5 foods and drinks you have to taste in Laos

Claire Baumann

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You’ve probably eaten Laotian food before. You just don’t know it.


Years after the cuisine of neighboring Thailand and Vietnam made their mark on the U.S.’s culinary fabric, Americans are just starting to dunk their collective spoons in Laotian cuisine – a simpler, earthier and often spicier alternative to Thai food. Notable restaurants like Washington D.C.’s Thip Kao and San Francisco’s Hawker Fare offer curious diners a taste of Laos, but most of us still know nothing about Laos’ rich culinary heritage, and there’s no way to get a taste of a country like traveling there.

Papaya salad and minced meat hand wrapped in lettuce are among the landlocked country’s more popular culinary exports, but they’re better sampled in the home of a Laotian. While you can dine like a local in much of Southeast Asia by eating the street food, discovering the flavor the country is a little harder in Laos, where Laotians spend a lot more time eating at home with their families than they do at restaurants or street stalls.

Squeezed between neighboring Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, the less-traveled Laos rewards adventurous travelers who put in the effort to connect with those who live there – a feat made easier by forgoing the hostel or hotel for a homestay that often includes family-style meals the that brim with lemongrass, banana flowers, dried beef and fermented fish sauce.

Here are five must-have dishes and drinks to sample on a trip to Laos: 

Gaeng Naw Mai

This velvety, rich stew in best tried in fabled Luang Prabang, the former imperial capital in northern Laos, enveloped by lush green peaks that are capped in mist and mystique. For gaeng naw mai, bamboo shoots and local fare like mushrooms and quail eggs are simmered in the stew that is made from the yanang plant native to Southeast Asia. Yanang leaves are soaked in water, then rubbed to release their juices, thickening the soup. Fermented fish sauce, chilies and garlic are added to make the stew’s flavorful base.

After stepping back in time with a lazy bike ride around Luang Prabang’s quiet streets lined with colonial houses, finish your day at the Laotian family restaurant Manda de Laos to reward yourself with this traditional dish.

Khao Soi

If chicken noodle soup is good for the soul, then this noodle soup is your gateway to heaven. At first sight, it looks like the Southeast Asian version of Italian pasta with Bolognese sauce. Considerably different than Northern Thailand's famous take on khao soi – which includes coconut milk, crunchy noodles and usually a chicken drumstick – the Laotian version has a broth with a warm, red hue and minced, fatty pork meat that’s been simmered with large hand-cut rice noodles. Distinct flavors of charred ginger, red chilies and fermented soybeans really make this dish a flavor explosion.

Fermented ingredients are a staple in Laotian cooking, and they add their unmistakable funky flavor to this dish. Widely recognized as Luang Prabang’s signature noodle dish, you can try this soup at street stalls including the night market’s street food alley. Make sure you add a squirt of lime to cut the considerable spice.

Sticky Rice

Sticky rice is at the heart and center of every Laotian meal. Eaten for centuries by farmers and dolled out to monks for sunrise alms, sticky rice is steamed in the morning and eaten all day. Thanks to its ability to congeal, this Laotian staple is meant to be eaten with your hands. Dip it in Lao stew or simply eat it as accompaniment with your main meal like you would bread. For dessert, try sticky rice simmered in coconut milk and topped with sesame seeds and sliced mangos fresh from the surrounding countryside.


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Laos - laap / larb • I find this dish fascinating. One it’s called a salad. The cabbage I used was purely for plating purposes but everything mixed in with the meat would not constitute for a salad. But I’ll totally take this salad anyway any day! Yum. But it goes perfect over rice! Or a bed of sautéed vegetables. • Two, I also find it fascinating that fish sauce has suuuuch a pungent smell, but once cooked and mixed with other flavors, such as 4-5 limes and 5+ shallots, fish sauce and create such complex and wonderful flavors. If I didn’t toss the cabbage with the meat, I think laap would be absolutely wonderful in a lettuce cup! Don’t you agree? • #laos #laotian #laotianfood #laosfood #atlantablogger #eateratlanta #atlfoodie #atlfood #atlfoodblogger #eatingfortheinsta #wntw #whonomstheworld #goodeats #food #foodporn #laap #larb #healthyish #global #globaleats #globalfood #eater #plating #groundpork #asianfood #asianfoodporn #foodies #foodiesofinstagram #nomnomnom

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Widely considered Laos’ national dish, Laab is akin to the comparatively pared down lettuce wraps found in Thai food, known as Larb. In Laos, the amped up minced-meat salad is flavored with lime, fermented fish sauce and mint leaves, and can be made from a range of available proteins, like duck, chicken, buffalo or pork. Often accompanied with dried chillies and banana flowers – which add bitter and floral notes – the mix of savory meat and fresh greens should be scooped up with handful of sticky rice. Master this technique and you know you’re eating like a local. Try it in the capital city of Vientiane at Mieng Chaokao or Doi Ka Noi (if it happens to be on the mom and pop shop’s rotating daily menu).


One of the most respected beers in Southeast Asia (it even won gold medals at competitions in Belgium and Japan), this crisp lager is flavorful enough to stand on its own and light enough to compliment the spicy food of Laos. The malted rice beer might be a cult favorite among backpackers in Southeast Asia, but Beerlao has finally started making a name for itself stateside, where it often appears on Thai and Vietnamese menus. In Laos, locals gather on short plastic chairs on city street corners all over the country to cheers over a round or three of the brand’s Original lager.


Claire Baumann

About Claire Baumann

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