What to Eat in Laos?
Lap (Meat salad)
Probably the best-known Lao dish, lap is a chopped meat “salad” made of pork, chicken, beef, duck or fish, dressed with lime juice, garlic, crushed, roasted rice and herbs and served at room temperature. Kung, a 33 year old translator living in Vientiane says, “We eat it every time family gets together. It’s quick and easy to make and also really healthy.”
The protein used in lap can be raw or cooked. Traditionally, village hunters brought in game. The meat was divided among the community, and with no way to store fresh meat, it was eaten immediately. Popular raw lap variations include fish (the lime juice “cooking” it like a ceviche) and duck (with blood). Diners at restaurants will most likely be offered the cooked version, though.
Klao niaw (Sticky rice)
The foundation of all Lao meals, most Laos prefer sticky rice to regular steamed white rice. In fact, they eat on average 345 pounds of it per person annually, more than any other country. Sticky rice takes longer to digest than regular white rice, so people can go longer without eating, important in an agragarian society like Laos. Expect to see a small woven basket of it at every meal. The rice is rolled by hand into small balls, dipped into food and sauces like jeow, a dry, non-oily chili paste with a bit of buffalo skin mixed in, and eaten with the fingers.
Green Papaya Salad (Tam Mak Hoong)
If coming from Thailand you should be familiar with Som Tam. Tam Mak Hoong is the Lao equivalent although the term Som Tam is easily interchangeable. This fiery green papaya salad brings the signature sweet, sour, salty and hot signatures of the region. Tam Mak Hoong easily recognised by large mortar and pestles and bright red tomatoes. In the large mortar and pestle strips of green (unripe) papaya are crunched together with a handful of basic ingredients including palm sugar, lime, fish sauce, peanuts and chillies. Other optional Lao ingredients include soft-shelled crab, pickled fish sauce (padek) and Makok a sour olive shaped berry. Eat with sticky rice. Tam Mak Hoong costs roughly 10,000 Kip or 40 Baht
Lao Noodle Soup (Khao Piak Sen)
This top-notch noodle dish is probably the most common of Lao food and is a staple not so different to Pho which is synonymous with their Vietnamese neighbours. While common as breakfast Khao Piak Sen also makes good for lunch and pretty much anytime of the day. This tasty soup bowl generally comes as Beef or Chicken served in like broth over flat rice noodles and flavourings of fresh herbs. Often accompanied by optional garnish of chilli oil, lime juice, bean sprouts, long beans, holy basil and cilantro. Khao Piak Sen costs roughly 10,000 Kip or 40 Baht.
Lao Sausage (Sai Oua)
The Lao Sausage is not so different to the famous Chiang Mai Sausage next door in Thailand (Lanna Food). A meat treat which fuses the regions signature flavours with sours of lemongrass and kaffir lime and the fiery kicks of chillies and galangal. Fused together with minced pork and pressed into skins. Lao Sausages can often be seen drying at roadsides or strung up at local markets. Unlike the Sai Oua of Lanna Thai food the Laos Sausage comes served with a tasty dry chilli dip (Nam Cheo) and of course sticky rice. A serving of Sai Oua costs roughly 20,000 Kip or 80 Baht.
Fresh Spring Rolls (Yall Dib)
In Vietnam fresh spring rolls are my favourite snack and in Laos they are perfectly replicated. The Yall Dib fresh spring rolls (aka Summer Rolls) are healthy, packed with fresh greens. Traditionally they come wrapped tight in a thin rice paper with ingredients including vermicelli (rice) noodles, fresh herbs, and choice of meat (fresh prawns please). While sauces can vary a phenomenal favourite is a chilli fused peanut dipping sauce. Summer rolls also come meatless / vegetarian and for the unhealthy alternative a fried option (Cheun Yaw) comes with meat and veg rolled in rice paper and deep fried to crisp. Yall Dib cost roughly 15,000 Kip or 60 Baht for 3 to 4 wraps.
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.
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.
One of the most sought after beers in Southeast Asia, a favourite with Southeast Asia’s backpackers and now found exported through Europe. Beer Lao is hard to avoid in Laos and is said to have 99% share of the beer market in Laos. It is everywhere and as far as beer goes it’s not so bad. If bored of the regular Beer Lao (as you will be) you can always try Beer Lao Black brewed with a roasted malt or Beer Lao Gold more expensive but not more delicious. Big Bottles of Beer Lao (640ml) cost roughly 10,000 Kip or 40 Baht. Perfect for sunsets on the Mekong.
Dubbed the Cheapest Alcohol in the World. This potent rice whisky is a popular moonshine liquor often found in illicit distilleries throughout Laos. A favourite with rural folk Lao-Lao is roughly 40% proof alcohol and is made by steamed distillation using hulls of sticky rice (Khao Niew) and crumbles of yeast balls. The result a clear, potent liquor which tastes a little like old bread. Lao-Lao costs roughly zero Kip as people happily hand you free shots to see if you can handle it. For the more adventurous there are less palatable blends with lizards, snakes and scorpions. While these concoctions are often found bottled as tourist trinkets the practice of dissolving insects and reptiles in alcohol still exists. Bottoms up.