Eating and drinking in Laos
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Fiery and fragrant, with a touch of sour, Lao food owes its distinctive taste to fermented fish sauce, lemongrass, coriander leaves, chillies and lime juice. Eaten with the hands along with the staple, sticky rice, much of Lao cuisine is roasted over an open fire and served with fresh herbs and vegetables. Pork, chicken, duck and water buffalo all end up in the kitchen, but freshwater fish is the main source of protein in the Lao diet. Many in rural Laos, especially in the more remote mountainous regions, prefer animals of a wilder sort – mouse deer, wild pigs, rats, birds or whatever else can be caught. Though you may not encounter them on menus, you’re likely to see them being sold by the side of the road when travelling in these parts.
Closely related to Thai cuisine, Lao food is, in fact, more widely consumed than you might think: in addition to the more than two million ethnic Lao in Laos, Lao cuisine is the daily sustenance for roughly a third of the Thai population, while more than a few Lao dishes are commonplace on the menus of Thai restaurants in the West. Although Lao cuisine isn’t strongly influenced by that of its other neighbours, Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants have made their mark on the culinary landscape by opening restaurants and noodle stalls throughout the country, while the French introduced bread, pâté and pastries.
Vientiane and Luang Prabang are the country’s culinary centres, boasting excellent Lao food and international cuisine. Towns with a well-developed tourist infrastructure will usually have a number of restaurants serving a mix of Lao, Thai, Chinese and Western dishes, usually of varying standards, but once you’re off the well-beaten tourist trail it can be hard to find much variety beyond fried rice and noodle soup.
Food is generally very inexpensive in Laos, with the cheapest options those sold by hawkers – usually fruit, small dishes like papaya salad, and grilled skewered meat – and the most expensive being the upmarket tourist restaurants (usually French or European) in Luang Prabang and Vientiane.
Though hygiene standards have improved over recent years, basic food preparation knowledge in many places still lacks behind other countries in the region. However, though a little caution is a good idea, especially when you first arrive in the country in order to allow your stomach time to adjust to the change of cuisine, it’s best just to exercise common sense. Generally, noodle stalls and restaurants that do a brisk business are a safe bet, though you may find that this denies you the opportunity to seek out more interesting, less touristy food.
Morning markets (talat sâo), found in most towns throughout Laos, remain open all day despite their name and provide a focal point for noodle shops, coffee vendors and fruit stands. In Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Luang Namtha, vendors hawking pre-made dishes gather towards late afternoon in evening markets known as talat láeng. Takeaways include grilled chicken (pîng kai), spicy papaya salad (tam màk hung) and in some instances a variety of dishes, displayed in trays and ranging from minced pork salad (larp mu) to stir-fried vegetables (khùa phák).
Most market vendors offer only takeaway food, with the exception of noodle stalls, where there will always be a small table or bench on which to sit, season and eat your noodle soups. Outside of the markets, noodle shops (hân khãi fõe) feature a makeshift kitchen surrounded by a handful of tables and stools, inhabiting a permanent patch of pavement or even an open-air shophouse. Most stalls specialize in one general food type, or, in some cases, only one dish; for example a stall with a mortar and pestle, unripe papayas and plastic bags full of pork rinds will only offer spicy papaya salad and variants on that theme. Similarly, a noodle shop will generally only prepare noodles with or without broth – they won’t have meat or fish dishes that are usually eaten with rice.
Proper restaurants (hân ahãn) aren’t far ahead of noodle shops in terms of comfort; most are open-sided establishments tucked beneath a corrugated tin roof. Ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese dominate the restaurant scene in some parts of Laos; indeed it can be downright difficult to find a Lao restaurant in some northern towns. Most towns that have even the most basic of tourist infrastructure will have at least one restaurant with an English-language menu – even if the translation can lead to some amusement. Away from the larger tourist centres, dishes will usually encompass variations on fried rice and noodle dishes, often with a few Lao, Chinese or Thai options intended to be eaten with sticky or steamed rice.
