A Note on Laos Cuisine

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Luang Prabang night market
Luang Prabang night market

With no trading port to the outside world and until recently with a relatively small emigrant population, landlocked Laos’ gastronomy has not experienced the same degree of global popularity as its neighbours Thailand and Vietnam.

A traditional Laos meal consists of soup, sticky rice, a meat, fish or poultry dish, a vegetable dish and the ubiquitous “jeow” – a highly flavoured spicy dipping sauce. Unlike a Western meal, dishes are served simultaneously with everyone dipping in using spoons or fingers, with chopsticks used only for noodle dishes.

Mekong River Weed flavoured with sesame seeds and garlic and deep-fried
Mekong River Weed flavoured with sesame seeds and garlic and deep-fried

The clear flavour of sticky rice balances out the stronger bitter, salty, spicy and sour flavours found in Laos dishes. Chillies are also used, but unlike Thai food, they are served alongside the dishes rather than mixed into them. The important bitter element is provided by a variety of plants (small pea aubergines and many bitter greens and herbs) which are also served on the side. Dill and mint feature heavily as herbs. One of the most distinctive ingredients in Laos food is “padaek”, a strongly flavoured and rather pungent fermented fish sauce that provide saltiness and umami in many dishes.

Historically, Laos food has often being regarded as essentially the same as Thai food. One reason for this misconception is the popularity and spread of Issan cuisine. This region of Northeast Thailand was once Laos territory, and its food has retained many of characteristics and dishes of Laos cuisine for example laap (Laos national dish – a salad of minced buffalo, chicken, pork or fish flavoured by myriad herbs, spices and toasted rice powder), spicy green papaya salad and sticky rice.

A herb stall at Phosy Market
A herb stall at Phosy Market

Some restaurants in Laos offer menus that continue this confusion – dishes such as Laos green curry, sweet and sour chicken and fried-rice are presented under the inaccurate heading of “Laos Food”. And there is a practical reason why Laos cuisine differs from Thai – sticky rice. It is a staple in Laos, and is eaten with the fingers – most traditional Laos dishes were designed to accompany it. To keep fingers clean, and rice from dropping into communal food, dishes do not have a liquid consistency. This contrasts with wetter Thai dishes, many incorporating coconut milk, where steamed rice is better suited.