Lao Food Lowdown

Authentic Lao food can be difficult to find in well-touristed areas like Luang Prabang where Thai curries are often cloaked as local fare. Fortunately for us, we stumbled upon Tamarind Café early in our stay. Its unique menu made a point of introducing and promoting Luang Prabang cuisine.

Variety of Dips - Luang Prabang, Laos
Tamarind Cafe Tasting Dish, Luang Prabang

Tamarind Café’s sampler dish, with dips made from roasted eggplant, sweet tomatoes, and cilantro, makes for a delightful afternoon snack. The dark mixture in the white spoon is jaew bawng, a thick sauce made from roasted chilies that does a nice job of balancing sweet and spicy. The dark triangles are khai paen, pressed river weed (think of it as an inland version of nori) fried with sesame seeds. Roll it with sticky rice, dip and you are on your way.

Luang Prabang Market Tour

After chatting with Caroline Gaylard, Tamarind Café’s co-owner, and witnessing her passion for and knowledge of Lao food, we signed up with two other visiting American foodies for a tour of Luang Prabang’s Phousy Market.

Sleeping Vendor - Luang Prabang, Laos
Asleep on the Job – Phousy Market, Luang Prabang

Our morning tour offered us a unique window into Lao culture, its people, and their food. Friendly vendors smiled at us and got a charge out of our genuine interest in their bags of dried buffalo skins and pots of fragrant padek (heavily fermented fish paste). If we had a question to which Caroline didn’t know the answer off-hand, she’d employ her Lao language skills and elicit giggles from vendors with questions like, “So how exactly do you cook that skinned pig’s face?” or “How do you eat a full pig’s uterus?”

At first glance, Lao markets resemble their counterparts throughout Southeast Asia – freshness and bright colors feature prominently in the early morning market buzz. New items do appear, though, like sak khan, a special wood that imparts a spicy numbness in the mouth, featured in Or Lam (a Lao stew). A true taste sensation, the likes of which we’d never felt before.

Lao Food Fixings - Luang Prabang, Laos
Lao Vegetables at Phousy Market, Luang Prabang

Lao Food Specialties

Thanks to Caroline and this tour, we had a greater understanding of Lao food and were motivated to carve out an authentic Lao food experience during the remainder of our stay. The assumption is that most tourists aren’t interested in Lao food, but we found its tastes unique and refreshing. Each time we would request a traditional Lao dish at a restaurant, the staff would perk up, often making it for us even if it wasn’t on the menu. And like any non-threatening curiosity that you express as a traveler, this one is rewarded with smiles and the occasional free plate of food!

Or Lam

This is a spicy stew with mushrooms, eggplant, meat, lemongrass, chilies, dill and spicy wood. When you chew the wood, it delivers a peppery, numbing, and oddly satisfying sting. A truly bizarre sensation for those of us used to the limitations of the usual taste dimensions of sweet, sour, salty, and bitter.

Or Lam and Purple Sticky Rice - Luang Prabang, Laos
Or Lam and Purple Sticky Rice – Luang Prabang

Laap

Laap is a traditional Lao salad made from minced meat, crushed herbs (lemongrass and mint), galangal and lime juice. Its light and zesty flavor makes it a perfect complement to a warm day.

Sticky (or glutinous) Rice

This is a staple of the Lao table and is a critical element of the Lao identity. Varieties of Lao rice are not in short supply. We were easily hooked on Lao sticky rice, especially the darker kernels (purple, brown) whose nutty flavors can be found nowhere else in the high-volume production rices of Southeast Asia.

Reflection on Laos Cuisine

We welcomed late afternoons in Luang Prabang as an excuse for a snack of khai paen, jaew bawng, and sticky rice washed down with a cold Beer Lao to accompany the close of another day along the Mekong.

Authentic Lao cuisine is definitely worth a try. Like anything simple and accessible, it has a leveling, democratic quality about it. The irony is this: if it’s not showing up in the highest of high class Asian restaurants in world culinary capitals such as New York and San Francisco (now, or in the very near future) with a 10x price tag, we’d be very surprised.

Laos Food Photo Essay – Phousy Market, Luang Prabang

 

Video of the Phousy Market – Luang Prabang

 

Luang Prabang Travel Tips: Restaurants and Markets

  • Tamarind Café: Located across from Wat Nong in Luang Prabang. Open from 12:00 – 6:00, with special dinners planned several nights a week. Market tours to Phousy market with Caroline cost around $8.
  • Fruit Shake Restaurant:We became fans of the hole-in-the-wall restaurant creatively named Fruit Shake Restaurant for authentic Lao dishes like Or Lam or Laap. Across from Wat Sene a few doors down from Morning Glory Cafe.
  • Restaurants along the Mekong River have tasty Thai, Lao and quasi-western dishes for $2-$3.
  • Phousy market: Luang Prabang’s main market is a short tuk-tuk ride or bicycle ride outside of town. Go early in the day, as vendors start to pack up around noon.

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Comments

  1. Cathy says

    I’m still smiling from the video clip of food in Luang Prabang — esp the warning for vegeterians. Ahoj, Cathy

  2. says

    Hi Cathy,
    Glad you liked the vegetarian warning on the video. The Luang Prabang market was great, but like all good meat markets, we’re sure it has converted its share of former meat-lovers to vegetarians.
    Cau,
    Dan

  3. Kevin McG says

    Suwaddee Krahp! Glad the pedicure made the video. Stunning contrast of beautiful and gnarly…. (the wonder of SouthEast Asia?). Thanks for reaching out, and nice work! Kob Khun Mah Krup!

  4. says

    Hi Kevin,
    You captured Southeast Asian markets perfectly – beautiful, sweet rambutans in one corner and barrels of rotting fish in the other. We had fun sharing this market tour with you.
    Cheers,
    Audrey

  5. foodlover says

    Thanks for the great blog. I did notice one minor mistake, however. I’m noticing a trend in which people tend to assume that curries came from Thailand. You have to remember that both Laos and Thailand had incoporated coconut-milk curries from local Mon/Khmer cuisines since the regions where Laos and Thailand are presently located were once a part of the Mon kingdom and Khmer (Cambodian) Empire. Thailand helped to make coconut-milk curries popular in Western countries, but those actual curries in SE Asia did not come from Thailand. Like other SE Asian countries, Thailand was influenced by the local Mon/Khmer people. Not enough credit is given to Mon/Khmer people for introducing coconut-milk and curries. In short, those curries in Laos are Lao-derived curries from Cambodia just like how many of the curries in Thailand are Thai-derived dishes from Cambodia/Malaysia/Indonesia. Please help inform other people including some misinformed Laotians who are not aware of the true origins of those curry dishes.

  6. says

    I managed to find a place for vegetarian laap and loved it! I’ll be in Laos in a couple of weeks, so I’m intrigued to hunt down this restaurant. Like you say, it was so hard to find many Lao specific dishes :)

  7. says

    @Shannon: Terrific. What was the vegetarian laap (or laab or larb) made of? Was there a meat replacement like tofu?

    As attention to all ethnic cuisines grows, I imagine it becomes easier to find true Lao food. In any event, I hope you enjoy a few afternoons of the Lao trinity while in Luang Prabang: sticky rice, khai paen, and jaew bong (though you’ll have to make sure it’s minus the buffalo skin).

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