Ten best local dishes to try in Laos
1. Khao Niaw (Sticky rice)
The staple dish in Laos would have to be sticky rice and this accompanies almost every meal and is eaten throughout the day. Laotians frequently refer to themselves as “luk khao niaow” which beautifully translates to “children or descendants of sticky rice”. Frequently served in traditional cone-shaped, bamboo-woven baskets and often eaten with one’s hands. Small balls can be made with the rice and then dipped into any number of delicious sauces, such as eggplant, chili or peanut sauce. Black sticky rice and mango sticky rice are also excellent dessert options for those with a sweet-tooth.
2. Sai Oua (Lao sausage)
A smokey sausage that can frequently be seen strung up at markets or drying out along the road, Sai Oua is known for its signature flavours of lemongrass, kaffir leaves, ginger and garlic. This sausage is often served with a dry chili dip and much like most Lao dishes, sticky rice.
3. Khao Piak Sen (Lao noodle soup)
Knowing what to eat in Laos is tricky for any first time traveller but this noodle broth is a sure-fire hit with all. Excellent comfort food for a cold day, Khao Piak Sen is very similar to the Vietnamese Pho that is known throughout the world. Hearty, inexpensive, tasty and nutritious, this flat-rice noodle soup is often served with beef or chicken and a handful of fragrant herbs, bean sprouts, basil, chilies and beans. For the adventurous eaters out there, why not try it local-style with added liver, tongue or heart.
4. Laab (minced meat salad)
While popular in Thailand’s Isaan region, laab is regarded as the unofficial dish of Laos and this traditional meal is a wonderfully spicy, stir-fried minced meat dish that packs quite the punch. Cooked with plenty of chillies, shallots, lemon juice, coriander, mint and fish sauce and served with sticky rice, this meat dish is an aromatic blend of spicy and sour.
5. Tam Mak Hoong (green papaya salad)
All travellers who have been to Thailand should be familiar with Som Tam, Tam Mak Hoong is the Lao equivalent and is equally as fiery and memorable. This refreshing, spicy, green papaya salad is famous for its harmonious bend of sweet, spicy, sour and salty flavours and is often served alongside grilled meat. Made using a large mortar and pestle, thin ribbons of papaya, peanuts, chilies, sugar, garlic, tomatoes and fish sauce are all enthusiastically and vigorously pounded together. Additional Loa ingredients can include soft-shelled crab or Makok (a sour berry).
6. Mok Pa (steamed fish in banana leaves)
One of the most ever-present dishes in Laos, Mok Pa is a scrumptious fish dish that is slowly cooked with lime leaves, fish sauce, chilies and lemongrass and wrapped up snuggly with banana leaves. The flavoursome parcels are then steamed until the fish is tender, buttery and cooked through thoroughly.
7. Sien Savanh (Lao beef jerky)
The Lao counterpart to American beef jerky or South African biltong, Sien Savanh is small portions of meat that have been marinated in oyster sauce, soy sauce, garlic, sugar and pepper and then left to dry out in the sun. These meaty nibbles make good roadtrip snacks or midday treats to curb the hunger pangs that frequently come with a full day of exploring.
8. Naem Khao Tod (crispy rice salad)
While subtle variations of Naem Khao Tod abound, this filling rice salad is generally comprised of deep-fried rice balls, freshly grated coconut, ginger, peanuts, dried chili and pieces of pork sausage. Served with large chunks of lettuce, the flavour and texture of this dish is an experience itself. Also, eliminating the sausage allows for a scrumptious and filling vegetarian meal.
9. Khao Jee
All hail Laos’ most famous street food – the Khao Jee or more commonly known, French baguette. Eaten for breakfast with coffee, for dinner with Beer Lao or snacked on throughout the day, this French-inspired national dish is a big hit with locals and visitors. Explained simply, it is a French baguette that is cut in half and stuffed with chopped tomatoes, lettuce, onion, carrots, moo yor (pork luncheon meat) and topped off with a garlic-chilli sauce. Vegetarian options are easily available and this tasty treat is sold cheaply on pretty much every street corner. Hooray for budgeting backpackers everywhere!
10. Yall Dib (fresh spring rolls)
Also known as ‘summer rolls’, Yall Dib is a healthy and fresh snack that is either made with meat or vegetarian. Traditionally rice noodles, greens, fresh herbs, and prawns or meat are wrapped tightly in thin, wet rice paper and then served with a selection of different sauces. It is also possible to opt for a deep-fried option of the same thing which is then called Cheun Yaw.
