Laos’ vibrant cuisine has a distinctive flavour profile infused with the heat of fresh chillies, the freshness of raw vegetables, earthy umami undertones, and meltingly-soft meat seasoned with fragrant herbs. Though Lao dishes are lesser-known in the West than those of Thailand or Vietnam, they share many ingredients and flavours, and the results are immediate, fuss-free, and multi-layered - even breakfast can pack a hearty punch! A wide spectrum of influences means you can find food to suit all palates, and the philosophy of ‘nose to tail’ eating means that nothing is wasted, and there are some unusual dishes for adventurous eaters to try. Our Laos specialists shared some of their top tips for where and what to eat on your Laos holiday, and made everyone in the Selective Asia office very hungry…
At the core of Lao cuisine is the country’s biggest national product: sticky rice, or khao niew. The particularly glutinous rice strain grown in Laos has a higher sugar content than longer grained varieties, making it sweeter and gooier, and it’s served with virtually every meal. The grains are soaked overnight, then steamed in specially-made bamboo baskets over huge bubbling pots. Apart from eating sticky rice as your regular mealtime carb, you can enjoy it as a fast-food market snack mixed with coconut cream and beans, then roasted inside hollowed out bamboo until it caramelises, or as a sweet rice pudding dessert served with fresh mango.
Like many South-East Asian countries, the busiest times of day are early morning and late afternoon into evening, when the locals are out shopping and socialising while avoiding the heat of the day. Though not always equalling the ‘grazer’s delights’ that you can find in some destinations, the markets and street stalls in Laos, at either end of the day, are wonderful for discovering different variations on regional dishes and snacks. You can see all the fresh ingredients that go into creating the meals, and get a great feel for local life.
Vientiane is particularly good for foodie wanderings, from the tempting aromas emanating from individual stalls around Avenue Lane Xang, to the mid-city night markets and bustling riverside evenings. Try spicy Laos sausage - wonderfully meaty and stuffed with fresh herbs and aromatics such as dill and galangal - whole grilled fish and quail, and a vast variety of steamed banana leaf mok parcels containing pocket-sized hits of flavour. Lionel adores the fried black mushrooms with chilli and kaffir lime sold in bags from the markets, and would happily make a special trip to Laos just to get them!
Laab, also spelled laap or larb, plays a big part in Lao cuisine. This salad of fresh herbs and finely ground meat (also found in northern Thai cuisine) is often served with a highly-flavoured jeow dipping paste and, of course, sticky rice, straight from market stalls, making it fantastic real fast-food. You’ll find versions made with minced fish, pork, chicken, beef and duck (sometimes cooked and sometimes raw) combined with about 50% fresh herbs, creating bitter, smokey and salty flavours, with the contrasting crunch of green onion. Take a pinch of sticky rice, scoop up a mouthful of satisfyingly savoury laab and dip it in the mind-blowing jeow - just delicious.
‘The evening food stalls that open down a little alleyway in Luang Prabang offer a great mixture of food and an excellent vibe for the evening...’ - Stephen, Laos Specialist
Each evening, as the air gets a little cooler, the squares and streets of Laos come alive as the residents head out for an evening of petanque, sin dat, and a few Beerlao. Sin dat, also known as Lao barbeque, is a typically Laotian way to eat. A domed griddle, often with a deep rim around the edge filled with broth, is placed on a brasier full of hot coals in the middle of the table. Each diner then barbeques and simmers their meat, fish and vegetables themselves, creating a communal, sociable meal with food cooked exactly to your tastes. Gemma loves a restaurant she visited on the outskirts of Luang Prabang which ‘was packed full of locals of all ages’ with ‘tables full of meat, fish and veggies which you help yourself to and bring back to your table to cook’.
The best barbeque food in Asia? Some would definitely say so! It’s certainly a great way to experience true, contemporary Lao culture and get a feel for local life. We always suggest including a sin dat meal, particularly on the first or last night of your trip.
