Lao cuisine is a notably absent option among other Asian culinary influences in the U.S. Even a quick google search for Laotian restaurants in diverse cities such as New York or San Francisco will only yield results that tie Laos to another better known cuisine such as Thai or Southeast Asia in general. While many similarities do exist between Northern Thai food (whose popularity is growing in western cultures), Lao cuisine also contains many distinct elements that make it unique. With few print cook books available for Lao cuisine in western nations, the easiest place to experience Lao cuisine is Laos itself.
The staple food of Lao cuisine is steamed sticky rice. Everything in the meal revolves around the rice, followed next by the vegetables and sauces that accompany the meal, and lastly may have a protein added to top off the meal. Sticky rice is used almost as an edible utensil, with the rice being eaten by hand and used almost as a spoon to then scoop other foods and sauces into one's mouth.
The staple sauce for Lao cuisine is known as padaek
or a type of fermented fish sauce that is cloudier and packs a bigger punch than its Thai counterpart. The condiment is eaten with just about everything at every meal. It is responsible for the very rich taste, similar to what anchovies at to western cooking.
The most famous dish of Lao cuisine is larb (sometimes called laap)
which is a spicy mix of ground meat or fish with herbs and spices. A variety of meats and proteins are used in Laos cooking, but with beef and lamb being scarce, other animals are more often used instead. Goat, duck, snake, rabbit, chicken, and water buffalo are easier to find and often raised by families on their own. Freshwater fish are also common such as perch or tilapia, with the rivers through land-locked Laos providing ample supply. For the Lao, sometimes the best parts are those pieces of the animal that is often discarded by westerners. The intestine, the foot, the cartilage, and bone are considered the best parts. Oil is in short supply, so sautéed meat is not very common, but ground up meat mixed with egg and seasonings or spices, or larger cuts of grilled meats are more commonly seen in Lao cuisine. These meats are of course then topped with a variety of sauces to accompany them.
Other popular dishes unique to Lao cuisine include spicy green papaya salad. The crunchy greens, chili and lime sauce, and crisp toppings make it a staple and must-try if you are in Luang Prabang. Fish soups with fragrant herbs, sometimes served with noodles or lam
(a stew) with meat and eggplant are also quite common. French inspired baguettes filled with an array of ingredients such as tomatoes, cheese, pork meat and chili sauces can be found by vendors on almost every corner in Luang Prabang.
Common herbs in Lao cooking include lemongrass and anything from the gingerroot family. Lime leaves, garlic, chilies are also common additions, and mint, cilantro and dill are often added as well to add flavor. Lao greens are often quite crisp, often being harvested right before a meal is served and Laos pride themselves on their dabbling in the use of exotic wild greens.
Lao cuisine is truly a hidden gem waiting to be discovered by the intrepid traveler. Any food enthusiast will find themselves wondering why they have not discovered Lao cuisine sooner upon their first introduction.