Tourist restaurants in larger centres usually offer a hotchpotch of cuisine – often encompassing standard Lao dishes like larp and mók pa alongside sandwiches, pastas and steaks. The most upmarket restaurants in Vientiane and Luang Prabang generally serve French cuisine, often in very sophisticated, un-Lao surroundings, but at very reasonable prices – a meal for two, including wine, is unlikely to stretch past $40.
When it comes to paying, the normal sign language will be readily understood in most restaurants, or simply say “khãw sék dae” (“the bill, please”). You’ll generally only be able to use credit cards at upscale establishments in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Tipping is only expected in the most upmarket restaurants – ten percent should suffice.
So that a variety of tastes can be enjoyed during the course of a meal, Lao meals are eaten communally, with each dish being served at once, rather than in courses. The dishes – typically a fish or meat dish and soup, with a plate of fresh vegetables such as string beans, lettuce, basil and mint served on the side – are placed in the centre of the table, and each person helps him- or herself to only a little at a time. When ordering a meal, if there are two of you it’s common to order two or three dishes, plus your own individual servings of rice, while three diners would order three or four different dishes.
The staple of Lao meals is rice, with noodles a common choice for breakfast or as a snack. Most meals are enjoyed with sticky rice (khào niaw), which is served in a lidded wicker basket (típ khào) and eaten with the hands. Although it can be tricky at first, it’s fairly easy to pick up the proper technique if you watch the Lao around you. Grab a small chunk of rice from the basket, press it into a firm wad with your fingers and then dip the rice ball into one of the dishes. Replace the lid of the típ khào when you are finished eating or you will be offered more rice.
Plain steamed white rice (khào jâo) is eaten with a fork and spoon – the spoon and not the fork is used to deliver the food to your mouth. If you’re eating a meal with steamed white rice, it’s polite to only put a small helping of each dish onto your rice at a time. Chopsticks (mâi thu) are reserved for noodles, the main exception being Chinese-style rice served in bowls.
If you are dining with a Lao family as a guest, wait until you are invited to eat by your host before taking your first mouthful. While dipping a wad of sticky rice into the main dish, try not to let grains of rice fall into it, and dip with your right hand only. Resist the temptation to continue eating after the others at the table have finished. Custom dictates that a little food should be left on your plate at the end of the meal.
In addition to chillies, coriander, lemongrass and lime juice, common ingredients in Lao food include ginger, coconut milk, galangal, shallots and tamarind. Another vital addition to a number of Lao dishes is khào khùa, raw rice roasted in a wok until thoroughly browned and then pounded into powder; it’s used to add both a nutty flavour and an agreeably gritty texture to food.
The definitive accent, however, comes from the fermented fish mixtures that are used to salt Lao food. An ingredient in nearly every recipe, nâm pa, or fish sauce, is made by steeping large quantities of fish in salt in earthen containers for several months and then straining the resulting liquid, which is golden brown. Good fish sauce, it has been said, should attain the warm, salty smell of the air along a beach on a sunny day. Most Lao use nâm pa imported from Thailand.
While nâm pa is found in cooking across Southeast Asia, a related concoction, pa dàek, is specific to Laos and northeastern Thailand. Unlike the bottled and imported nâm pa, thicker pa dàek retains a home-made feel, much thicker than fish sauce, with chunks of fermented fish as well as rice husks, and possessing a scent that the uninitiated usually find foul. However, as pa dàek is added to cooked food, it’s unlikely that you’ll really notice it in your food, and its saltiness is one of the pleasurable qualities of the cuisine.
Use of monosodium glutamate (MSG) is also common. The seasoning, which resembles salt in appearance, sometimes appears on tables in noodle shops alongside various other seasonings – it’s generally coarser and shinier than salt.
