Your essential eat-and-drink bucket list when visiting Laos.
Lao cuisine is not as well-known abroad as that of its delicious neighbor, Thailand, and those who haven’t had it before are in for a treat. Some dishes, like ping kai (grilled chicken) and ping pai (grilled fish) are simple but perfect, utilizing bright, fresh herbs. Others, like delectable crispy rice salad naem khao, have a longer list of ingredients. Most are likely to send you straight to a cooking class.
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Laos’ unofficial national dish can be found in even the tiniest of towns, as well as across the border in Thailand’s Isan region. It’s a zingy but not spicy plate of flavor, light and refreshing. The dish—pronounced lab—with a short a and a p-b at the end—is the simple enough that you can make it for a dinner party when you get home, name-dropping your trip. Oh this? Learned to make it when I was in Laos. It’s a meat salad, with minced raw or cooked pork, beef, chicken or duck, though fish, tofu, and mushroom versions exist as well. One of these is tossed with a wonderful litany of fresh herbs (mint, coriander, lemongrass), ground toasted rice for a nice crunch, lime juice, and fish sauce. It’s served with vegetables, usually lettuce to use as a bowl, and khao niew (sticky rice and the base of nearly every meal).
If you see ping in front of something on a menu, it’s grilled. Ping kai (also written as gai) is grilled chicken. Sometimes it’s a whole chicken pounded flat; other times it’s several pieces, dark and white meat. The chicken is marinated for hours in peppercorns, fish and soy sauces, garlic, and coriander and then grilled at low heat over charcoal. From street stalls it’s generally served on skewers, plucked right from a grill. Ping kai is often paired with tam mak hoong (Laos’ version of papaya salad) and khao niew.
Vietnam has bánh mì; Laos has khao jee (or khao chī or ji). The word, which simply means bread, refers to both crispy-chewy grilled sticky rice (delicious!) and a baguette sandwich. Commonly found at street carts and stalls is the variety filled with pork belly, pâté, lemongrass, coriander, and shredded cucumber and carrots. Sometimes it has sausage and/or pork floss, sometimes chili sauce (sweet and spicy) and pickled green papaya are tucked in. If you associate baguette only with cheese, the first bite of a khao jee is revelatory. At some stalls, like those opposite the tourist office in Luang Prabang, and at many cafés, you have more fillings to choose from, including more vegetables, avocado, cheese, eggs, and other types of meat. And always order the smoothie if it’s available; the avocado with condensed milk is like the most blissful ice cream.
The name isn’t a type: one Lao refers to Laos, the other means alcohol. Lao lao is an inexpensive rice whiskey drunk by locals. It’s available at bars urban and rural and by the bottle in markets and grocery stores (from around 10,000 kip/US$1). It’s 40-50% ABV, and unless you regularly toss back vodka shots, you’ll want to take a sip of this first and then perhaps mix it with a fruit smoothie. Or don’t drink it and just bring it back as a gift. If you book a guided day tour to Pak Ou Caves, you’ll stop in Whiskey Village, which is a tourist trap but where you can taste different shades of whiskey with scorpions and snakes in the bottles.
Beerlao refers to any of the beers produced by Lao Brewery Company. No matter where you are in Laos, there’s a crate of Beerlao (and possibly a backpacker wearing a Beerlao tank top). They’re all rice lagers (5% ABV), except for the 6.5% Beerlao Dark, and all are made with local rice, hops, and yeast from Germany, and malt from France and Belgium. After a day cycling around Luang Prabang or exploring the ruins of Wat Pho, a cold bottle of Beerlao goes down a treat.
Lao farmers grow arabica and robusta coffee up on the Bolaven Plateau in Paksong. This is just an hour from Pakse, the town where most people stay when visiting ruins Wat Phu, and even if you’re not a coffee fanatic the landscape up here is gorgeous, postcard-perfect mountains and verdant jungle. Coffee production dates back to the early 20th century, when the French first planted it, but the plateau was strafed by American bombs in the late 1960s and early 70s. Farmers went back to the fields with a purpose in the late 70s, and today you can sip this coffee at cafés and street stalls across the country, like Saffron Coffee in Luang Prabang, Common Grounds in Vientiane, and Jhai Coffee in Paksong. Get it either hot or iced with condensed milk. The condensed milk is sugar enough, but sometimes even more sugar is added in, so order it black if you want to mix it yourself.
