Laos may not have an internationally renowned cuisine, but it really should! Lao food is similar to Thai if a little more simple. The dishes are made with simple, local ingredients and are humble, fragrant and full of flavor.
There are clear influences from Thai, Vietnamese and French cuisine, but with its own character. The French fusion food in Luang Prabang is absolutely delicious! And due to the French colonial heritage, they have actual French baguettes, which I was very happy about after eating toast for weeks in Thailand.
Laos is the perfect destination for adventurous eaters. Laotian cuisine utilizes what’s available which can include insects, rats and bats. I was very intrigued by all the products I had never seen before and tried everything, no matter how crazy. My motto when it comes to food is “you never know, until you try”. There’s a reason people eat something and I don’t want to miss out on anything delicious. Unfortunately I can tell you from experience that squirrel does not fall into that category 😉
Every region of Laos has their own specialities, based on what available locally. But there are a few signature dishes that you can get throughout the country. These are my absolute favorite things to eat in Laos:
Customize your noodle soup
Noodle soup is a staple of Lao cuisine and can be eaten any time of day, breakfast, lunch or dinner. The soup is generally served as a simple fragrant broth with fresh noodles, a basket of herbs and greens and chicken or pork. They’ll gladly serve it without meat if you ask, but don’t expect a true vegetarian meal with veggie broth. There will be chili, sugar and vinegar on the table to add to taste. Which is great as Lao food can be very spicy and this way you can customize it to your own pallet and tolerance.
My favorite dish in the whole of Laos (and one of my favorite dishes of all time) is Khao Soy from a tiny street food stall on the night market in Luang Prabang. It’s different from the Khao Soy in Thailand, which has chicken. Lao Khao Soy is a noodle soup with a generous ladle of slow cooked, spicy pork stew. Absolute heaven! I think it’s the best thing to eat in Laos.
The spelling varies on who you ask, but all you need to know is that it tastes good. Laab is the national dish of Laos and is served in restaurants rather than on the street. It’s more expensive (well, relatively), but well worth the extra dollar.
Laab is a spicy, cold meat salad, which doesn’t sound very appetizing, but it really is. The small pieces of meat are mixed with a tangy marinade, lots of chili and ground roasted rice for a little crunch. It’s usually served with sides of vegetables, soup and sticky rice.
The ubiquitous sticky rice
No meal in Laos is complete without sticky rice. I’m not the biggest fan of rice, but sticky rice is something else entirely. It’s a glutenous, steamed rice that’s, well, sticky. Although it’s very starchy, it’s easy to digest and I felt like it never really filled me up.
Making it is a long process, but the Lao people know how to get it just right. Sticky rice is served in little bamboo baskets, making it highly portable, and it’s often sold by street vendors.
Sticky rice is served with everything. You roll it into little balls and dip it into sauces and other dishes. Like Laab, sauces, veggies or super spicy green papaya salad. These are some of the most iconic things to eat in Laos.
Laos is a fertile, tropical country, which means: delicious fruit. You can find fresh, juicy, sweet mangoes, pineapples and melons everywhere. Street vendors will gladly cut en peel them for you to right away. Or do as I did and buy couple of mangoes to take on the road and use your own pocket knife to cut them.
Or, even better, let them blend it into a fruit shake. Fruit shakes are a popular street food all over Southeast Asia, but I think the ones in Luang Prabang are the best. The vendors there have such a huge variety of fruits that you can come up with your own concoctions. Be sure to specify whether you want them to add sugar or milk. It is one of the best things to drink in Laos
Drink a little Lao Lao
Drinking is a big part of Lao social culture. After a long day of hard work, Laotians like to unwind with a cold beer. If you visit a Lao family, prepare to drink a few shots of home brewed Lao Lao (rice whiskey) as well. Guests will be served alcohol as long as they’re eating, so know what you’re getting into.
The national beer, Beer Lao, is affordable and pretty tasty. It’s nothing special and I prefer other Southeast Asian beers, but a cold one will do the trick. As most things in Laos, it’s made with rice.
But the star of the show is rice whiskey, simply named: Lao Lao. You know a drink is popular when it’s named after the country. Lao Laos is made from fermented rice and runs from anywhere between 30% and lighter fluid. It’s sold as shots or used in cocktails. I prefer the massed produced Lao Lao over homebrew as it’s usually the cheapest thing at any bar, but surprisingly tasty.
These are just a few suggestions of things to eat in Laos. But there is so much more to taste and discover in this beautiful country. Do you have any favorite Lao dishes that are missing? Tell me about them in the comments.
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