Fortunately, after a disappointing introduction to South East Asian cuisine in Vietnam, Laos has managed to redeem Indochina, providing fare with both an abundance of spice and an absence of garlic. Lao food may have a strong Thai influence, with coconut soups and curries aplenty, but it still supplies plenty of uniquely Lao dishes as outlined below:
Sticky rice is a staple in Laos, served up in woven bamboo baskets, traditionally eaten by hand, by rolling into small balls and dipping into your food. Sweet sticky rice (often billed as rice pudding) cooked in coconut milk supplemented with pumpkin, mango, banana or even chocolate can be a very tasty (and filling) breakfast or dessert.
Laap is perhaps the definitive Lao dish, found in pretty much every restaurant. It consists of minced beef, pork, chicken or fish (although fish proved to be the elusive “Lao option”) cooked with chopped chillis, spring onions, fresh mint, fish sauce and lime juice served on a bed of lettuce.
Fish steamed in coconut milk
We only tried this once so it may vary from the following description, however our sampling of this speciality came in the form of a kind of steamed fish pie. The fish was blended with coconut milk, lime and chillis, moulded into a prism inside a banana leaf and steamed. The final product tastes much like a Thai curry, if somewhat more solid in texture.
In Luang Prabang there is a fantastic street next to the Laos Heritage Hotel lined with stalls serving up a Lao buffet, all you can fit on one plate for 10,000 kip (80p, fish and meat extra). On offer are an array of vegetable and noodle dishes, curries, rice and battered deep fried chillis. For some protein you can choose from a variety of barbecued meats including ribs, chicken and elephant ear fish (from the Mekong) stuffed with lemon grass and grilled on a stick. An excellent choice when you’ve blown your budget visiting the Tat Kuang Si waterfalls!
Up until our recent visit to Laos I had thought that pumpkin was only good for two things: carving at Halloween and pumpkin pie. Laos has opened my mind to the versatility of this squash, supplying pumpkin curry, pumpkin burgers and pumpkin rice pudding, all very distinct but equally delicious!
Lao barbecue appears to be a combination of the street barbecue and hot pots that we discovered in Vietnam. However, there’s a real sense of ceremony to barbecue in Laos beginning with the revealing of a hidden hole in the centre of the table. A bucket containing glowing coals is positioned into the hole with a dish approximating a metal sombrero placed on top. The middle of the “hat” (perhaps not as quite as pointy as a sombrero) is greased by wiping pork belly over the surface, strips of beef and chicken can then be laid on top and cooked. Meanwhile, a broth is ladled into the “brim” and loaded up with noodles and vegetables. The “barbecued” meat and soup can be seasoned with chopped chillis, garlic and lime and mixed with a spicy peanut dip before eating.
Spicy papaya salad
This salad makes for a refreshing starter comprising grated papaya tossed with chilli and lime juice, with the occasional addition of cashew nuts. The papaya doesn’t bring much flavour but it’s a refreshingly crunchy and zingy dish nonetheless.
Turkey and stuffing sandwich
Ok, this isn’t a Lao specialty, but it was a very nice unexpected treat. In Luang Prabang we discovered a fantastic bakery called Joma who not only produce delicious cheddar and chilli bagels but also put us in a delightfully festive mood. We cheerfully dipped our turkey, stuffing and cranberry sandwiches into little pots of gravy whilst humming along to ‘I’m dreaming of a white Christmas…’ with the sun beating down outside and Buddhist monks strolling by.
This Lao whiskey can make for some fantastic cocktails including Lao Lao mojito and piña colaolao, best enjoyed lolling in a hammock beside the lazy Mekong river.