Food prices in Laos
Much like the rest of Southeast Asia, food prices in Laos are relatively low and backpackers will find it pretty easy to eat well with change still clinking about in their pockets. Keep in mind that eating from street vendors and from markets will cost far less than dining in a sit-down restaurant. As with most of the continent, eating the local dishes and snacks is an easy way to save money whereas eating Western dishes will cost you substantially more. A tasty baguette found on any street corner will cost around LAK 6,000; a plate of papaya salad and sticky rice will cost around LAK 5,000 – LAK 10, 000; and a traditional rice dish will generally cost around LAK 8, 000. Keep in mind that in the more touristy areas of Laos these dishes can cost up to double even on the streets. Fortunately the local beer is pretty cheap too and a 640ml Beerlao will cost around LAK 8,000 – LAK 10,000 per frosty bottle.
For those with deep pockets who wish to dine in a fancy restaurant, expect to pay around LAK 50, 000 to LAK 100, 000 for a swanky meal.
Food security in Laos
Food security and food safety from the food vendors in Laos is unfortunately not always a given and occasionally travellers do get an upset stomach from dodgy meat or unclean vegetables. Fortunately there are a few ways that travellers can minimise these risks without forgoing the tantalising experience that is Lao street food.
Firstly, take your time when perusing a market and observe which vendors are busier. Chances are pretty high that at the busier and bustling stalls food is rotated very quickly and it unlikely that you will get fresh produce that isn’t fresh.
Staying away from standing meat that is not refrigerated, and also the raw meat frequently added to Laab (minced meat salad), is also advisable as meat that is going off is a big culprit of the famous Asian tummy cramps.
Rinsing fresh fruits with bottled water is also advisable and avoid ice blocks where possible. Although the standards of health and safety are a far cry from the Western criteria, it would be a great shame to miss out on the street food culture during your travels around Laos.
Pack your hand sanitizer and your spirit of adventure and allow your nose to do the ordering!
Where to eat in Laos
Types of restaurants in Laos vary from animated and chaotic food markets, street vendors lining up on the sides of streets and street corners, mid-range sit-down eateries or cafes, all the way to fine-dining French restaurants with white linen tables cloths, fine china and main dishes that are embarrassingly difficult to pronounce. Cozy coffee shops, bakeries selling crispy, fresh baguettes and trendy bars are also scattered across the country. Fortunately the eating out options in Laos are diverse, plentiful and cater for every traveller’s bank balances. Finding vegetarian food is also an easy affair and most meat dishes can be altered to become a vegetarian meal so no one needs to go hungry here in Laos.
Learning to cook Lao food
For travellers wanting to take home more than a bottle of snake whiskey or a beautiful bamboo carving, attending a Lao cooking class is an excellent way to incorporate the local culture into your daily life once your holiday is over.
Tamirind Cooking School in Luang Prabang is a day or evening cooking school that teaches its students the art of Lao cooking while working in an open-air pavilion overlooking the beautiful lily ponds on the outskirts of town. Students are taught about the eating culture in Lao, food customs, native ingredients, traditional recipes and are then allowed to eat the delicious fruits of their labour in the form of the tasty meal that they’ve just been taught to cook. Morning classes are from 9am until 3pm and evening classes are from 4:30pm to 8:30pm. Prices for the day are LAK 285, 000 per person which includes all transfers, ingredients and a recipe book upon completion.
The Bamboo Experience, Cooking School at Sofitel Luang Prabang, Cooking Class at Xuanmai Garden Resort in Pakse, and Lam Paj-Baj Tong Cooking Class in Vientiane are also all highly recommended cooking schools. Bring your camera and arrive hungry!
Top tips for eating Lao food like a pro
- Bring some medications with you in the unfortunate event of getting sick from the food.
- Only drink bottled water.
- Look for the street vendor with the longest line and get in the queue. Chance are high that the locals will know which stall is the tastiest.
- Observe the locals way of eating after they receive their dishes to learn what ingredients might be a good idea to add. Pouring a little soy sauce or a squeeze of lime can make some Lao dishes come to life in a scrumptious and flavoursome way.
- In the event of a language barrier, vegetarians or travellers with food allergies should save images of these food items onto their cellphones and show them to the food vendors or restaurants with a big shake of the head to best convey their message.
- Avoid raw meat in Laos even though it is a common ingredient in the popular Laab dish. Ask for the meat to be stir-fried and avoid it entirely if it is unrefrigerated or smells even the slightest bit iffy.
- Practice your pronunciation of “Khao Niaw”, “Khao Piak Sen”,” Khao Jee” or anything else that you might want to sample. A bit of effort, a welcoming, toothy smile and a friendly attitude will go a long way in your social interactions in Laos.