Food in Laos

Unlike its larger neighbors—China, Thailand, and Vietnam—Lao food is relatively unknown beyond its borders. However, the cuisine shares certain defining regional characteristics. Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, who have travelled and eaten their way across Southeast Asia since the 1970s, encapsulate the central characteristic of the region’s cuisine well: within each dish and across meals, cooks strive to balance the basic palate of “hot, sour, salty, sweet, and sometimes, bitter.”[1] Fresh vegetables and herbs, purchased daily at local markets, are paired and contrasted with spiced meats and rice or rice noodles to achieve a harmony of flavors and textures.

The food of Laos is differentiated by several key dishes and a distinct ethos. Fewer than five million people live in Laos today (compared with sixty million in Thailand), and much of the country is still wild and uncultivated. This undeveloped economy and a history of scarcity means meat is always cooked with many vegetables and typically served in bite-size pieces or smaller—even today. With the Mekong River running through the entire western length of Laos, and plentiful smaller waterways, fish is the main source of protein. It is prepared in a thousand variations, from pickled and fermented fish, to steamed fish with herbs and spices, fish stew, fish salad, and fish jerky.

Sticky rice, or kòw něeo, is present at nearly every meal. Cooked without water in a special steamer, the rice is cooled to room temperature and served in bamboo baskets. Diners roll sticky rice into a bite-size ball with one hand and use it to scoop up a powerfully flavored meat or vegetable dish. Laab (láhp, or larb) is most often cited as the quintessential Lao dish. This cold, minced meat salad (of fish, chicken, pork, or beef) is flavored with fish sauce, lemongrass, mint, dry roasted rice, chilies, and limes.

Lao food is often described in these terms of simplicity, the tendency to foreground vegetables and herbs, and its natural healthfulness. Or, in the words of Xaixana Champanakone, who has recently published a cookbook which parallels the Lao attitude toward cooking with the spirit of the country: “The cooking of food, like everything else in Laos, reflects the easy and immediate reliance on nature as guide and provider.”[5]

[1] Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, Hot Sour Salty Sweet: A Culinary Journey Through Southeast Asia (New York: Artisan, 2000), 12.

[5] Xaixana Champanakone, Lao Cooking and the Essence of Life (BookBaby, 2014), 17.