In Laos, food is the most important activity throughout the day. Additionally, Lao people take great passion in sharing traditional dishes with curious travelers. Cuisine is also a good way that helps tourists understanding more about the local culture and traditions.
Lao people were originally migrants from Southern China, composing of many different ethnic groups with distinct languages and cultures. As they moved further South, they brought their traditions along with them. Due to historical Lao migration from the Lao PDR into Thailand and neighboring countries, Lao cuisine has a much broader recognition in the world. According to Arne Kislenko, there are more ethnic Lao living in Northern Thailand than Lao itself, leading to certain Lao dishes being found far beyond the borders of the Lao PDR. In fact, much of the food in Thailand that is called “Isan” is traditionally Lao rather than Thai. However, we believe that the best way to try Lao food is by exploring the diversity of cuisines found inside the borders of Laos.
Below is a list of the most famous Lao dishes to try when traveling through the country. If you are adventurous, we recommend exploring local markets for a truly unique culinary experience!
1. Sticky rice (Khao Niaw)
Sticky rice is a staple throughout the country. It is commonly said that Lao citizens eat more sticky rice than anyone else in the world. It is traditionally steamed in a cone-shaped bamboo basket, and placed in a covered basket where it is eaten alongside many dishes. In Laos, there should always be sticky rice available to eat at any time of day.
2. Minced Meat Salad (Larb)
This dish is a type of minced meat salad, and widely considered to be the national dish of Laos. You can find Larb made with chicken, beef, duck, fish, or pork. It is usually flavored with fish sauce, lime juice, fermented fish juice, ground rice, and fresh herbs. It will usually come with a few chili peppers, which you can avoid eating if you cannot handle spicy food. Larb is an essential dish to pair with sticky rice.
3. Green Papaya Salad (Tam Mak Hoong)
Green Papaya Salad is typically made with shreds of unripe papaya. It is of Lao origin, but served in different varieties around the region. Green Papaya Salad was a dish imported to Bangkok from Lao immigrants. It is similar to Thailand’s Som Tam dish, but does not contain peanuts and is usually made with fermented fish sauce. Other ingredients include palm sugar, lime, garlic, tomatoes, dried shrimp, chilis, and raw eggplant. All of these ingredients are pounded together in a traditional mortar and pestle.
4. Steamed Fish (Mok Pa)
Mok Pa is steamed fish that is typically wrapped up in banana leaves and tied with bamboo string. It is prepared with lemongrass, kaffir leaves, green onions, fish sauce, green chilis, shrimp paste, and fresh dill. All these ingredients are mixed together with steamed fish. Mok Pa should never be served dry, and is also another dish that must be paired with sticky rice.
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