Food Culture in Laos

Although I'm Asian, I'm still very new to South-East Asian cuisine. And it feels that like Lao cuisine, much like Laos as a travel destination, flies a little under the radar and perhaps undiscovered around the world.

The country is landlocked and has remained much more closed than it's neighbours Vietnam and Thailand, so naturally, it's food and culture also remains somewhat "landlocked". What I experienced was a range of new foods and new ways of eating! It would be rather unimaginable for Japanese to be eating with their hands out of a shared bowl of sticky rice, but that's an everyday way of eating (I loved it by the way - a feeling of shared food and communal eating).

Sticky Rice

Sticky rice is very Lao! It was certainly and evidently a staple in the country and eaten with the hands and fingers. I was told that many Lao dishes were created to compliment sticky rice. In contrast, Thai food often uses steamed rice that suits better with the curry dishes.

What I saw, especially in more rural areas, was that at the base it was sticky rice and a spicy "paste" called jeow always accompanied it. This spicy paste combines garlic, chiles, sugar, lime juice, fish sauce and cilantro.Depending on how many people were eating or the occasion, it seems like more options were present to eat with the sticky rice.

Mixed greens for noodle soup

Meats & Vegetables

Meats are often chicken, fish, duck and pork, of which the popular method of eating them are dried and fermented. Like many other Asian countries, almost every part of the animal is used and eaten - perhaps parts of the animal that are less appealing to foreigners. There was also no shortage of insects and critters.

There was no shortage of freshly cooked vegetables, most very readily grown in Laos. From yams to onion, to leafy greens and mushroom - they were almost always present in every meal (though only as a side dish). I noticed dill and mint a lot, which are surprising flavours since I don't immediately associate them with Asian dishes.

Meal on the trek in Nam Et-Phou Louey
Meal on the trek in Nam Et-Phou Louey

Surprisingly, flavours like sweet and sour were much more rare, especially in savoury dishes, while some dishes were quite bitter. Mostly because of the vegetable or plant used to make the dish. I was told a quote that translates to "sweet makes you dizzy and bitter makes you healthy."

In Houaphan Province, north-eastern Laos, when I was in Xam Neua the capital of the province, I was eating a bowl of noodles almost every morning. What a joy!

Spicy noodle soup broth
Morning market in Nong Khiaw

Here's something off the menu of what I ate in a restaurant in Luang Prabang:

"Stick rice with five popular Lao snacks:

  • Pork sausage (Sai Oua)
  • Leafy green vegetable pickle (Som Pak Gat)
  • Dried buffalo meat (Sinh Savanh)
  • Salad of minced pork, eggplant, banana flower with bamboo and sesame seeds (Sa Mak Jeua)
  • Leafy parcels of flavoured rice and aubergine pastes (Miang)
5 sampler of Lao snacks

In Laos and in Cambodia (actually throughout South-East Asia), there's a great restaurant initiative organized by Friends International to support marginalised children and youth. The organisation shook up and disregarded "traditional" forms of charity to creating social businesses that train and provide education and work for young people.

Together we can build a future where all children are safe from all forms of abuse and become functional productive citizens of their country, contributing to a more peaceful, equitable and sustainable world.

One of the ways they do this is by creating vocational training restaurants. This is the one in Laos called Khaiphaen featuring local foods. Fun fact, find the EU flag below as one of the top contributors to Friends International!

For me, food is about culture, and culture is about food. To explore a place without seeing what people eat and understanding what type of foods are gathered and how they are cooked wouldn't be travel - what do you think? How important is food in your travel experiences?

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