Honestly, I struggled to find the delicious, relatively cheap food that I thought I’d be eating in Laos–a consequence of spur-of-the-moment travel and the attendant whimsical decisions that lead to exhaustion upon arrival in a new place. If you’ve been humping your backpack round the streets after 8 hours of bus travel, you’re ready to eat anything, even if it’s a bit pricier and less spicy than what the cooks might make for themselves.
Eventually I found my groove and began eating well, focusing on the dishes and flavors unique to Laos. Though there are some similarities between Thai and Laos cuisine given that the rich natural environment provides many of the same resources, I found Laos flavors to be less in-your-face and more likely to be influenced by ethnic and foreign traditions.
Laos Khao Soy
Take the Laos version of khao soy, for example. Meaning “cut rice” in Burmese, khao soy appears in the repertoire of Laos and Thai cuisine as a noodle soup, though in very different roles. While the Thai coconut curry soup aims to please all areas of the palate in one hit, the Laos soup tastes more familiar to my American palate, with a pork-speckled, savory tomato broth coddling soft, wide strips of rice noodles. Despite the very Asian mouth feel of rice noodles, the tomato-pork combination seems more aligned with Chef Boyardee, even with fish sauce, cilantro, and spring onions brightening it up.
Khao soy slurped alongside the Mekong provides a perfect antidote to the afternoon rains that cover Luang Prabang this time of year.
Picks from a street food buffet in Luang Prabang.
Laos street food also maintains its own identity despite using familiar Southeast Asian ingredients, relying heavily on coal-fired grills. The corridors and alleyways where vendors congregate are filled with delicious, smokey aromas that spur the appetite and linger on clothing. Picking dinner from the market involves perusing treasures wrapped in banana leaf parcels cooking over hot coals and choosing among the many preparations of sticky rice. While the glutinous stuff is available in the traditional steamed form, Laos cooks also make grilled rice cakes and rice noodle dishes.
The spread pictured above features items from one of Luang Prabang’s numerous grills supplemented with selections from a 10,000 kip ($1.25) per plate buffet. Though this particular alley clearly catered to the tourist market, plenty of locals strolled through the lanes to buy dinner to-go. We choose two plates from the buffet: the first, a plate of carbs featuring fried rice, sauteed wheat noodles, and fried spring rolls with rice noodles, pork, and cabbage; the second, a sampling of grilled vegetables including squash, long beans, and smokey eggplant.
Grilled chicken wings and fermented pork on bamboo skewers.
We got some meat-on-a-stick, too, of course. Served on banana leaf without any sauces to mask the meat’s flavor, Laos grilled meat vendors actually sort of reminded me of the no-nonsense BBQ masters of Texas with their attention to flavor taking precedence over the need for things like plates, utensils, and side dishes.
These grilled chicken wings were clearly harvested from the happy, healthy sort of chicken that rule the Laos streets. I’ve never loved chicken in America–it’s too tasteless–but, in Southeast Asia? It tastes like something. That fermented pork? Also delicious, though it was hard to scrape the meat from the bones. The fermentation process gives an acidic tang to the meat (sort of like naem/แหนม), and I believe tenderizes the flesh to a degree.
Fried Mekong River seaweed with sesame seeds and a tasty dipping sauce.
The Mekong River informs so many aspects of Laos culture and cuisine, with fried river weed acting as a prime example of the creative ways that people have made a living and a life from the river’s resources. Tasting like an intense version of the Thai convenience store staple, the fresh fried river weed was really awesome…as an appetizer. Unfortunately, I ordered it as my whole dinner alongside a smattering of sticky rice and it was a lot to handle. This giant platter would be perfect for four to experience the salty umami-bomb before moving onto mains.
Lemongrass-stuffed, salt-rubbed, grilled river fish. Served whole, of course.
As soon as I laid eyes on the whole fish cooking on grills along the Mekong in Vientiane, I made dinner plans. The Laos version of the Southeast Asian favorite incorporates a thick salt rub on the outer skin and shredded lemongrass stuffed inside the inner cavities. Once salted and herbed, the whole thing gets plopped on the grill for a light charring.
This result is seriously yum, though my European dinner companions for the night were slightly disgusted by my choice. The Mekong looks a bit sludgy and unappetizing as a dinner source as far south as Vientiane, and the lemongrass coming out of the fish’s mouth apparently looks really gross.
But looks deceive, and the flaky flesh was tender, salty, and perfectly imbued with the essence of lemongrass without tasting green, bitter, or grassy.
A morning baguette.
Finally, you can’t talk about Laos food without mentioning the French influence. Like Vietnam, the Laos has adopted some of the imperial cuisine into its own family. Unlike the Vietnamese, Laos bakers kept the baguettes and breads dense and rich, refusing to lighten up the wheat flour preparations for the sake of digestion or post-gorging physical comfort.
I’m not sure what the proper word for “baguette” in Laos, but I heard them called falang by a few locals in a nod to their foreign origin. Sold by the roadside and in tourist restaurants across the country, the baguette is a breakfast food for locals and a staple for any person traveling through the country, with cheap sandwich stands popping up in every transportation hub or crossroads approached by hungry visitors.
A “Khmu” sandwich.
Tourist food embraces the baguette at every meal, whether it’s served alongside fruit or eggs in the morning, filled with familiar ingredients (banana+nutella!), or merged into a fusion dish in the evening. The sandwich pictured above represents the latter, with its clever name. The Khmu are Laos’ predominant indigenous population group in the North, and the Khmu sandwich incorporated herbed pork into the standard lettuce-tomato-onion trio.
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