Most tourists at the night market on Sisavangvong Road in Luang Prabang, Laos, are looking to buy T-shirts or souvenirs. I was on the hunt for an alleyway full of meat-scented smoke. Once there, I passed over the grilled whole fish and chicken wings threaded on bamboo skewers, my eyes firmly on the prize: a blistered pork sausage called sai oua. A single bite revealed it to be wildly more flavorful than its pretty rough-looking exterior suggested, if a bit gristly, the interior studded with pockets of ginger and herbs. The cuisine of Laos is generally like this: often unassuming, but packed with flavor in a way that showcases the country’s prowess at marrying herbs, chiles, and the pungent bacterial riot of fermented meat and fish.
Historically, the food of Laos has received little attention in the United States, but that’s changing. Lao restaurants like Thip Khao in Washington, D.C., and Hawker Fare in San Francisco have gotten appreciative nods within the food industry and from hungry diners. According to Seng Luangrath, Thip Khao’s chef and co-owner, more Lao restaurants are also beginning to pop up across the country, as Lao or Isan Thai restaurateurs who previously owned or worked in Thai restaurants are finding their vibrant cuisine to be a good match for an increasingly inquisitive American palate.
The Lao People’s Democratic Republic, as it’s formally known, is somewhat smaller than the state of Oregon, but it used to be a lot bigger. When the French invaded Southeast Asia (known in the 19th-century West as Indochina), they set the Mekong River as the border between Thailand and Laos, effectively splitting off a significant portion of the country and transforming it into what is now the Isan region of Thailand.
James Syhabout, chef and owner of Hawker Fare (as well as Commis in nearby Oakland), has written one of the few books about the region’s cuisine available in the US, Hawker Fare: Stories & Recipes From a Refugee Chef’s Isan Thai & Lao Roots. While Commis is a New American fine-dining restaurant, at Hawker Fare Syhabout serves both Lao and Isan Thai food, which speaks to the cultural heritage of his family. He says the food of Laos and Isan are in many ways one and the same: “The border’s just a political border,” he explains. “One-third of Thailand is people from Isan, and they’re culturally Lao.”
Syhabout says both Isan and Lao food are herbaceous and vegetable-heavy, and make ample use of bitter flavors. Dishes like naem khao and laab will often incorporate thinly sliced banana flower, which adds bitterness and floral notes, while ingredients like sliced raw Thai eggplant lend bitterness as well as texture. Other common ingredients are fresh bamboo shoots, ginger, galangal, and copious amounts of fresh herbs, like mint, cilantro, makrut lime leaf, and dill.
Syhabout says, “The foods are simpler; they’re not as elaborate [as in Thai cuisine]. It’s also a lot spicier, using dried chiles.” While Isan and Lao foods do occasionally make use of coconut milk, the sweet, thick sauces that are frequently associated with Thai food generally do not appear in Lao cuisine.
Unfortunately, Lao restaurants stateside are still relatively rare. If you’re lucky enough to be able to visit one, or if you can locate a Thai restaurant that serves dishes from Northern Thailand, here are some specialties to look for.
Rice is perhaps the most fundamental food in Laos, forming the basis for every meal. It’s often the first dish that home cooks, usually women, learn to make. Luangrath, for example, learned from her grandmother how to make khao niew, or sticky rice.
According to Syhabout, there are 40-plus ethnic groups in Laos, each with its own food preferences and traditions. Though he describes once sharing a meal with the people of a mountain tribe who eat non-glutinous (i.e., non-sticky) rice, for many if not most people in Laos, sticky rice is the go-to variety. Syhabout attributes this to the fact that Lao people eat with their hands. “Sticky rice is like a utensil,” he says, comparing it to the fermented Ethiopian bread injera.
In Laos, sticky rice is cooked in a thip khao, which literally means “rice basket.” These flexible baskets are made from woven bamboo; more elaborate versions have patterns woven into their sides or lids. Sizes vary, from small and personal to large enough for an extended family, although cooking is more commonly done in the larger versions. In restaurants, smaller and more intricately decorated thip khaos may be used as serving vessels after the rice is cooked in a larger basket.
Lao sticky rice is medium-grain, generally white, and somewhat pearlescent, although there are different varieties. It’s commonly steamed in a triangular thip khao suspended over water; it can also be shaped into thin cakes after steaming and then deep-fried, which causes it to puff and crisp, making for some wonderfully crispy rice cakes.
A common Lao condiment, jaew bong is a sticky mass of fish sauce, palm sugar, dried chile, garlic, shallots, and tamarind. The mixture is fried in oil, then cooked at a low temperature to meld the flavors and thicken it up, resulting in a funky, slightly sweet spread with a low-intensity spicy burn. In Laos, dried strips of water buffalo skin are incorporated into jaew bong, which adds a chewiness that’s hard to replicate (water buffalo skin is, unsurprisingly, tough to find in the United States).