If Laos were to nominate a national dish, a strong contender would be larp, a “salad” of minced meat or fish mixed with garlic, chillies, shallots, galangal, ground sticky rice and fish sauce. Traditionally, larp is eaten raw (díp), though you’re more likely to encounter it súk (cooked), and is often served with lettuce, which is good for cooling off your mouth after swallowing a chilli. The notion of a “meat salad” is a common concept in Lao food, although in Luang Prabang you’ll find Lao salads closer to the Western salad, with many falling into the broad category of yam, or “mixture”, such as yam sìn ngúa, a spicy beef salad.
Another quintessentially Lao dish is tam màk hung, a spicy papaya salad made with shredded green papaya, garlic, chillies, lime juice, pa dàek and, sometimes, dried shrimp and crab juice. One of the most common street-vendor foods, tam màk hung, is known as tam sòm in Vientiane; stalls producing this treat are identifiable by the vendor pounding away with a mortar and pestle. Each vendor will have their own particular recipe, but it’s also completely acceptable to pick out which ingredients – and how many chillies – you’d like when you order. One of several variants on tam màk hung is tam kûay tani, which replaces shredded papaya with green banana and eggplant.
Usually not far away from any tam màk hung vendor, you’ll find someone selling pîng kai, basted grilled chicken. Fish, pîng pa is another grilled favourite, with whole fish skewered, stuffed with herbs and lemongrass, and thrown on the barbecue.
Soup is a common component of Lao meals and is served along with the other main courses during a meal. Fish soups, kaeng pa (or tôm yám paw when lemongrass and mushrooms are included), frequently appear on menus, as does kaeng jèut, a clear, mild soup with vegetables and pork, which can also be ordered with bean curd (kaeng jèut tâo hû).
A speciality of southern Laos and Luang Prabang, well worth ordering if you can find it, is mók pa or fish steamed in banana leaves. Other variations, including mók kheuang nai kai (chicken giblets grilled in banana leaves) and mók pa fa lai (with freshwater stingray), are also worth sampling, though they appear less frequently on restaurant menus.
Restaurants catering to travellers can whip up a variety of stir-fried dishes, which tend to be a mix of Thai, Lao and Chinese food, and are usually eaten with steamed rice. Fried rice is a reliable standby throughout the country, as are Chinese and Thai dishes such as pork with basil over rice (mũ phát bai holapha), chicken with ginger (khùa khing kai) and mixed vegetables (khùa phák).
When the Lao aren’t filling up on glutinous rice, they’re busy eating fõe, the ubiquitous noodle soup that takes its name from the Vietnamese soup pho. Although primarily eaten in the morning for breakfast, fõe can be enjoyed at any time of day, and in more remote towns you may find that it’s your only option.
The basic bowl of fõe consists of a light broth to which is added thin rice noodles and slices of meat (usually beef, water buffalo or grilled chicken). It’s served with a plate of fresh raw leaves and herbs, usually including lettuce, mint and coriander. Flavouring the broth is pretty much up to you: containers of chilli, sugar, vinegar and fish sauce (and sometimes lime wedges and MSG) are on the tables of every noodle shop, allowing you to find the perfect balance of spicy, sweet, sour and salty. Also on offer at many noodle shops is mi, a yellow wheat noodle served in broth with slices of meat and a few vegetables. It’s also common to eat fõe and mi softened in broth but served without it (hàeng), and at times fried (khùa).
Many other types of noodle soup are dished up at street stalls. Khào biak sèn is another soup popular in the morning, consisting of soft, round rice noodles, slices of chicken and fresh ginger and served in a chicken broth, though it’s hard to find outside bigger towns. More widely available, and a favourite at family gatherings during festivals, is khào pûn, a dish of round, white, translucent flour noodles, onto which is scooped one of any number of sweet, spicy coconut-milk based sauces. These noodles also find their way into several Vietnamese dishes, such as barbecued pork meatballs (nâm néuang) and spring rolls (yáw), in which they are served cold with several condiments and a sauce. There’s also a Lao incarnation of khào soi, the spicy noodle curry eaten throughout northern Thailand and the Shan States of Myanmar; the version common in Laos (in Luang Prabang and certain northwestern towns) consists of rice noodles served in almost clear broth and topped with a spicy meat curry.
