Lao traditional cuisine is varied because of the different ethnic groups that make up the country. The flavors of the South are hot, spicy, and salty, while Northern dishes are mild. Most Lao dishes are not greasy and are either steamed, boiled, blanched or stewed.
Many neighboring cuisines influence Laotian dishes because of migration, especially from Southern China into Northern Laos. There is also a strong connection with the cuisines of Northeastern Thailand and Cambodia. Some dishes have been influenced by Vietnamese cuisine and have become popular dishes in Laos, for instance, Fer (Vietnamese Pho—noodle).
Khao Niao (sticky rice) is the main staple of every meal, and herbs are commonly used in many traditional dishes and make our food fascinating and unique.
1. Khao Niao (Steamed sticky rice)
Khao Niao is the most traditional dish in Laos, and it’s the leading food for every meal, including dessert and savory dishes. Most commonly, in Laos, when people greet each other, you will hear, “Have you eaten rice yet?” Khao Niao, sticky or glutinous rice, is eaten with every meal.
It’s a pretty sweet-tasting rice, and, typically, Lao people have this tradition of getting up early to prepare steamed rice before cooking anything else. The glutinous rice needs to be rinsed, and it needs to absorb water overnight before being cooked. Khao Niao is eaten with any spicy sauce and boiled vegetables for breakfast before rushing to work or school.
Laotian Grilled Dishes
2. Ping Gai (Lao grilled chicken)
Ping Gai is traditional Lao-style chicken grilled with various spices. The most popular dish is from the southern part of Laos, called “Ping Gai Napong.” It is the name of the place from where this grilled chicken dish originated. Because of the unique method of the grilling style, it is now popular all throughout Laos.
The ingredients include garlic, chili, red shallot, lemongrass, and ginger; all are blended together with salt, fermented fish, and oyster sauce, and then all the ingredients are added to the chicken and grilled on charcoal. People like to eat Ping Gai with Tam Mak Hoong (unripe papaya salad) or Tam Mak Thua (long bean salad) and steamed sticky rice.
3. Pa Ping Thop (Grilled stuffed chili river fish)
Pa Ping Thop is a delicious, healthy dish rich in herbs and spices stuffed into fresh fish and grilled. Although Laos is a landlocked country, we have many rivers and streams throughout the country, which provide a great source for freshwater fish. They all taste delicious.
Lemongrass, ginger, garlic, shallot, and red chili are blended using a mortar and pestle, and the mixture is put inside the fish, followed by sliced herbs like dill, spring onion, and coriander. Pa Ping Thop is a main dish and is served with boiled vegetables and green chili sauce.
4. Kaeng Nor Mai (Bamboo shoot soup)
During the rainy season, the young bamboos are blooming; in every local market, elderly ladies sit and sell the fresh bamboo shoots that they have collected from the forest earlier that morning. People like to prepare this soup for lunch and eat it while it’s still hot.
The significant component is Bai Yanang juice from Tiliacora triandra leaves, which is a very nutritious plant with anti-oxidation and anti-aging properties. This plant can easily be found in forests and grows abundently during the rainy season.
The soup also contains ground sticky rice, fermented fish, and many vegetables, for instance, sponge gourd and pumpkin. It is such an aromatic soup with a strong smell of herbs like rice paddy herb, climbing wattle, and cilantro leaves.
5. Khao Poon (Lao fish vermicelli curry noodle soup)
Khao Poon is a famous traditional dish served during special occasions in Laos, for instance, during religious ceremonies, Lao New Year, and the rocket festival. People like to prepare a large amount of Khao Poon to welcome guests visiting their homes.
The soup is made from fish, coconut milk, dried red chili paste, and fermented fish. The homemade rice noodle is very soft and fresh and will easily spoil after a day. You can usually buy the rice noodle in the market in the morning, and you need to consume it on that day.
The topping consists of small slices of various raw vegetables such as cabbage, yard long bean, morning glory, lettuce, mint, basil, and lemon. It it often served with fresh hot bird chili and shrimp paste.
6. Khao Piak (Rice noodle soup)
Khao Piak is one of the most popular traditional Laotian dishes available in every restaurant and as a street food. This noodle soup is popular especially with workers who only have a short time for lunch. Khao Piak is made using a handmade noodle that mixes three types of flour: glutinous rice, rice, and tapioca starch.
The soup most commonly uses chicken or pork, and the soup preparation takes quite a long time because of the broth; it has to be boiled, and the more prolonged the boiling, the more delicious the soup tastes is it gets all the flavor from chicken or pork bones.
The soup also contains smashed ginger, salt, and onion. The dish’s signature is the viscosity of the noodle when it is cooked together with the broth.
7. Khao-Soi (Khao-Soy)
Khao-Soi is the most popular type of noodle soup in many regions in the Northern part of Laos, especially in Luangnamtha and Bokeo Oudomxay.
The meaning of Khao-Soi is sliced rice. There are two types; one is served with soup while the other is served without soup but instead with Khao-Soi paste, for which the main ingredients are pickled bean and minced pork. Khao-Soi is served together with fresh pea shoots.
