A Food Lover’s Guide to Laos: Dishes You Can’t Miss

A Food Lover’s Guide to Laos: Dishes You Can’t Miss

Laos, a landlocked Southeast Asian gem, is often overshadowed by its more prominent neighbors like Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. However, for those who venture into its lush landscapes and serene towns, Laos offers a culinary journey unlike any other. With rich cultural influences and a bounty of fresh ingredients, Laotian cuisine is a delightful surprise for food lovers. In this guide, we’ll explore some of the must-try dishes that showcase the heart and soul of Laos.

1. Larb (Laap, Larp)

Larb is often considered the national dish of Laos. This flavorful minced meat salad can be made from chicken, beef, duck, fish, or pork, and is typically seasoned with lime juice, fish sauce, herbs, chili, and roasted ground rice. It’s usually served with sticky rice, which is perfect for soaking up all the delicious juices. The combination of textures and flavors—sour, salty, spicy, and umami—makes larb an unforgettable dish.

2. Tam Mak Hoong (Laotian Green Papaya Salad)

While green papaya salad is popular throughout Southeast Asia, the Laotian version, known as tam mak hoong, has its own distinct characteristics. It tends to be more fermented and pungent than its Thai counterpart, thanks to the use of padaek (a traditional Lao fermented fish sauce). The dish also includes shredded green papaya, tomatoes, chilies, lime juice, and sometimes crab. It’s a refreshing and spicy salad that’s perfect for hot days.

3. Khao Niew (Sticky Rice)

In Laos, sticky rice is more than just a side dish—it’s a staple. Known locally as khao niew, this glutinous rice is traditionally steamed and served in small woven baskets. Sticky rice is eaten with almost every meal and is used to scoop up other dishes. Its unique texture makes it a versatile and essential component of Laotian cuisine.

4. Khao Piak Sen (Laotian Noodle Soup)

Often likened to Vietnamese pho or Thai kway teow, khao piak sen is a comforting noodle soup that is a Laotian breakfast favorite. The soup features chewable, thick rice noodles in a savory broth made from chicken or pork. It’s garnished with fresh herbs, lime, and often served with a side of chili paste for an extra kick.

5. Sai Oua (Lao Sausage)

Sai oua is a Laotian sausage that’s packed with herbs and spices, making it incredibly aromatic and flavorful. Typically made from pork, this sausage includes ingredients like lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, shallots, and galangal. It’s often grilled or fried and served with sticky rice and a spicy dipping sauce. The harmonious blend of spices makes every bite a burst of flavor.

6. Or Lam (Laotian Stew)

Or lam is a hearty stew that originated in Luang Prabang, a city in northern Laos. The dish is made with meat (usually beef, chicken, or fish), eggplants, mushrooms, and often a unique type of vegetable called sakhaan, known for its slightly numbing effect. It’s seasoned with lemongrass, chili, and padaek. Or lam is thickened with sticky rice powder, making it a rich and satisfying dish.

7. Ping Kai (Grilled Chicken)

Ping kai, or grilled chicken, is a popular street food in Laos. The chicken is marinated in a mixture of garlic, coriander, fish sauce, and other spices before being grilled to perfection. It’s typically served with sticky rice and a side of jeow (a spicy dipping sauce). The smoky, tender chicken combined with the spicy dip is simply irresistible.

8. Nem Khao (Crispy Rice Salad)

Nem khao is a delightful dish made from crispy rice balls mixed with sour pork sausage, coconut, peanuts, lime, and herbs. This combination creates a variety of textures and flavors that are both crunchy and refreshing. It’s often served with lettuce leaves, which are used to wrap the rice mixture, creating a perfect bite-sized snack.

9. Khao Jee (Laotian Baguette)

A legacy of French colonialism, the Laotian baguette, known as khao jee, is a popular street food item. It’s similar to the Vietnamese banh mi but with a Laotian twist. The baguette is typically filled with pate, pork, fresh vegetables, and herbs, creating a perfect blend of rich and fresh flavors.

10. Mok Pa (Steamed Fish in Banana Leaves)

Mok pa is a traditional Laotian dish where fish is steamed with herbs, spices, and coconut milk, all wrapped in banana leaves. The steaming process infuses the fish with the aromatic flavors of lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and dill. The result is a tender, flavorful dish that’s both healthy and delicious.


Q: Is Laotian food very spicy?

A: Laotian food can be quite spicy, but the level of heat varies from dish to dish. Many dishes offer a balance of flavors, including spicy, sour, salty, and sweet. You can always ask for less chili if you prefer milder flavors.

Q: What is the best way to eat sticky rice?

A: Sticky rice is traditionally eaten with your hands. You take a small portion, roll it into a ball, and use it to scoop up other dishes. It’s a communal way of eating that enhances the dining experience.

Q: Are there vegetarian options in Laotian cuisine?

A: Yes, there are several vegetarian options in Laotian cuisine. Many dishes can be made without meat, and there are plenty of vegetable-based dishes and salads. Just be sure to specify your dietary preferences when ordering.

Q: What is padaek?

A: Padaek is a traditional Lao fermented fish sauce that is thicker and more pungent than the regular fish sauce found in other Southeast Asian cuisines. It’s an essential ingredient in many Laotian dishes and adds a unique depth of flavor.

Q: Can I find Laotian food outside of Laos?

A: Laotian food is gaining popularity worldwide, and you can find Laotian restaurants in many major cities. However, experiencing the food in its native country offers the most authentic flavors and preparation methods.

Q: What drinks pair well with Laotian food?

A: Laotian beer, such as Beerlao, is a popular choice and pairs well with many dishes. Herbal teas and fresh fruit juices are also great options. For those who enjoy stronger drinks, try Lao-Lao, a traditional rice whiskey.

Laos may not be the first destination that comes to mind for a culinary adventure, but its rich and diverse cuisine is sure to leave a lasting impression. From the tangy and spicy larb to the comforting khao piak sen, Laotian food is a delightful exploration of flavors and textures. Whether you’re a seasoned food lover or a curious traveler, the dishes of Laos are an experience you won’t want to miss.

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