Lao cuisine acts as a gateway to Lao culture. Enjoying the delicacies is a communal affair here, helping unite people. Almost all the dishes, including meat and fish preparations, spicy stews, and salads, are eaten with sticky rice or khao niao. It requires no cutlery etiquette as the rice is typically consumed using hands. ‘Khao’ or rice is, in fact, a staple in Laotian diet and is included in the preparation of many traditional dishes, such as khao piak sen and khao poon.
Though Laos and its neighboring country, Thailand, have some similar-looking foods, the cooking procedure and taste is clearly different. Unlike Thailand, Lao food preparation does not undergo the marinating or simmering process. Also, Lao dishes include more aromatics and vegetables in its cooking.
Apart from the authentic dishes, you will also find foods with a French influence. As a result of French colonization, foods like baguette sandwiches and strong filtered coffee have been included in the Lao cuisine and have been popular ever since. Here are some palatable Lao dishes that are worth trying for a flavorsome and hearty delight.
Khao niao is a sticky rice preparation served in every Laotian household. The typical method of making it involves soaking glutinous rice overnight and steaming it in bamboo baskets. Once cooked, the rice is transferred into a thip khao, a traditional conical serving basket covered with a lid. Chewy and aromatic, khao niao is usually enjoyed with hands alongside almost every Lao delicacy.
The national dish of Laos, larb or laap, is a minced meat salad commonly eaten on New Year and other special occasions. Though chicken or pork meat is mainly used, you’ll also find it being made with different meat substitutes like beef, fish, and duck. Flavorings like fish sauce, lime juice, mint leaves, and chili make it savory and tasty.
The traditional way to eat the meat salad is fresh and raw with sticky rice and other side dishes. However, if you don’t enjoy raw meat, you can always ask the chef to cook it before serving the salad.
Khao piak sen is a light yet hearty noodle soup dish enjoyable on winter mornings. It comprises a combination of chewy soup and rich and aromatic broth made with chicken or pork bones and spices. Traditionally, the noodles are cooked in the broth to let the starch give the broth a thick consistency. A common dish in Lao restaurants, khao piak sen is served alongside fresh herbs, fried red peppers, garlic, shallots, and shrimp paste, allowing customers to customize their own toppings.
Kaipen are crunchy vegan snack delights made with river algae. The green algae, commonly found in the Mekong River, are flattened into thin sheets, sprinkled with seasonings like garlic and sesame seeds, and sun-dried the entire day. The most preferred cooking method is frying them in oil for the crispy effect. Though similar to Japanese nori seaweed in appearance and texture, kaipen tastes nutty like spinach and has an earthy tone. You can consume it as it is or with jaew bong, a traditional hot sauce made with a combination of chili and thin strips of buffalo skin. Sometimes, it is even used as a garnishing for soups and salads.
Mok Pa or steamed fish parcels are appetizing and easy to satisfy one’s taste buds. It’s made by wrapping a mixture of freshwater fish, aromatic herbs, and spices in banana leaves and tying them with thin bamboo strips. The parcels are further secured with toothpicks allowing the sweet flavors of the fish to stay intact. Steaming makes the fish easily melt in the mouth, while the dominant flavors and aroma make it a perfect dish for those who can’t stand the strong smell of fish.
Or lam is a classic spicy Lao stew having its roots in Luang Prabang. It includes meat pieces, mainly dried buffalo skin, chicken, or beef, slow-cooked with lemongrass, garlic, onion, and chili. Adding mashed or crushed sticky rice makes the broth thicker. Another ingredient, sakahn, or stems of a woody vine, is mainly responsible for the spicy and peppery taste. However, remember to remove the pieces once cooked to avoid biting into them. Like other Lao dishes, the meaty stew is also served with sticky rice for enjoying a satisfying meal.
Tam muk hoong is a spicy green papaya salad, not to be confused with the Thai papaya salad called som tam. The Laos staple tastes more savory compared to its Thai counterpart. ‘Tam’ means crush in the Lao language, and ‘muk hoong’ refers to its star ingredient, raw papaya. A combination of shredded papaya and spices, fermented fish sauce, shrimp sauce, and lemon juice are skillfully mixed and pounded in a traditional mortar. An authentic zesty and mouthwatering salad mix, tam muk hoong is essentially eaten with sticky rice that helps to counter the spice level.