8. Lam (Lao stew)
Lam is the most famous traditional dish from the world heritage city of Luang Prabang. When you ask what Luang Prabang food is, most people will say, “Or Lam Muoeng Luang.” There are many Lao spices in this dish; the hero is called Sakhan (Lao chili wood), and other ingredients are rattan shoots, turkey berry, and green aubergine.
It is a non-veg dish; the cut dry beef or pork and dried buffalo skin are stewed together. It has a mildly spicy taste from Lao chili wood, lemongrass, and chili. It also includes yard long bean and wood ear mushrooms. You can find this Lao stew almost everywhere, like in traditional ceremonies and at parties.
Lao Steamed Dishes with Herbs
9. Mok Gai (Steamed chicken)
Mok Gai is wrapped in banana leaves for steaming and has a pleasant smell from the banana leaves after the steaming process has been going for about 30–40 minutes. There are many aromatic spices in the dish, such as lemongrass, lime leaf, garlic, red shallot, dill, spring onion, and red chili.
First, use a mortar and pestle to ground chili, garlic, and red shallot together and add in small pieces of chicken, followed by herbs that have been chopped into small pieces. Mok Gai is usually served with steamed glutinous rice for lunch or dinner.
10. Mok Pa (Steamed fish in banana leaves)
The ingredients and steaming style used for Mok Pa are similar to Mok Gai, but the herbs are chopped in larger pieces. Other ingredients added are a small amount of sticky ground rice and Padek (Lao fermented fish paste), which has fantastic unique smell and taste.
The aromatic smell of various herbs and Padek can make a neighbor’s mouth water. Be careful when eating Mok Pa, though; you should be aware of the fish bones while eating.
11. Khao Lam (Sticky rice in bamboo)
Khao Lam is a favorite dessert that can easily be found at every festival in Laos from north to south. Sticky rice is added to coconut milk, chopped taro, and sugar, filled in bamboo tubes, and grilled. The technique of grilling should be a big open fire with firewood.
Please wait until the bamboo has cooled down after cooking, then peel the bamboo tubes until they become thin and soft with a white color. The fantastic taste with the lovely smell of the soft bamboo, coconut, and taro is irresistible, and you will have to have a try until you have finished one big tube!
12. Nam Wan
Nam Wan is a dessert that is primarily served with crushed ice. There are many types of Nam Wan: sweet potato, taro, tapioca root, sweet corn, and banana Nam Wan.
We can use any of the ingredients on the list above, but Nam Wan can’t be made without coconut milk, as this is the key ingredient in Nam Wan.
Another essential ingredient is agar jelly, which comes in many different colors like green, pink, white, and black. The colorful jelly is used to make the blowing of the Nam Wan more colorful.
13. Khao Tom (sticky rice with banana and coconut milk in banana leaves)
Khao Tom is the most popular dessert at every traditional ceremony, for example, the Basi ceremony for a new house, New Year, and before a family member travels away from home or returns home from far away. Moreover, it is served at every religious ceremony for giving alms in the Buddhist temples.
Every household immerses itself in the preparation of Khao Tom one day before any ceremony. It takes a day to prepare this dish. First, dry banana leaves outside in the sun until they become pliable, then cut them with scissors into circle shapes of 20–25cm.
Rinse sticky rice with water for about 4–6 hours and then steam it. After that, mix the rice with coconut milk, sugar, and a giant amount of banana cultivar. Khao Tom is only for special occasions; the gathering family members or friends will enjoy conversation and eat it together.
14. Kanom San or Khao Pard (Layered colorful jelly)
Kanom San or Khao Pard is a layered jelly sweet that is quite popular in many Asian countries. However, the style varies depending on location. In Laos, this sweet is called Kanom San, or Khao Pard in some regions. San means “layers,” and Pard means “cut.”
It is made from a mix of rice flour with colorful agar, especially green, pink, white, and chocolate. It has a very soft and fragrant smell from the pandan leaf and coconut milk. It is available in markets from dessert carts.
15. Kanom Kee Meo (Cat poo pastries)
Kanom Kee Meo, sometimes called Kee Noo, “mouse poo,” is a traditional sweet pastry that originated in Luang Prabang, the world heritage city.
A mix of rice flour, coconut milk, and sugar is deep-fried until crispy, then coated with molasses and grated coconut. These pastries are popular as souvenirs to bring home for friends or family after visiting Luang Prabang.
16. Sang Kaya Mak Eu (Egg custard with coconut milk in pumpkin)
Sang Kaya Mak Eu uses a steaming process, and it can take a long time depending on the shape of the pumpkin; if it’s large, it needs to steam for 1 or 2 hours. The preparation is, firstly, to make a small hole in the pumpkin, then to remove the seeds, clean the pumpkin, hollow it out, and then fill it with a duck egg and chicken egg mix, with coconut milk, sugar, and pandan leaf juice added as well.
Once it’s cooked and you have waited a bit for it to cool down, cut a piece with the custard on top. This dessert is a well-known street food that you can find at every market or event.
