Laotian food is very natural and healthy, with lots of fresh vegetables, usually served with glutinous (“sticky”) rice. Laos is mostly a rural, agricultural society with a poor populace, and the food is simple, but very tasty, and often quite spicy.
Eating with the Hands
If you go to a Laotian restaurant, you will probably be served family-style, with several dishes being ordered and placed in the middle of the table for all to enjoy. Each person will get a clean plate, and a small, wicker container with sticky rice in it. The easiest way, and the most expected way, to eat sticky rice is just by picking it up with your hands.
Food for Kicks
Laotian cuisine incorporates a wide variety of meats, depending on what is available and where you happen to be. The southern border of Laos runs along the Mekong, so if you’re in the capital city of Vientiane, you’ll get a chance to enjoy plenty of freshwater fish and the huge river prawns that come out of the Mekong. Duck and chicken are also common favorites, and in the smaller restaurants, you may well see your meal running around between the tables before you order. In the more rural areas, the food is a little more adventurous, and may include such oddities as lizard, or various insects. Dog is occasionally eaten by rural families, although you are not likely to see it in a restaurant. Red ant eggs make a particularly tasty dish, fried up with an array of spices and vegetables and mixed liberally with chili peppers.
The food is very similar to Thai food that comes from the rural northeast “Isaan” part of Thailand, which is ethnically Laos. You will also see a subtle French undertone to some of the cuisine, and in the larger cities like Vientiane and Luang Prabang, you’ll see baguettes on sale everywhere. Indeed, the French influence is particularly evident in the capital city, where you can sit at a sidewalk café enjoying a croissant and rich, dark coffee while staring out at what looks to be a replica of l’arc de triomphe.
What is there to Eat?
You haven’t really experienced Laos until you’ve sampled at least a few fried beetles, but beyond that, there are plenty of dishes that may be more attuned to the Western palate. In Vientiane, you can find restaurants catering to European tastes as well as those seeking something more traditional. A common and tasty Lao dish you may be served is called “laap,” which is a spicy concoction of chopped meat and rice, typically served with vegetables on the side. And if you’ve just come from across the border in Thailand and enjoyed the som tam there, try the Lao equivalent of tam mak houng, which is similar but a bit heavier on the fish sauce.
You may be offered a popular dish called som moo, made from raw, fermented pork. As with any raw meat dishes, approach this one with caution.
Laos is an exotic look at an older time and a slow-paced, agrarian lifestyle, and the cuisine reflects that. In the countryside, you’ll find plenty of morning markets, or “talaat saao”, with small food stalls and cold drinks, and you may even be invited to dine with the friendly locals.