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Top 5 Laotian Dishes That Will Transport Your Tastebuds

Introduction

Lao cuisine is as diverse and flavourful as the country itself. As a landlocked nation in Southeast Asia, Laos has been influenced by its neighbors Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and China, while still retaining its own unique identity. Rice is a staple ingredient, as well as fresh herbs, vegetables, river fish, pork, and water buffalo.

There are three main regions in Laos with distinct culinary traditions. Northern Laos tends to feature sticky rice and dishes with bitter, spicy, and sour flavors. Central Laos is known for its use of freshwater fish, shrimp, and watercress. Southern Laos borders Thailand and you’ll find shared dishes like tom yum soup, as well as an influence of coconut milk in curries.

In this article, we’ll highlight five iconic dishes to try in Laos. From zesty salads to comforting noodle soups, get ready to discover the vibrant, diverse flavors of Lao cuisine. While this is just a taste, it will give you an excellent introduction to the most popular and beloved dishes around the country.

1. Laap

Many of the standard dishes served in Laos are adapted from neighboring countries. However, one dish stands out as truly Laotian: Laap.

This flavorful salad features minced meat – chicken, pork, fish, duck, or beef – bursting with zesty lime juice, savory fish sauce, and fragrant toasted rice powder. Shallots, lemongrass, and fresh herbs like mint add a touch of freshness and depth.

Laap comes in both cooked and raw varieties. Some variations even include organ meats. While these can be delicious, it’s best to stick to cooked Laap unless you’re dining at a reputable establishment with exceptional hygiene practices.

Laap is a true star of Laotian cuisine. Its vibrant flavors and enticing aromas make it the perfect companion to sticky rice. Traditionally enjoyed as a starter or a beer snack, Laap is a staple found throughout the country, from street vendors to restaurants.

2. Tam mak hoong

No visit to Laos is complete without trying tam mak hoong, a beloved spicy papaya salad. This spicy papaya salad features shredded unripened papaya along with tomatoes, garlic, fish sauce, lime juice, and chili peppers. It’s a nice balance of tangy, salty, sweet and spicy flavors.

Tomatoes add a touch of sweetness and juicy contrast, while fish sauce and lime juice lend a harmonious balance of saltiness and sourness. But the true star of the show is the chili pepper. Traditionally made with fiery bird’s eye chilies, tam mak hoong offers a customizable spice level. Don’t be afraid to tell your vendor how much heat you can handle – adjusting the chilies is part of the fun!

The end result is an addictive salad bursting with bright, bold, complex flavors. The spicy papaya cools you down in the sweltering Southeast Asian heat. Tam mak hoong is often eaten as a snack between meals. Be sure to give it a try when visiting Laos!

3. Khao poon

Khao poon is a fresh rice noodle soup that is a popular breakfast dish in Laos. It features rice noodles served in a broth made from chicken or pork, and often includes vegetables such as bean sprouts, lettuce, and green onions.

The base of khao poon is the broth, which can take hours to prepare as the bones and meat simmer to create a rich, flavorful liquid. Locals often wake up early to begin preparing this broth so it’s ready for breakfast service. The rice noodles, called sen khao poon, are made fresh each day and have a delicate, springy texture. They are briefly boiled right before serving to heat them through without overcooking.

Khao poon’s beauty lies in its customizability.  The protein can be chicken, pork, beef, or even fish balls, depending on your preference.  Vendors often add a vibrant array of toppings like bean sprouts, lettuce, green onions, hard-boiled eggs, and fried garlic.  Fresh herbs like cilantro and green onions provide a pop of freshness, while a squeeze of lime and a sprinkle of chili add a customizable touch of brightness.

Part of what makes khao poon such a satisfying and nourishing breakfast is that it contains protein, noodles, and vegetables all in one bowl. The complex flavors of the broth wake up the palette, while the heartiness provides energy to start the day. Locals of all ages can be found gathered for bowls of khao poon in the morning before work and school. It’s an integral part of Laotian food culture.

4. Or lam

Or lam is a Lao stew specialty made with eggplant, chicken, and bamboo shoots. This thick, hearty, and comforting dish is a favorite in Laos.