Lao Hot and Spicy Dipping Sauces
17. Jeow Bong (Traditional chili paste dipping sauce)
Jeow Bong is one of the unique dishes from Lao cuisine. It is easy to prepare, and the taste is fabulous. It is served with every meal with other dishes and steamed sticky rice. There are many types of Jeow Bong, and they all have different tastes and ingredients.
However, this dipping sauce is mainly served in the northern provinces, including Luang Prabang, and the dipping sauce is sweet and hot and served with small slices of dried buffalo skin. In Xiengkhuang province, it is common to add fermented bamboo shoots, which have a sour, salty, and spicy flavor.
In Houaphan province, it is common to use sour-pickled small river fish and local spices that grow quickly in the northern part of Laos, which are called Indian Ivy-rue and have good aromatics. The main ingredient in this chili dipping sauce is dried red chili.
18. Jeow Padek (Fermented fish dipping sauce)
Jeow Padek is the famous dipping sauce from the southern part of Laos. Jeow Padek can be kept in the fridge for a few months.
The ingredients are lime leaves, fresh roasted chili, garlic, lemongrass, galangal, and MSG powder. All ingredients are pounded together before adding raw fermented fish and lemon. It is always served with blanched vegetables, boiled bamboo shoots, and steamed sticky rice.
Various Laotian Salads
19. Laap (Meat salad)
The meaning of Laap is good luck, and Laap is the most popular dish in Laos. The main ingredient is meat, cooked with mint leaf, spring onion, coriander, and lemon. The main seasoning is Padek (fermented fish) with ground roasted rice.
Many different types of meat are used to make this dish, including beef, pork, chicken, and fish. Laap is served at every ceremony and party. It is eaten together with raw vegetables, like cucumber and long bean, Dap Ca (fish mint), eggplant, and lettuce.
20. Koi Pa (Minced fish and herb salad)
Koi Pa is a fabulous dish prepared for family gatherings or when friends are visiting. Koi Pa is commonly served together with fish soup. The fish should be fresh, and, after mincing, use lime juice to get rid of the fishy smell. The fresh fish can be raw or scalded, depending on the household’s preference, but raw fish is more delicious.
It is a rich dish with healthy herbs added to the salad, including mint, shallot, lemongrass, lime leaves, banana flower, young galangal, coriander, spring onion, yard long bean, and lemon. To ensure the salad is delicious, fermented fish, dry roasted ground chili, and ground rice are added for extra seasoning.
21. Soop Pak (Steamed vegetable salad)
Soop Pak is one of the most popular dishes in Laotian cuisine. It is a steamed mixed vegetable dish, and most commonly uses fern, water clover, spinach, and black mustard vegetable together with roasted sesame, young galangal, ginger, dry roasted chili powder, and pickled fish.
Then, a topping of slices of fresh spring onion, coriander, and cilantro is added.
22. Som Phak (Pickles and mustard green vegetables Lao style)
Som Phak is effortlessly found in every corner of markets, in a plastic packet and at a low price. Several types of vegetables are used to make the pickles, including black mustard, green cabbage, spring onion, and garlic leaves.
Homemade pickles are usually left for a few days before eating. The pickles only taste salty; therefore, before serving, we need to add slices of coriander, ginger, roasted dry chili, or, sometimes, people like to add fresh red chili. It’s often eaten with grilled fish or chicken as the perfect match.
23. Tam Mak Hoong (Green papaya salad)
Tam Mak Hoong is the most popular snack food in Laos, and is mostly served to share with friends or family. It’s a spicy salad with small sliced green papaya (unripe) as the main ingredient.
The typical taste should be sour from the lime, spicy from the hot chili, salty from the fish sauce and fermented fish, and sweet from the sugar. This combination of tastes makes the uniqueness of Tam Mak Hoong popular and mouth-watering, even when just hearing its name.
You will enjoy the smell of lime, the crispy green papaya, and the raw crab in the dish. It is mainly served with various green vegetables and morning glory shoots, lettuce, and green eggplant.
Lao-Style Fast Food
24. Khao Ji Pâté (Lao pâté baguette sandwich)
Khao Ji Pâté is a popular Lao street food. It is considered a type of fast food, influenced by French cuisine during colonization, and it is a sort of Lao-French fusion.
The stuffed baguette includes pork liver pâté, slices of crispy pork, pork sausage, carrot, cucumber, tomato, and lettuce and is topped with spicy chili sauce.
25. Sai Oua or Sai Gok (Lao-style sausages)
Sai Oua or Sai Gok has various types and styles from Laos’ North to South. The most popular Lao sausages are from Luang Prabang in the North, Savannakhet in the central part, and the Vientiane capital. One type of Sai Oua is made from chopped fatty pork and another type uses pig’s blood mixed with pork.
The different types are also different in their tastes, including sweet, sour, and spicy, with many spices and herbs used, such as garlic, lemongrass, black pepper, chili, and galangal. The chopped pork is mixed with sticky rice for the sour sausage and takes a few days to turn into a sour taste. You can easily find dry, uncooked sausages everywhere in Laos in the local markets.
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