If you don’t know much about Laos, I’ll forgive you. The landlocked former French colony flies under the radar in the face of South East Asian giants like Cambodia and Thailand, but it’s not for lack of travel goodness.
Oh no, Laos has travel goodness by the bucketload. I’m talking Mekong River islands and protected cloud forests and ancient temples to rival Angkor Wat. Whether you’re seeking adventure in the emerald karsts, playing spot-the-gibbon in the wild, or getting schooled on Buddhist principles by a saffron-robed monk, Laos has a bit of something for every intrepid (sorry not sorry) traveller.
But the thing that really gets me – the thing that really grinds my travel gears – is that Laotian cuisine is consistently underrated. It’s overlooked. It’s a travesty! I mean, yes, Thai food is undoubtedly delicious and I could pretty much eat it everyday for the rest of my life if I wasn’t afraid of turning into one big roti roll. Same goes for Vietnamese – I’m always down for a spicy pho for brinner (breakfast for dinner, get around it). But friends, the food in Laos deserves your attention. Why? Let me count the ways:
1. It’s hella diverse
Laos is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the region. You’ve got the Hmong people who live in the remote mountains to the north; the Kahu and Alak peoples in the south; Katang villagers in the centre; the Tai people; and a colonial history with both French AND Japanese influences. And what comes with diversity (apart from cultural tolerance and understanding, obvs)? A damn good national menu boasting everything from fresh baguettes to perfectly fermented fish and chilli sauce.
2. It’s got laap
Laap is the national dish for a reason. The Laos laap is a unique adaptation of similar dishes found across Thailand, Vietnam and China, but it’s like they’ve taken culinary notes and then one-upped all of them. The actual dish translates quite simply as ‘meat salad’. But it’s so much more than that. Always fresh and often raw, laap is mince meat mixed with fish sauce and packed with as many herbs as you can get your hands on (normally mint, coriander, green onions, chilli etc). Add a little lime juice and some sticky rice powder and you’ve got a vibrant bowl of yummo.
3. It’s big on sindad
Sindad is like Korean barbecue but minus those metal chopsticks that are kind of hard to use. The traditional Laos barbecue involves frying your meat up on a charcoal stove top surrounded by a rim full of boiling water used to simultaneously blanch your vegetables. It’s the ultimate one pot wonder. The best thing about a sindad, however, is that you are allowed to get really hands on when dipping bite-sized chunks of meat into the variety of delicious dipping sauces.
4. Speaking of sauces… it’s got first-class sauces
I’m a big fan of condiments and Laos has an abundance of condiments. Jaew is the word used to refer to all kinds of dipping sauces, of which the staple ingredients are normally chilli peppers, fermented fish, some kind of grilled vegetable (think smoky eggplant) and either pork crackling or buffalo jerky. Sounds delicious, right? IT IS. And it complements everything on the menu. Jaew is an umami experience that you need to have when in Laos.
5. It’s got excellent night market bites
Whether you hit up a market in the morning or the evening, it doesn’t matter. Just make sure you get your butt to a market. Sure, the shopping is amazing, but the snacks – holy smokes, the snacks. Top of the list are the deep-fried mung bean coconut rice-cakes. These guys have been coated in batter, drizzled with coconut milk and rice flour, and then flash fried in hot oil. They’re like piping hot sweet fritters and they hit the spot. Every. Damn. Time.
6. It does soup for breakfast
Most of South East Asia enjoys a good breakfast soup, but khao piak sen is in a league of its own.
This hearty bowl of meat stock takes hours to prepare but can be found on almost every street corner. Like Vietnam’s pho it comes served with rice noodles, but in Laos they’re thick and hand-rolled. Drool. They also don’t remove the starch from the noodles before throwing them in, so the soup consistency is gravy-like. Add your own herbs, red pepper, shrimp paste and crushed peanuts to taste and – voila, breaky is served!
7. It’s got better French food than France
Okay, well, I might be guilty of a little hyperbole here and I don’t mean to offend any actual French people but what I am trying to say is that, thanks to its French colonial history, the snails and baguettes here are tres bien. Laos gained independence from France in 1953 but its influence, especially in Vientiane, can still be felt. The capital city is the best place if you’re craving a little butter, cheese and garlic with its ridiculous amount of bona fide French cafes and restaurants. Just make a booking, because there’s a queue.
8. It’s home to world-class beer
No, seriously. This is not hyperbole. Time Magazine titled it ‘Asia’s best beer’, the Bangkok Post named it the ‘Dom Perignon of Asia’ and I like to call it ‘The King of Laos’. Made from indigenous rice varieties, German hops and French malted barley, BeerLao boasts a super low hangover rate and just a hint of marzipan. Going strong since 1973, this brewski powerhouse has held a mutually beneficial partnership with Carlsberg for over four decades. Cheers!
Sip, slurp and crunch your way around Laos on a small group adventure with Intrepid Travel.
Hero image by Geet Theerawat via Shutterstock.