-your-mouth meal—complete with a convenient, biodegradable container. A wide variety of dishes are cooked inside banana leaves at the Night Market, so it might take a few attempts to get the mok you’re after.
This sweet and savory chili paste is a regional specialty and is served as a dipping sauce to accompany everything from plain sticky rice to sausage. It’s made from sundried chilies, galangal, garlic, and fish sauce—but it gets its distinctive flavor from water buffalo skin (sometimes substituted with pork skin). You’ll find this signature relish in the kitchen cupboards of most home cooks as well as at high-end restaurants. Vegetarians and those put off by the chewy morsels of buffalo fat should ask for jaew mak khua instead, an alternative made from chilies, eggplant, and herbs.
Lao Khao Soi
Laos’s national noodle dish uses a simple rice noodle and pork broth base to showcase a tangy, minced pork and tomato mixture that bears a striking resemblance to bolognese. The pork is packed with fermented soybeans, garlic, chilies, and shallots, then topped with bean sprouts, pork rind, scallion, and chopped cilantro. It can be found at most Luang Prabang restaurants and street food stalls.
Who says you can’t make friends with salad? Granted, this heavily seasoned, spicy meat dish is stretching the definition, but it’s a staple on every Lao menu (and a lot of Thai ones, too). Made from minced chicken, duck, pork or beef, it gets its distinctive sweet-sour zest from lime juice and is often enjoyed raw by locals. Unless you’ve got an iron gut, stick to the cooked variety. To sample laap in a more upmarket atmosphere, head for Tamarind in the historic district.
The Morning Market (Talad Sao) is a quintessential Luang Prabang experience and unlike the night markets, has not been adapted to suit Western tastebuds. This is where locals stock up on fresh food and cooking ingredients, from innocuous veggies to “bush meat” like snakes and bats. At some point, visitors will inevitably find themselves face to face with a small, grilled creature—often with the tail attached—wondering, “Is that…?”
Yes, it is.
But these aren’t your average subway rats, they’re wild rodents captured in the surrounding fields. Even adventurous eaters should avoid bush meat for health, social, and conservation reasons. Many locals rely on bushmeat to supplement their diets and it’s almost impossible for visitors to know where the critters came from or whether wild populations can sustain hunting. In 2005, a visiting biologist was shocked to find that one of the mystery rodents being sold as a snack was actually a species so rare it had never been documented by scientists and was believed to be extinct.
The French may be famous for eating frogs’ legs but amphibians have been a delicacy everywhere from Spain and Greece to Mexico and the southern United States. In Laos, nothing is wasted, so you’ll find whole frogs barbecued on a skewer as well as raw (or even live) to take home at the morning market.
Water Buffalo Sausage
Water buffalo are valued for transportation and agricultural work, as well as for their meat and hides. As a result, strings of water buffalo sausage are sold on every street corner and on the menu at most restaurants. They’re chewier than their beef counterparts but the meat is sweeter and leaner. Not for the faint of heart, they can be incredibly spicy and are usually served sliced and grilled.
This stew is a Luang Prabang specialty made from buffalo skin, vegetables, pork—and wood. The thick, aromatic broth gets its distinctive, tongue-numbing effect from pepperwood, large logs of which you’ll see for sale at the Morning Markets. Its flavor is described as a cross between pepper and cinnamon and despite the hardy, tree-like appearance, strips of pepperwood will soften in the soup. It’s edible but most people leave it in the bowl as the texture is less than appealing. Manda de Laos, which overlooks a UNESCO-listed waterlily pond, does a good chicken version.
Khao jee Pâté
Khao Jee pâté is a popular sandwich similar to Vietnamese Banh Mi. Take one crusty French baguette, fill it with delectable meat, vegetables, and herbs—and voila, an inexpensive breakfast or lunch. It often includes carrots, scallions, mint, cilantro and pâté, while a smear of jaew bong gives a local flavor.
Lao Lao is a potent rice whiskey manufactured all over Laos. You’ll find it at the markets, in tourist shops, by the side of the road—basically everywhere—but drink with caution. The average alcohol content is around 45% and varies wildly between batches. Despite its strength, the flavor is fairly neutral. Ban Xang Hai, also known as Whiskey Village, is a half-hour drive from the city center and is a good, if touristy insight into the distillation process.
While Western diners are still getting used to the idea of eating bugs, insects have been on the menu for thousands of years across Asia, Africa, and Central America. Worms, crickets, beetles, grasshoppers—even smoked honeycomb, complete with succulent bee larvae—are a common sight in the morning market. The latter comes in a small banana leaf parcel, straight off the grill.
These sweet, bite-sized coconut milk pancakes are cooked in a cast-iron skillet to puffy perfection and served in stacks of around five. Brown on the outside and soft in the middle, they’re best consumed hot off the grill from one of the stalls at the night market.
Fresh Green Coconut
Drink like a president and grab a coconut from the stall outside Sunset View Restaurant along the Mekong River. In 2015, Obama became the first U.S. president to visit Laos and the only politician to look incredibly cool while hydrating when he rolled up his sleeves in Luang Prabang and treated himself to a sip of coconut milk, straight from the source (like any good travel influencer, he Instagrammed the moment). It’s easy to find Obama’s exact refreshment of choice thanks to an elaborate display of photos commemorating the event and a life-size cardboard cut-out of the former president in the adjoining restaurant.