Khao poon is an authentic Lao noodle soup made with a combination of thin rice vermicelli noodles and a savory red soup. Ingredients like pounded meat of chicken, pork, or fish are slow-cooked to soak in the flavors and aromas of various spices, fresh herbs, and fish sauce. Garnishing of shredded cabbages, carrots, and a drizzle of lemon juice gives the light and spicy noodle soup a crunchy twist with a slightly tangy effect. A comforting delight, khao poon is typically served at Lao weddings and other special occasions.
A juicy meat delicacy, sai oua are herby sausages that you could commonly find hanging in the street shops of the night markets of Laos. It’s made with fatty pork infused in aromatics like lemongrass and galangal and seasoned with spices. Stuffed in casings, these meaty sausages are usually deep-fried to attain a crispy outer layer. Taking a bite of sai oua will make all the flavors explode into your mouth and it tastes even better when teamed with sticky rice. You’ll also find fermented sai oua in which sticky rice is added to the preparation and fermented for several days for the added sourness.
A fresh and aromatic Lao salad, naem khao tod has a unique combination of flavors and textures. It includes small balls of cooked and seasoned rice that are deep-fried until they attain a golden brown crunchy exterior. Often, soo moo, a sour pork sausage, is also added to elevate the taste. A dressing of fish sauce, rice vinegar, lime juice, chili, sugar, and garlic is drizzled over the salad, giving it sweet, sour, salty, and spicy flavors. The traditional way to enjoy the zingy salad is by wrapping spoonfuls in fresh, crunchy lettuce leaves and teaming it with sides like sliced tomato or cucumber.
Khao soi is a popular noodle dish from the Luang Prabang region in Northern Laos. It’s made with wide rice noodles cooked in a pork broth. The inclusion of a spicy sauce made with tomato, fermented soy sauce, minced pork, and vinegar is balanced with the addition of coconut milk. Light and creamy, the noodle soup is often topped with scallions, cilantro, and bean sprouts.
A favorite street food in Laos, khao jee paté, is a French-influenced baguette-based sandwich. Though it resembles the well-known Vietnamese banh mi, the inclusion of traditional spices and other ingredients makes it taste different. Khao jee paté comprises the French bread, which is split in the middle and smeared with a generous amount of paté, a paste made with seasoned pork liver. Other ingredients like watercress, carrots, papaya, Laos sausage, and a traditional chili sauce are also added as filling. The delicious savory sandwich is ideal for breakfast or snack when paired with a sweet and strong Lao coffee cup.
Gaeng nor mai is a delicious traditional bamboo stew. Besides fresh bamboo shoots, yanang leaves extract and various herbs are also added to contribute to the stew’s earthy tones and green appearance. According to one’s preference, different meat pieces and vegetables can also go into the preparation for varied tastes and textures. Served hot, gaeng nor mai is best paired with sticky rice.
Ping gai is an irresistible grilled chicken dish found in the streets of Laos. Though many variations of the grilled chicken exist all across the country, Savannakhet ping gai is quite popular for its firm texture. Before grilling it over a charcoal fire, it is marinated with fish sauce, lemongrass, ginger, soy sauce, sweet, pepper, and palm sugar. The delectable juicy, and flavorful chicken is accompanied by sticky rice and spicy papaya salad.
Cheun Yaw is a Lao-style spring roll platter made with ground meat, vegetables, and seasonings. The rolls are deep-fried to attain a golden brown, crispy outer layer. Locals enjoy having cheun yaw by slicing them into small pieces and wrapping them with fresh lettuce leaves. Sides like vermicelli noodles and vegetables are also preferred for added tastes and textures.
Som moo is a fermented pork sausage delicacy prepared using minced pork meat or shredded pork skin that has sour notes acquired during the fermentation process. Seasonings like chili and garlic are also added to make it flavorful.
Som moo is usually enjoyed raw with accompaniments like chili, onion, and string beans to balance out the tangy flavor. However, if you prefer eating cooked meat, then grilling it would be the best option.
Forget greeting people with a “hello” in Laos. The first thing they say as soon as they meet each other is “kin khao laeo bor?” or “Have you eaten food?” Food is an essential part of their topic of conversation in every Lao friend or family gatherings.
Best Lao New Year Dishes: Larb, Khao Poon, Tum Muk Hoong
Best Lao Street Foods: Khao Jii Paté, Ping Gai, Larb
Best Lao Breakfast Foods: Khao Piak Sen, Khao Jii Paté, Khao Piak S
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