Lao cuisine is very similar to its Thai and Vietnamese neighbour’s culinary offerings. Spicy soup, sticky rice and a range of meat-based side dishes make up a meal, shared by all at the table.
Vientiane is serviced by several good French restaurants, a remnant of the country’s colonial era. Baguettes and croissants are also widely available. Major cities, such as Luang Prabang, offer restaurants to suit almost any palate, although the selection dwindles quickly as you embark on roads less travelled.
Kaipen (Fried Seaweed) with Jaew Bong
A popular snack, Kaipen is made of freshwater green algae, peppered with sesame seeds and sundried into paper-thin sheets.
These raw Kaipen are stored away in rolls. For consumption, the Kaipen sheets are flash-fried in a pan and usually served with jaew bong (chilli paste).
Khao Jee Sandwich (Baguette Sandwich)
Almost every street corner has a vendor selling this French-Lao fusion. Khao Jee (or baguette) is split in half and filled with lettuce, sliced tomatoes, carrot, onion and optional cheese, moo yor (pork lunchmeat), chopped ham and topped with pâté or chili sauce.
Khao Jee sandwich is good with a cup of strong filtered coffee.
Khao Poon (Rice Vermicelli Soup)
Lao noodle soup, made with long-simmered chili-and-meat-based soup (e.g. fish, pork, chicken). This soup is ladled on the cooked rice vermicelli and a bed of chopped up vegetables such as shallots, spring onion, coriander, mint leaves and string beans. Add fish sauce to taste and enjoy.
Also known as ‘sai oua’, Lao sausage makes a pleasant appetizer or snack. Chopped pork meat, seasoned with herbs such as lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, shallots, cilantro, galangal and flavoured with fish sauce. Good with sticky rice and fresh vegetables.
‘Zesty’ sums up this mouthwatering meat-based salad. A variety of minced meat can be used, then flavoured with mint leaves, chili, fish sauce and lime juice.
Ground toasted rice (khao khua) is usually added, while the mixture is quickly stirred in a pot. Minced turkey larb is a must-try Lao specialty.
Pho (or Foe) is a noodle soup originally from Vietnam but can be found everywhere in Laos.
Featuring thin slices of beef, pork, or chicken, tripe, meatballs and sometimes innards (heart, liver, tongue, etc), with your choice of noodle (e.g. flat or thin rice noodle). Add a handful of greens and a pinch of chili, for the original Lao style.
Or Lam (Lao Stew)
Original to Luang Prabang, this tasty stew comprises mainly vegetables.
Beans, eggplant, lemongrass, basil, chilies, woodear mushrooms, cilantro, green onion and locally grown vine called ‘sa kaan’ go into the dish, with optional meat (classically prepared water buffalo meat).
Sien Savanh (Lao Beef Jerky)
Sundried beef strips, good with Beer Lao or as a snack. Made from beef flank steak (sometimes water buffalo meat is used), marinated in a mixture of garlic, fish sauce, ginger, sesame seed, sugar, salt and black pepper.
The strips are then left to dry in sunlight, then deep fried until lightly crispy and served with sticky rice or jaew maak len (tomato-based chili dip).
Som Moo (Sour Pork Sausage)
This appetizer is made from chopped, fermented raw pork – sometimes includes rump and skin – and wrapped in green leaves. Fresh chilies are usually inserted into the meat, adding a spicy kick to each bite. You can eat it raw or cooked (e.g. grilled), depending on the menu. The raw version is good with raw cabbage leaves and string beans.
Tam Mak Hoong (Papaya Salad)
This Lao creation is similar to Thai som tam, but it has fermented fish sauce and shrimp paste as the key ingredients, along with garlic, tomatoes, chili, palm sugar, lime juice, fish sauce and brined crabs.
Although it can be extremely spicy, eating it with sticky rice will make it more enjoyable.