Although very few people in Laos are vegetarian, it’s usually fairly easy to persuade cooks to put together a vegetable-only rice or vegetable dish. In many places that may be your only option unless you eat fish. If you don’t eat fish, keep in mind that most Lao cooking calls for fish sauce so, when ordering a veggie-only dish, you may want to add “baw sai nâm pa” (“without fish sauce”).
The best way to round off a meal or fill your stomach on a long bus ride is with fresh fruit (màk mâi), as the country offers a wide variety, from the more commonly known bananas, papayas, mangoes, pineapples, watermelons and green apples imported from China to more exotic options: crisp green guavas; burgundy lychees, with tart, sweet white fruit hidden in a coat of thin leather; wild-haired, red rambutans, milder and cheaper than lychees; dark purple mangosteen, tough-skinned treasures with a velvety smooth inside divided into succulent sweet segments; airy, bell-shaped green rose apples; pomelos, gigantic citruses whose thick rinds yield a grapefruit without the tartness; fuzzy, brown sapodillas, oval in shape and almost honey-sweet; large, spiky durian, notoriously stinky yet divinely creamy; oblong jackfruit, with sweet, yellow flesh possessing the texture of soft leather; and rare Xieng Khuang avocados, three times the size of those available in the West, with a subtle perfumed flavour. Restaurants occasionally serve fruit to end a meal, and, throughout the country, handcart-pushing hawkers patrol the streets with ready-peeled segments.
Desserts don’t really figure on many restaurant menus, although some tourist restaurants will usually have a few featuring coconut milk or cream, notably banana in coconut milk (nâm wãn màk kûay). Markets often have a food stall specializing in inexpensive coconut-milk desserts, generally called nâm wãn. Look for a stall displaying a dozen bowls, containing everything from water chestnuts to corn to fluorescent green and pink jellies, from which one or two items are selected and then added to a sweet mixture of crushed ice, slabs of young coconut meat and coconut milk. Also popular are light Chinese doughnuts, fried in a skillet full of oil and known as khào nõm khu or pá thawng ko, and another fried delight, crispy bananas (kûay khaek).
Sticky rice, of course, also turns up in a few desserts. As mangoes begin to ripen in March, look for khào niaw màk muang, sliced mango splashed with coconut cream served over sticky rice; those who don’t mind the smell of durian can try the durian variant on this dessert. Khào lãm, another treat, this one popular during the cool season, is cooked in sections of bamboo, which is gradually peeled back to reveal a tube of sticky rice and beans joined in coconut cream. Another thing to look out for at street stalls is kanom krok – delicious, soft little pancakes made with rice flour and coconut.
Brand-name soft drinks, such as 7-Up, Coca-Cola and Fanta, are widely available. Most vendors will pour the drink into a small plastic pouch packet (which is then tied with a string or rubber band and inserted with a straw) for taking away.
A particularly refreshing alternative, available in most towns with tourist restaurants, are fruit shakes (màk mâi pan), made from your choice of fruit, blended with ice, liquid sugar and condensed milk. Even more readily available are freshly squeezed fruit juices, such as lemon (nâm màk nao), plus coconut water (nâm màk phao) enjoyed directly from the fruit after it has been dehusked and cut open. Also popular is the exceptionally sweet sugar-cane juice, nâm oi.
Laos’s best coffee is grown on the Bolaven Plateau, outside Paksong in southern Laos, where it was introduced by the French in the early twentieth century. Most of the coffee produced is robusta, although some arabica is grown as well. Quality is generally very high, and the coffee has a rich, full-bodied flavour. Some establishments that are accustomed to foreigners may serve instant coffee (kafeh net, after the Lao word for Nescafé, the most common brand); if you want locally grown coffee ask for kafeh Láo or kafeh thông, literally “bag coffee”, after the traditional technique of preparing the coffee.