Regular fish sauce, a staple in Southeast and East Asian cuisine, is already fermented, with a consistency like soy sauce. Padaek, Laos’ fermented fish sauce, is thicker and more pungent. Its key ingredients are fish, salt, and rice bran. River fish sit for 12 or so hours with salt and then are mixed with rice bran, forming a paste. This then goes into a jar and is left to ferment. The longer it sits, the more pungent the smell and flavor. It’s an acquired taste, but if you like umami flavors, try it on tam mak hoong. A small jar, inexpensive and found in any market, is a good souvenir for culinary types.
Tam Mak Hoong
The Lao version of Thai favorite papaya salad, tam mak hoong (sometimes written as hung) has every taste: spicy, salty, sour, and sweet, with great crunch. It differs from the Thai version with its use of padaek, an ultra-fermented fish sauce thicker than the usual. Tam mak hoong a little bit differently is green papaya, chilis, garlic, salt, sugar, lime, padaek, tomatoes, and usually shrimp paste, string beans, and crushed peanuts. Sometimes Asian eggplants (long and thin) are mixed in. The garlic, chili, salt, sugar, and shrimp paste are pounded with a mortar and pestle, the shredded papaya and other vegetables are coated with the mixture and then squeezed with lime. Tam mak hoong’s strong flavor profile makes it a nice accompaniment to ping kai (grilled chicken) or ping pa (grilled fish). Padaek can be an acquired taste, so you can always ask for yours without, or with regular fish sauce.
Charcuterie fanatics go crazy for these herbal pork sausages, eaten in Laos and across the border in Thailand’s Isan region. Sometimes they’re called sai oua, sometimes sai grok or sai krok. They’re made with ground pork mixed with a galangal, ginger, lemongrass, garlic, shallots, chilis, sometimes lime and fish or shrimp paste. They’re grilled either in coils, individually, or skewered, and you’ll find them country-wide at street stalls, markets, and restaurants.
Sticky rice is the base for nearly all Lao meals. It’s the rice you’re eating when you order mango-sticky rice dessert in Thailand, but in Laos it’s served with practically everything. The rice is steamed and sometimes served in woven bamboo baskets called thip khao. It’s predominantly white, but healthy leaning restaurants will serve purple sticky rice, which has a slightly nuttier texture.
Jeow refers to a sauce/condiment, and there are plenty of varieties, including jeow het, with mushrooms (het). Jeow bong is very common, and you’ll find inexpensive jars of it at markets and supermarkets. The spicy-sweet relish is a mix of galangal, chili, shallots, garlic, sugar, salt, fish sauce, sometimes tamarind, and the clincher ingredient, dried strips of water buffalo skin. One Lao chef says you can sub shredded dried pork for buffalo skin.
This delicious crispy rice salad is a delightfully textural mix of balls of rice fried until crispy, chopped herbs (usually mint and coriander), pork sausage, shallots, green onions, lime juice, and fish sauce. The crispy rice is broken into clumps and tossed with the rest of the ingredients, and then served with lettuce and sometimes fresh herbs.
Ping kai is grilled chicken, ping pa is grilled fish. This is usually a whole river fish seasoned with galangal, lemongrass, coriander, and sometimes kaffir leave, doused in lime juice and grilled. From street carts and markets stalls it tends to be served skewered. It’s simple but perfect.
Khao Nom Krok
These cute and addictive mini pancakes are similar to Dutch poffertjes. Khao nom krok (sometimes written as kanom) are made from rice flour, coconut milk, and sugar, cooked until golden brown in a cast iron skillet set on a charcoal brazier or grill, and usually served in bamboo leaf cups. One cup is never enough; these slightly crispy on the outside, chewy within pancakes are absolutely heavenly.
Jeow Mak Kheua
Eggplant dip jeow mak kheua is tasty and uncomplicated. It’s Asian or Thai eggplants (the tiny ground green ones) cooked until the skin is blackened. Fish sauce, roasted garlic, chili, and shallots, salt, and sometimes a bunch of coriander are mixed together, and the eggplant is added to this. It’s usually ground with a mortar and pestle, but not too much; there are still visible chunks of eggplant.