Chef Boby Pradachith, one of the chefs and co-owners of Thip Khao, says, “It’s kind of like having an all-purpose sauce that you have on the side and can serve with everything.” Thip Khao serves jaew bong at the start of every meal alongside sliced raw vegetables. But, Pradachith says, it’s also the kind of condiment that lends itself to being eaten with plain rice, or whatever a person might have on hand.
Muu haeng is thinly sliced pork, typically shoulder, while siin haeng is thinly sliced beef, typically a tough cut with fat, like top round. Both variations are marinated in a mixture of fish sauce, black soy sauce, oyster sauce, and chopped cilantro, lemongrass, garlic, ginger, and galangal, which both flavors and tenderizes the meat.
Pradachith says that in Laos it’s common for muu or siin haeng to be air-dried on the top of a family’s home, where the intense sunlight lends a hand in the drying process. While it is very similar to jerky, the meat becomes tacky and quite chewy, which Westerners might struggle with; Pradachith says this chewiness can be tempered by quickly deep-frying the meat in oil. Muu haeng and siin haeng are most often served as a snack alongside jaew bong, or with rice to make a full meal.
Sai oua, the sausage I was hunting for at the night market, isn’t always fermented, but it is a good example of how fermentation can elevate an already-great dish. It’s made with a combination of ground pork and a good amount of fat, which often comes from either pork belly or boiled pork skin that has been roughly ground or cut into strips. The meat is mixed with lemongrass, galangal, ginger, and garlic, then stuffed into natural casings. In the fermented versions, white rice is added before stuffing, providing the starch and sugars necessary for bacteria to develop. The sausages are then left to ferment for one to two weeks, adding a sour note that complements the other flavors.
Green-papaya salad is common in both Thailand and Laos, but the Lao version is made with unripe yellow mango. The mango flesh, bright yellow even before ripening, stays crunchy and provides a fresh sour note absent in green papaya. It’s combined with tomato, garlic, and cashew and typically dressed with a mixture of soy and fish sauce, which adds salty and savory flavors, while palm sugar provides sweetness. Because Lao dishes tend to be extremely flavorful, this salad is often less intensely seasoned in order to provide contrast within a meal.
A specialty of Vientiane, Laos’s capital and largest city, naem khao is a mixture of salt-cured ground pork, pig skin, steamed and dried white rice, and dried shredded coconut, which adds texture and body while also soaking up the fish sauce and lime juice. Scrambled egg gives the dish further body and savoriness, ground herbs add flavor and balance, and fresh red curry paste enhances floral notes and introduces fruitiness. It all gets wok-fried to help it crisp. Naem khao is sometimes served with Bibb lettuce leaves, which serve as both a cool counterpoint and edible utensils.
Often said to be the national dish of Laos, laab (frequently seen on Thai-restaurant menus as “larb”) is essentially a salad made from ground meat and herbs, laced with fish sauce and lime juice and topped with a powder made from dry ground rice. For laab ped, a variation most commonly found in Vientiane and southern Laos, hand-chopped deboned duck is crisped in a wok, then mixed with fish sauce, dark soy sauce, roasted dry chiles, and lime juice. Fried shallots, garlic, and herbs are added, both for flavor and to temper the gamey meat and savory fat, and mint leaves and toasted rice powder provide color and texture. The dish is meant to be scooped up with lettuce hearts and cucumber, as well as raw Thai eggplant. Small, hard, and globular, Thai eggplants are crisp and sturdy when sliced, and complement the laab with their subtle, vegetal bitterness.
Khao soi, which means “cut noodle,” is a dish found in both Isan and northern Laos. Luangrath says she learned to make khao soi about 15 years ago while visiting her sister, whose mother-in-law was from northern Laos. “I’d never had it, and she happened to make it that day, and I was like, ‘What is this, is this Lao food? I didn’t know this kind of noodle existed in Laos.’”
For khao soi, fresh, wide-cut rice noodles are covered with a broth made from chicken bones and herbs. The soup gets topped with a sauce made from tomato, vinegar, palm sugar, chile powder, and thua nao, a type of Lao fermented soybean paste that incorporates chile paste and has a flavor similar to the Korean fermented bean paste ssamjang. Luangrath says thua nao is a regionally specific ingredient that originates from the town of Muang Sing, close to the Chinese border. “It’s very funky and intense in flavor because it’s fermented for months and months,” she adds. Common toppings for the soup are scallion, cilantro, watercress, and water spinach.
