When you imagine Southeast Asian food, you likely picture Thai curries and Vietnamese noodles. Thai and Vietnamese cuisines are certainly the celebrities of Southeast Asian food culture. But what many travellers don’t realise is that the neighbouring country of Laos also has a rich culinary history.
Laotian cuisine is Southeast Asia’s foodie secret, and here’s a guide on what, where, and how to eat your way through the country of Laos!
Getting Started with the Food of Laos
Laotian cuisine can be pretty intimidating at first!
It is very different from the food in neighbouring Thailand. Sadly, this causes many tourists to simply seek out Thai food when they visit Laos.
As a result, Laos gets its extremely unfair reputation of having mediocre food.
However, for the ardent gourmand, there is a lot to explore and experience when it comes to food in Laos. From vegetarian classics to dishes oozing meaty goodness, here’s a list of must-have foods in Laos you need to dig right in as soon as you arrive in the country.
Sticky Rice- A Laos Staple
The foundation of Laos cuisine is sticky rice. Laotians eat more sticky rice than any other people in the world!
In Laos, the sticky rice is very sticky (unlike the sticky rice in other countries). It’s so sticky that you don’t need any utensils to eat it. Simply make a little ball of it with your hands and then use that ball to scoop up the other food on your plate.
Very much like in many other countries of Aisa, in Laos, it is traditional to eat meals without utensils.
Laotian sticky rice has a satisfying texture, and it makes every Laotian meal more filling! I couldn’t get enough of the sticky rice in Laos, and it’s one of the foods I miss most from our Southeast Asia travels.
Laos Proteins- Water Buffalo and River Fish
In Laos, the majority of city and cultural activities centre around the mighty Mekong River, which runs the entire length of the country. The importance of the river to the locals reflects in the Laotian diet.
The two most common proteins in Laotian cuisine are water buffalo and river fish.
When I visited the rural, riverside villages of Laos, I quickly learned that water buffalos were a staple of local life. Herds of water buffalo walked through the streets in the afternoon, moving from grassy fields to the sand bars of the Mekong, where they would go for a swim. I often found myself sharing the small dirt roads with huge herds of water buffalo!
Water buffalo is generally sliced very thin and barbecued, chopped into a meat salad, or dried into jerky.
River fish, on the other hand, is typically simmered into a stew or steamed in a banana leaf.
Traditional Laos Dishes
Buffalo Hot Pot
A buffalo hot pot consists of water buffalo meat, cut into long, thin slices, barbecued over a pot full of hot broth. The pot is typically placed over an open flame to keep it warm.
As the meat cooks, its drippings fall into the pot of broth, to which you can add a variety of vegetables, noodles, and spices for more flavour and taste.
The entire cooking process is done at your table by you, adding a hint of drama to the dish. Since cooking meat in this fashion is so popular here, most of the Laotian hot pot restaurants have small fire pits at each table.
This was one of our favourite Laotian meals, mainly because we were able to flavour our soup just the way we liked it. Moreover, freshwater buffalo meat has a robust and meaty taste that I particularly loved.
Tip: Don’t be afraid to ask for help when visiting a hot pot restaurant for the first time. When I ordered a Laotian hot pot in the beginning, I was pretty confused, because it is NOT the same as a Thai hot pot! I asked our waiter for help, and he showed me exactly how to cook the buffalo properly.
Larb (Meat Salad)
Larb is a salad made of minced meat (usually water buffalo), herbs and spices. Traditionally, larb consisted of raw minced meat, but nowadays it is generally served with cooked minced meat.
Larb is very spicy and goes well with a side of sticky rice.
One of my favourite appetisers in Laos, River weed may not sound appetising, but trust me, its name does not do it justice.
River weed comes from seaweed that grows in the Mekong River. The Laotians harvest the plant, press slices of garlic and chilis into it, sprinkle it with sesame seeds, and then lay it in the sun to dry.
Once the river weed is dried, it makes for an awesome snack, similar to Nori but with busloads of flavour!
At Laotian restaurants, they will often offer fried river weed as an appetiser. In this case, they fry up the dried river weed in oil, and it turns into a delicious crispy snack!
Jeow Mak Kua (Eggplant dip)
Jeow Mak Kua was one of my absolute favourite Laotian dishes!
It’s a dip that you eat with sticky rice and is an example of why utensils are rarely required for Laotian cuisine!
The dip is a puree of smoked eggplant, garlic, and chilis, and has the perfect balance of smoky and spicy flavours. Just thinking about this dish makes my mouth water!
You’ll find this dish in traditional Laos restaurants, and also at street food stalls.
To find Jeow Mak Kua at a street food stall, look for little plastic bags of sticky rice with a green sauce that looks like a salsa verde next to it. You’ll want to buy one of each.
To eat the dip, make balls of the sticky rice and use those to scoop it out of its bag. Simple!
Another Laotian snack that was surprisingly good was slow-roasted peanuts. While this may not sound exciting, I’ve never had peanuts that taste like these, anywhere else in the world.
When you order a beer or a cocktail at a restaurant in Laos, the waiter will nearly always bring a small dish of slow-roasted peanuts with your drink.
I happily gobbled these up all over Luang Prabang, but it wasn’t until I visited the rural village of Muang Ngoi that I saw what makes these peanuts so unique.
Laotian peanuts are slow-roasted, very slowly, over an open flame. The man I bought peanuts from in Muang Ngoi spent hours every day slow roasting them to perfection, right on the side of the street.
Where to eat in Laos
If you begin your Laos travels in Luang Prabang I highly recommend reserving a table at Tamarind Restaurant.
The chef at the restaurant is on a mission to educate people about Laotian cuisine and is extremely passionate about local ingredients and culinary heritage.
When you eat at Tamarind, each dish is authentic Laotian food. The waiter will come over and explain how they make it, and the best way to eat it.
While Tamarind is a bit pricey by Laos standards, it is an absolute MUST for understanding Laos cuisine.
I visited Tamarind during my first few days in Laos. It gave me such a solid understanding of Laotian food that I was able to confidently enjoy the local delicacies for the rest of my trip.
In Luang Prabang, you will also want to take advantage of all the street food on offer. There’s a wide variety of barbecued meats and french-inspired sandwiches at various street food stalls throughout the city.
I highly recommend that you visit at least one or two rural Laotian villages on your trip. This is where you will get to experience truly authentic Laotian food.
Most importantly, don’t be afraid to try lots of different foods, and if you don’t know how to eat something just ask.
The Laotian people are incredibly kind, and in my experience, they are more than happy to explain the nuances of the local cuisine to visitors.
About the Author: Brittany is the creator and editor of The Rolling Pack travel blog. She has been travelling full time for the past three years with her partner, Tom. Brittany hopes that by sharing her travel experiences she will inspire others to think outside the box and make more time for the things they love. You can follow Brittany’s adventures on her Facebook and Instagram pages as well.