With Thailand ranking high up in the list of world’s best cuisines, neighbouring Laos remains in its shadow. Because of the thaification that has been going on since 1933, you may find out in this article that your favourite Thai dish may very well be a Laotian one! And more importantly, that Lao food deserves more credits…
Dishes are designed to go as a side along the paramount of any Laotian meal: sticky rice. Traditionally served in beautifully handwoven bamboo baskets, the sticky rice is steamed overnight to get its glue-like texture. Taken out by hand, you need to knead it with only one hand until it forms a ball in your palm. Now, you have to place this ball of rice (no worries, it will not stick to your skin) between your index and middle finger to scoop out the side dish with the help of your thumb. It sounds complicated, and it does require a bit of practice! Careful, it is considered rude to drop rice in the dish, and to lick your fingers!
Then, the food is served at once. “There are no differences in starters and main courses in Lao food”, Keum, manager at the Tamarind restaurant explains. “Everything is served and then shared with everyone at the table. Eating is a social moment.”
We are taking Keum’s explanations on Laotian good manners seriously. It is funny to practice our skills under the frowns of westerners seated at close-by tables using their spoons and forks. Spoons are used for anything that is not scooped out with the sticky rice, and forks are only used to shovel the food onto the spoon. Careful, it is rude to bring the fork to your mouth! Chopsticks are provided only for noodle-related dishes, often of Vietnamese or Chinese influence.
I look at all the different jeows (dipping sauces) that are on the table: eggplant crisps, spicy buffalo sausage (a specialty of Luang Prabang), a sa mak pi (a bamboo shoot salad with banana flower and sesame seeds), a koy pa (a finely chopped Mekong fish laced with herbs), a soop pat (greens topped with sesame seeds, ginger and chilies)…
Besides the jeow dipping sauces, other traditional Lao dishes are waiting for us to be savoured. The orlarm gai is surprising: this local stew with chili and chicken is cooked with chili-wood bark that you chew on and that retains all the spices! The tenderness of the chicken stuffed lemongrass creates an explosion of flavours in the mouth, and just makes us crave for a similar looking dish: the skewer of soured cured pork wrapped in lemongrass with a ginger and tamarind dipping. Tamarind, is a bud used a lot in Lao cuisine to add sourness to sauces, soups and even to flavour the tradition Lao Lao rice whiskey.
Against Lao customs, we are served a dessert. Lao people do love their sweet dishes but they are often eaten as a snack during the day. From a slice of egg and coconut custard steamed in a sweet pumpkin with tamarind sauce to a seasonal purple sticky rice dessert, caramelized cookies and several other coconut based bites, our taste buds discover the unique blend of flavours accompanied by a traditional Lao coffee with condensed milk.
After feasting on these delicious Lao specialties, we regret the fact that Laotian restaurants are not that common abroad. On top of being fun to eat, Laotian food encompasses some signature dishes, such as mango sticky rice, papaya salad or laap to name only a few that are regularly being referred to as being Thai. Lao cuisine has just not been marketed as much as that of other Asian countries, and we hope that with this article, we are giving it a bit more credits!
Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen (text & photographs)
- Many Lao people still live under the poverty line and meals are often summed up by sticky rice with a single dip to add a bit of flavour.
- In Laos, food is traditionally served on very low tables with even lower bamboo woven stools.
- If you enjoyed this article, check out a taste of Thailand!
- In Luang Prabang, Tamarind restaurant, started by Laotian Joy, offers an excellent tasting menu to explore Laotian gastronomy.
- Cooking classes to learn from the chef directly are also offered at Tamarind restaurant.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area!