Traditionally, hot coffee is served with a complimentary glass of weak Chinese tea or hot water, to be drunk in between sips of the very sweet coffee, though you’re unlikely to experience this in many places. If you prefer your coffee black, and without sugar, order kafeh dam baw sai nâm tan. A perfect alternative for the hot weather is kafeh yén, in which the same concoction is mixed with crushed ice.
Black and Chinese-style tea are both served in Laos. Weak Chinese tea is often found, lukewarm, on tables in restaurants and can be enjoyed free of charge. Stronger Chinese tea (sá jin) you’ll need to order. If you request sá hâwn, you usually get a brew based on local or imported black tea, mixed with sweetened condensed milk and sugar; it’s available at most coffee vendors.
Beer Lao, the locally produced lager, is regarded by many as one of Southeast Asia’s best beers, and is the perfect companion to a Lao meal. Containing five percent alcohol, the beer owes its light, distinctive taste to the French investors who founded the company in 1971, although the company was later state-owned, with Czechoslovakian brewmasters training the Lao staff, until it was privatized in the mid-1990s. Nearly all that goes into making Beer Lao is imported, from hops to bottle caps, although locally grown rice is used in place of twenty percent of the malt. Also available is the stronger Beer Lao Dark, which has a smooth, malty flavour and is generally more expensive than regular Beer Lao.
In Vientiane, draught Beer Lao, known as bia sót and sometimes appearing on English signs as “Fresh Beer”, is available at bargain prices by the litre. Often served warm from the keg, the beer is poured over ice, though some establishments serve it chilled. There are dozens of bia sót outlets in the capital, most of which are casual outdoor beer gardens with thatch roofs. You can usually get snacks here too, known as “drinking food” or káp kâem – typical dishes include spicy papaya salad, fresh spring rolls, omelette, fried peanuts (thua jeun), shrimp-flavoured chips (khào kiap kûng) and grilled chicken.
Other Asian beers, including Tiger and Singha, are often available (sometimes on tap in Luang Prabang), and closer to the Chinese border you’ll find cheaper and less flavousome Chinese lagers on many menus.
In Vientiane, Luang Prabang and other larger, more touristy, towns, you’ll find a good range of Western spirits and liquors, and more upmarket restaurants usually have imported wine available by the glass or bottle.
Drunk with gusto by the Lao is lào-láo, a clear rice alcohol with the fire of a blinding Mississippi moonshine. Most people indulge in local brews, the taste varying from region to region and even town to town.
Drinking lào-láo often takes on the air of a sacred ritual, albeit a rather boisterous one. After (or sometimes during) a meal, the host will bring out a bottle of lào-láo to share with the guests. The host begins the proceedings by pouring a shot of lào-láo and tossing it onto the ground to appease the house spirit. He then pours himself a measure, raising the glass for all to see before throwing back the drink and emptying the remaining droplets onto the floor, in order to empty the glass for the next drinker. The host then pours a shot for each guest in turn. After the host has completed one circuit, the bottle and the glass are passed along to a guest, who serves him- or herself first, then the rest of the party, one by one. Guests are expected to drink at least one shot in order not to offend the house spirit and the host, although in such situations there’s often pressure, however playful, to drink much more. One polite escape route is to take a sip of the shot and then dump out the rest on the floor during the “glass emptying” move.
Another rice alcohol, lào hái, also inspires a festive, communal drinking experience. Drunk from a large earthenware jar with thin bamboo straws, lào hái is fermented by households or villages in the countryside and is weaker than lào-láo, closer to a wine in taste than a backwoods whisky. Drinking lào hái, however, can be a bit risky as unboiled water is sometimes added to the jar during the fermentation process.