‘For me, it’s all about the sin dat whilst playing boule...’ - Nick, Selective Asia Founder
Few dishes offer more immediate comfort than a steaming bowl of noodle soup. From pho in Vietnam to Japanese ramen, you can rely on them to fill you up and give you a virtual hug-in-a-bowl. The Lao versions of these noodle dishes are infused with the country’s distinctive flavours: the broths are light and savoury, poured over thick, chewy rice noodles, thin spikes of julienned vegetables, oodles of those ubiquitous fresh herbs, morsels of slow-cooked meat and possibly even cubes of duck blood jelly (which, although it may sound a little challenging, has a soft texture like tofu). Served alongside are bowls of powerfully concentrated roasted chilli and other seasonings, which you can add as you wish to create different blends of salty, sweet and spicy with each mouthful. If you like it really hot, try the whole green chillies dipped in shrimp paste as an accompaniment; an experience which, Aaron warns, can be ‘intense’!
One of Laos’ most famous products, and one that’s perfect for sipping on a balmy evening wandering beside the Mekong, is Beerlao. Brewed by the Lao Brewery Company in Vientiane, this iconic beer is made from locally-grown jasmine rice combined with imported hops and malt, and sold by the bottle for about $1 US. There are a dizzying array of bar snacks to munch on with your beer; these are, in our opinion, an essential part of any holiday to Laos! Try crispy kaipen Mekong river weed with chilli and garlic, spicy kaffir peanuts, seasoned frogs legs, locally-dried beef and buffalo jerky, and a few more unusual options including deep-fried crickets. If you like your tipple a bit stronger, there’s always lao-lao: the country’s infamous, clear rice whisky - but beware, as it’s not for the faint-hearted!
As a post-colonial country, Laos has retained many influences from its time under French rule, incorporating them into its modern culture. This is evident in everything from the architecture to the food, not least in the stacks of khao jee baguettes piled up on roadside stalls - particularly those beside bus stops, as they’ve become an almost compulsory travel snack! The typical version is khao jee pate - a soft, stubby white baguette, split lengthways and spread generously with pate before being stuffed with thinly sliced vegetables, fresh herbs, raw papaya and shredded meat, and topped with hot chilli sauce, if that’s how you like it. If you’re travelling with kids, this makes an excellent quick meal option for hungry little ones on the move.
The French influence extends into more formal dining too, and you can enjoy croissants, pastries and tartines, and even top quality imported French wine, in several cafes and restaurants. As Brittany puts it, ‘if you’ve had your fill of Beerlao and stir-fried noodles, you can change it up with a camembert baguette washed down with a Chateauneuf du Pape - it’s a great contrast!’ Try the renowned ‘Le Banneton’ cafe-bakeries in Luang Prabang and Vientiane for a typical taste of France-meets-Laos.
As we’ve touched on already, with the mention of deep-fried crickets and jellied duck blood, Lao dining offers some more unusual dishes reflecting the ‘nose to tail’ ethos where everything edible is eaten. If you can overcome any initial wariness, these dishes are often much more delicious than they might sound. Nick says that ant egg soup is well worth a try if you get the chance; Lionel once enjoyed a whole chicken’s head in a bowl of delicious broth, and Gemma has tucked into ‘crispy bugs, stir fried in soya sauce, with a chilli dip’, which were served to her whilst playing petanque with the locals in Luang Prabang. Our advice is that if the locals love it, it’s worth a go, and you might be pleasantly surprised.
One surprisingly good option to have up your sleeve, especially if travelling with younger children, is the all-you-can-eat buffet at Vientiane airport, where you can always get a reliable meal. The restaurant is landside and open to all, not just those using the airport, and when Aaron and Lionel visited it was full of local diners. For about $12 US you can fill up from a buffet of international dishes, including plenty of Lao options, in pleasant surroundings without fuss. We think this could come in especially handy if you need to grab a last-minute pre or post-flight bite.
Lastly, if you’re based in south England and feel impatient to try some of Laos’ vibrant flavours in preparation for your trip, Sara recommends the Lao Cafe in Covent Garden, for its evocative flavours and brilliant atmosphere, which will keep you going until you get to Laos...
‘I ate here last summer, after a recommendation from a friend. It serves extremely authentic Lao food… the flavours and aromas really take you back to past trips!’ - Sara, Selective Asia Product Designer