Laos Cooking and Culture

Sticky rice is a staple and no meal is without it

A typical Lao meal with sticky rice
Silvio Knezevic / StockFood Creative / Getty Images

Laos is mountainous and landlocked, and it is, to a fairly large degree, isolated from the rest of the world. These factors have ensured that its cooking remains true to its original roots.

As a nation with no coastline, Laos managed to avoid the culinary transformations which the spice trade brought to Southeast Asia in the 15th century. As a result, its cuisine today is free of the dried spices like cumin, fennel seeds, coriander seeds, cloves and mustard seeds.

Curries are not common items in the Laotian menu. Instead, they prefer to use fresh spices such as chilies, garlic, Asian basil, coriander, dill, green onions, and galangal; all of which are locally cultivated.

While Laotian cuisine bears many similarities to the food of Northeast Thailand, it also has a very individual flavor as it leans more toward spiciness, sourness, and bitterness.

Sticky Rice

Laotians love to eat sticky or glutinous rice, rather than long-grain rice, with their meals. Again, as with most of the Southeast Asian countries, dining is communal with dishes of vegetables, meat, fish and sometimes a soup, placed at the center of the table for all diners to share. The sticky rice, usually eaten with the hand, is rolled into a ball and dipped into one of the dishes before being popped into the mouth.

What Do Laotians Eat?

A common source of protein for the Laotians is freshwater fish, which can be abundantly found in the rivers, lakes, ponds, wet rice fields and irrigation canals and ditches around the country.

The fish is often eaten fermented; this is called padek in Laos; and is similar to the pla ra of Northeast Thailand and the pra hoc of Cambodia.

Fermented Fish Sauce

Fish sauce, or nam pa, is used in cooking almost every Laotian dish. It is the equivalent of the soy sauce that is popular in Chinese and Japanese cooking and made by standing fish in brine for a long time.

Every Southeast Asian country has its own version of fish sauce, and, as Laos is nowhere near the sea, the local nam pa is prepared with about 80 percent freshwater fish and only 20 percent saltwater fish.

Vegetables

Vegetables that are readily grown in Laos include tomatoes, cucumbers, different types of eggplants, cabbages, salad leaves, chilies and other peppers, yams, onions, snake beans, winged beans, and mushrooms; and these are all common ingredients in Laotian dishes.

Meat

Water buffalo, pork and chicken and poultry are popular meats with the Laos people and it is not uncommon for wild animals and plants to be included in the Laotian diet. Insects, frogs, snakes, mouse deer, quail and small birds, wild herbs, edible cane and aromatic tree bark are all fair game when Laotians prepare their meals.