Contrary to popular belief, Lao Cuisine is not the same as Thai Cuisine. Lao Food has its own signatures and deserve recognitions for creativity and genuinity.
Lao Cuisine – The Raw and the Cooked
Written By Dr. Grant Evans
Reader in Anthropology at the University of Hong Kong
Sitting down to the bowl of chopped raw meat, a chicken’s head, a salad made of free and shrub leaves, and sticky rice interspersed with rounds of fiery home-made rice whisky is not the normal traveller’s idea of a mouth-watering exotic meal.
But the occasional visitor to Laos is unlikely to experience such really distinctive Lao food. That is, the Lao taste for things raw rather than cooked. This preference tells you many things about Lao culture and society: for instance, the proximity of most Lao to the “wild” forest where food is still hunted or gathered. A deer shot in the mountains is carried back to the village where it is chopped up into many bowls for laap and the family’s neighbours and friends come and feast and drink. The whole deer is consumed immediately because there are no refrigerators in the villages to keep the meat fresh. Even in the ‘civilised’cooked haute cuisine of Laos the presence of ingredients from the “wild” forest makes it different from Thai food.
For the travellers coming from Bangkok, the most immediate difference they will notice between Thai and Lao food is the use of sticky, or glutinous rice (klao niaw) at every meal. At a Lao meal it is usually served during the meal and each person takes a small handful of the rice which they knead into a ball and either dip it into one of the dishes of condiments or eat it plain. When Lao go off to work in the fields or elsewhere you will often see hanging at their side a small version of these round woven baskets in which they carry a supply of sticky rice and perhaps a small amount of fish or meat which will serve as a mid-day meal. Lao believe that most foreigners do not like to eat sticky rice and prefer ordinary rice (klao chao) so you may have to ask for it especially.
Along with klao niaw there is another essential ingredient in a Lao meal, and one which the Lao tend to use as an ethnic marker. This is pa daek, a highly pungent fermented fish sauce. On the back verandah of every Lao peasant’s house you will find an earthenware jar of pa daek. Books and tourist brochures are often likely to refer to Laos as the Land of a Million Elephants”, but ordinary Lao are more likely to call it the land of khao niaw and pa daek.
The second distinctive dish of the Lao is laap. It is made with fish, chicken, duck, pork, beef, buffalo or with game. The meat and innards are finely chopped and spiced with onion, chillies. and other herbs such as mint. The Lao prefer laap seua, or “Tiger laap”, that is raw chopped meat. But most often you will be served laap of cooked meat, especially in restaurants.
At other times you are likely to be offered a rice vermicelli, or klao poun. This is served cold with a variety of raw chopped vegetables, on which one pours coconut milk sauce flavoured with meat and chillies. It is a favourable dish at wedding and other celebrations, and a favourite with foreigners.
A lovely regional dish is the Or lam from Luang Prabang. This is about as close as the Lao get to something like European stew. Lemon grass, dried buffalo meat and skin, chillies and eggplant along with some pa daek are basic ingredients, but the really distinctive feature is the addition of crisp-fried pork skin and sweet basil.
Soup is also essential at any Lao meal, though one will not find the lovely seafood soups from which Thai cuisine is famous. Try keng no may, a bamboo shoot soup, or keng het bot made with mushrooms.
Interestingly, one of the most popular ordinary meals eaten by the Lao is a dish of Vietnamese origin, feu. This is an economical combination of vermicelli in hot soup filled with meatballs. It is served with a dish of vegetable leaves which you tear up and stir into your feu according to taste. A Lao will pour in a large helping of fish sauce, chilli sauce and sprinkle it with sugar. But all of this is according to personal taste. If you are on the road and stop at a wayside eatery, this is usually all that will be available.
There are many fish dishes in Laos, but one, unhappily, has disappeared from the table. Pa boek was an extremely large fish which could once be found in the Mekong river and was highly prized. Through over-fishing and other changes to the Mekong river, it is now virtually extinct. Such ecological depredations have led to changes in Thai cuisine as well which once would have been much closer to the Lao. One reads with fascination old travellers tales of central Thailand where rhinoceros and tigers were a major hazard, along with stories of exotic birds and other wild life.
These have now disappeared and therefore disappeared from Thai tables. Unfortunately, something similar will probably happen in Laos too as it moves from the “civilised” raw to the “civilised” cooked. Most Lao food, it is fair to say, is poor peasant food. But what there is of haute cuisine can be found in one restaurant, and the recipes of the Phia sing, the old Master of ceremonies and Chef at the Lao court of Luang Prabang, have been published in English and in Lao as Traditional Recipes of Laos (Prospect Books, 1981).
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