The name “or lam” means “stewed” in Lao. Eggplant is the key ingredient, giving the stew its distinctive flavor and texture. Chicken and bamboo shoots are also commonly added. The eggplant is cut into chunks and combined with the chicken, bamboo shoots, vegetables like string beans and tomatoes, and seasonings like fish sauce, garlic, and chilies.

The magic happens with slow simmering, allowing the flavors to meld into a rich and fragrant broth. The finished product is a delightful balance: a touch of bitterness from the eggplant, balanced by the savoriness of chicken, the satisfying crunch of bamboo shoots, and a hint of heat from the chilies.

Or lam can be found throughout Laos, but the recipe does vary somewhat between regions. In Luang Prabang, the former royal capital in the north, or lam often contains morsels of pork and larger chunks of eggplant. In Savannakhet province in southern Laos, the stew takes on Vietnamese influences and may use fish sauce and lemongrass. Wherever you try it, or lam is the perfect meal on a cool evening.

5. Khao niao

Sticky rice is a quintessential Lao staple. It is steamed and typically served in small woven bamboo baskets called tip khao.

Khao niao has a chewy, glutinous texture that makes it ideal for eating by hand. It is often used as an edible utensil to wrap or pick up other food when eating a Lao meal.

Diners will commonly take a small clump of sticky rice and use it to grab morsels of meat, fish, vegetables, or sauce. The sticky rice soaks up delicious flavors while allowing clean and neat eating without utensils.

Khao niao is a fixture at any Lao meal and accompanies everything from saucy curries to grilled meats. It provides sustenance and carbs to complement and balance the other dishes.

The Lao eat sticky rice at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. When served fresh and warm, its nutty aroma and taste are hard to resist. Beyond its taste, khao niao offers versatility, a filling quality, and is naturally gluten-free. It’s no wonder this unique grain remains an essential part of Laotian cuisine and culture.

Dining Tips

Eating in Laos can be an adventure for visitors not accustomed to Lao cuisine and dining customs. Here are some tips for getting the most authentic and enjoyable experience when dining in Laos:

  • Eat Lao Style with Sticky Rice

The centerpiece of any Lao meal is sticky rice, known as khao niao. Unlike fluffy jasmine rice, the grains of sticky rice clump together and are meant to be eaten by hand. Shape some rice into a small ball or wedge, then use it to grab meat, vegetables, sauces, and other dishes on your plate. Don’t expect a spoon – sticky rice is your utensil!

  • Customize the Spice Level

Lao food can pack some heat, with spicy chilies and sauces featured in many dishes. Don’t be afraid to ask for your food to be made less spicy (or more spicy if you prefer!). Saying “nit noy” means you want it just a little spicy, while “mak pet” means very spicy.

  • Embrace the Street Food Culture

Some of the best food in Laos can be found at local street food stalls and markets. Wander through places like the morning market in Luang Prabang to sample favorites like pho (noodle soup), tam mak hoong (spicy papaya salad), and sausages. Don’t miss tasty French baguettes turned into sandwiches. Trying street food is an essential part of experiencing Lao cuisine.

Following a few simple etiquette tips will allow you to fully enjoy the unique flavors of Lao food and dining customs. With an adventurous appetite, you’re sure to come away satisfied.

Conclusion

Lao cuisine offers a delicious diversity of flavors and dishes to enjoy. As we’ve seen, some of the top must-try foods in Laos include the spicy meat salad Larb, the fragrant noodle soup Khao poon, and the iconic sticky rice dish Khao niao.

While this list highlights just a small sampling of Lao food, it demonstrates the varied blend of herbs, spices, techniques and ingredients that make Lao cuisine so remarkable. The rich tastes of sour, spicy, bitter and savory often combine in a single dish to create complex and exciting flavors.

Whether you prefer salads, grilled meats, noodle soups or sticky rice dishes, Laos offers something for every palate.  So next time you’re planning a Southeast Asian adventure with Vietnam Tour Fun, be sure to go beyond the usual staples and sample some authentic Lao dishes. The explosion of tastes and textures will leave you eager to try more of this underrated and mouthwatering cuisine. You’ll come away with a new appreciation for Lao food and the diversity it adds to the culinary landscape of Southeast Asia.

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