As with khao soi, the base for gaeng som is often a simple chicken broth, but Luangrath says it can be made with whatever leftover meat or bones happen to be available to a family. In a certain way, the dish is also a natural accompaniment to laab of any kind: The bulk of the available meat on a chicken or duck will be used for the salad, and the remaining bones and scraps will go into the gaeng som.
The dish’s name literally translates to “sour soup” (gaeng means “soup,” som means “sour”), and that sourness comes from a sauce made from tamarind pulp, sweetened with a touch of sugar and seasoned with fish sauce. When Luangrath serves gaeng som at Thip Khao, she makes the chicken version, served with chicken thigh and leg meat and garnished with green onion, dried chile, Thai basil, lemongrass, and hon shimeji mushrooms, distinguished by their small brown caps and slender white stalks.
The name khao poon refers to the fermented rice vermicelli itself, but the overall composition of the dish can vary by region, or even hometown. According to Syhabout, khao poon nam prik is a chicken-broth soup with a red curry base that includes coconut milk, while Luangrath describes khao poon nahm kaew as similar but served without coconut milk, and with a broth based on either pork or fish. Shaved cabbage, mung bean sprouts, banana blossom, snake beans, lettuce, and dried chile, as well as herbs like mint, are typically served on the side and added for garnish at the diner’s discretion. Luangrath says it’s also common to find shrimp paste served on the side, which can be directly added to the soup or, sometimes, used as a condiment, into which the optional vegetables, such as the snake beans or lettuce, are dipped and then eaten.
This stew is made from bamboo shoots and flavored with yanang leaf extract. Luangrath describes the flavor of the yanang plant, native to Southeast Asia, as similar to that of spinach. Its leaves are thought to have medicinal qualities, though they’re too fibrous and chewy to actually eat. Instead, the leaves are placed in water and rubbed to extract their juices; the extract is then used, along with bamboo shoots, garlic, chiles, and padaek, a type of incredibly strong, unfiltered fish sauce, to make the stew’s base. (Luangrath and Pradachith describe padaek as much stronger, funkier, and more fragrant than the fish sauce most Westerners are likely to be familiar with, and say it’s common to find small shreds of fermented fish floating in it.) The stew’s other ingredients can vary wildly and are usually determined by whatever happens to be on hand, including greens, wild mushrooms, all kinds of herbs, meats like pork or fish, dried fish skin, and whole quail eggs.
Piing hua jai kai are a snack commonly found in street markets, threaded on a stick along with other tasty bits of offal. The chicken hearts, which are about the size of a quarter, get trimmed of fat and butterflied down the center before being marinated overnight in a host of ingredients, including ground lemongrass, galangal, ginger, garlic, fish sauce, soy sauce, oyster sauce, and palm sugar. Ideally, they’re grilled just until slightly pink and served while they’re still hot and tender; they are quite unpleasant after they get cold. The flavor of the hearts should be minerally but fresh, with a texture that’s chewy but neither gristly nor cartilaginous. If they seem particularly funky or texturally unpleasant, there’s a solid chance they were precooked and reheated.
Raw pork belly gets massaged and then marinated for approximately three weeks in a wet mash of cold steamed rice mixed with garlic, vinegar, salt, sugar, and water. After the fermentation is complete, the pork is removed and roasted until fully cooked, then charred in a wok with dark soy, ginger, garlic, onion, bell pepper, and mushrooms. This helps the fat crisp up, while the meat remains tender.
The idea of leaving meat to deliberately cultivate bacteria might seem iffy, but muu som, even more than the fermented sausage sai oua, is an example of how spectacular fermented meat can be. The sheer umami joy of cured pork fat is compounded by the process of fermentation, while the flavors of herbs and dark soy, combined with the mushrooms, emphasize the meatiness of the dish. When eaten with the sticky rice, makrut lime, fried shallots, and dried chile that are served alongside, it is as life-affirming as any food can be. Westerners sometimes balk at the idea of eating without utensils, but muu som is the kind of dish where you’ll find yourself using every available grain of sticky rice to sop up the rivulets of fermented pork fat slicking the surface of the plate.
Laos may not have a coastline, but it’s got plenty of bountiful rivers (including the muddy Mekong), and catfish is a common catch. Though it can be prepared in a variety of ways, and is often steamed and put in stews, for this particular presentation the catfish fillets are mixed with rice flour and fried until crispy. A dressing made of fish sauce, chiles, palm sugar, garlic, and a hefty dose of lime juice makes this dish bright to the point of incandescence. Sliced red onion and yellow mango are other common additions, and toppings often include sliced mint leaves and toasted cashews. At Thip Khao, Luangrath also likes to add diced firm avocado; it’s not traditional, but the creaminess helps to offset the acidity of the dressing, while complementing the crispy batter of the fish.