Sticky rice, mega spice and grilled fish, mmm nice! After three weeks travelling through northern Laos, here’s my verdict and memories of the high-and lowlights of Lao cuisine.
Whilst thinking as to what I wanted to write, I asked myself the question what is Lao food? Which dish or flavour sums it up? Looking back at our time in Laos I am struggling to find an answer except just sticky rice! I’m sure there would be many who would disagree with me, the guidebook included and who would then list a series of dishes that encapsulate Lao cuisine. Having in general stuck to the tourist route, it has struck me that Lao people don’t eat out very much, perhaps due to low average incomes but I think that has made it harder to get a feel for everyday Lao food. Unlike in Thailand and Vietnam where there are restaurants and food stalls on every corner, in Laos we’ve mainly eaten at tourist restaurants (often there hasn’t been much other choice) and as such the food has seemed more expensive compared to the country’s more affluent neighbours.
Let’s start with sticky rice, initially I wasn’t much of a fan, it’s got a crunchy texture as if it needs cooking for longer. After observing my fellow diners I realised how to eat it properly, take a small piece in your fingers and mush it into a ball before using it to mop up some of the sauce of your meat/vegetable dish and eating, no longer crunchy instead it has a squishy, chewy texture, which may not sound appealing but is much improved and for me makes for a pleasant change to steamed rice. Prepared using glutinous rice (as opposed to steamed rice which uses normal long grain rice), it is steamed in a bamboo basket with no water added, as far as I can tell. Glutinous rice is used in a variety of sweet dishes and desserts, especially in Thailand and you’ll often find ladies selling bamboo sticky rice at bus stations across this region. A narrow tube of bamboo, filled with glutinous rice, grated coconut on top and then steamed, it’s a tasty snack or quick breakfast bite if you’re catching an early morning bus.
Sticky rice aside, although I struggled to identify a national dish of Laos, there were a few regional specialities that were tasty with the added jeopardy that they might be eye-wateringly spicy! Papaya salad was one such example, a Thai dish but found across northern Laos as well, it is a tenderised salad made (in a large pestle and mortar) from unripe papaya, garlic, lime juice, fish sauce and chilli. It was a love/hate dish for me, as often there was way too much fish sauce and chilli for my liking, even if I asked for it less spicy! Another dish that taught me early on during our stay in Laos that if it is described as spicy on the menu it means mega spicy was Lao beef, minced beef with nearly as many slices of chilli as beef. It was almost a dry dish and I recall it had a bit of jus from the meat plus a bit of what was probably Knorr for good measure, the accompanying sticky rice was a good antidote to the chilli! Finally and definitely my favourite of these three was Jeow, a local dish from the Akha tribe in Luang Namtha. Jeow means chilli paste but thankfully not all variations are made with chilli and I tried the roast peanut Jeow. According to the menu, it was roasted peanuts, ground with garlic, fresh herbs and lime, like a bowl of satay sauce it was delicious, served with steamed vegetables and I opted for some sticky rice as well, it felt like an indulgent treat after two days trekking in the jungle!
An estimated 4 million tourists visit Laos each year (the population is only just under 7 million) so it is therefore no surprise that you find a lot of ‘tourist’ restaurants. Serving food catering for more western tastes, if you want pancakes for breakfast, omelette for lunch and thai curry for dinner then every town or village on the tourist trail will have such a restaurant. The quality of the food served at these restaurants varies widely, often a bit of a disappointment and although I enjoy trying local food in the countries we visit, every so often you crave something comforting and familiar. One of the main disappointments for me of Lao cuisine was the extensive use of Knorr in sauces. After a couple of weeks we realised that many of dishes we ordered, especially vegetable ones all tasted the same. After spotting lots of Knorr packets in kitchens and for sale in shops, I came to the realisation that all the dishes tasted the same because they all used Knorr to flavour them!
As we travelled further north in Laos, with the Chinese border getting closer and up to 500 000 tourists crossing over each year meant that Chinese restaurants became more commonplace. This made for a good alternative to Knorr flavoured dishes and a chance for some fat noodles, our favourite. The proximity of China also means increased business opportunities for the local communities and we spotted many vegetables fields with plastic sheeting to protect the crops, apparently brought in by the Chinese and you assume that the majority of the produce from these fields are sold back to China. We did in turn, notice that the further north we travelled the tastier and fresher the vegetable produce was in the dishes we ate, carrots that had a lovely earthy and crisp taste, reminiscent of homegrown ones from my childhood.
The standout dish for me from our travels in Laos was grilled fish, stuffed with some garlic, a bit of lemongrass and a few fresh herbs and simply cooked over coals on a BBQ or open fire, we would devour the crispy skin and moist, tender flesh, prising every morsel off the bones, sublime, so simple yet so delicious! During the jungle trek we did with the Hiker from Luang Namtha, our guides once again whipped up a selection of tasty food. We stopped off at the local market on the first day to pick up supplies and when we realised the bag rustling on the bus was caused by the fresh fish (so fresh they were trying to made a bid for freedom) we knew we were in for a treat. Boy, we were not disappointed, two grilled fish for lunch on the first day and the remaining two smoked overnight for lunch the next day.
Another dish that our guides whipped up with ease was banana flower salad, made from the red flower at the bottom of the stalk on which the bunches of bananas grow. It was peeled and the inside, which more resembled a mushroom than a flower was added to the dish, again a good example of how every part of the plant or animal is used in Asian cooking. That night camping out in the jungle I was soon fast asleep, aided by a day’s tough hiking and the glasses of lao-lao rice wine that our guide keep refilling. Picked up at the market that morning, it was a higher standard than we’ve tried before, this one had a proper labelled bottle, rather than a reused water or coke bottle! Still homemade, the taste was reasonable but the high alcohol content gave it a kick and the stories you hear of methanol in home brews added to the apprehension with every shot! Seeing how much I enjoyed the smoked fish and how impressed I was that they had smoked them at our little jungle campsite, our guide tells me that it’s easy to do and I should try it at home! The instructions were dry the fish out in the sun for a few hours, maybe a day he says for England, stuff with the usual garlic, lemongrass and herbs, smoke them over the embers of a fire for a few hours and possibly steam to finish (I can’t quite remember this bit exactly). It may be easy to prepare in Laos but not quite so back home, maybe I’ll one day find a way to reproduce it but for now I’ll suffice with the memory, it was mouth wateringly delicious, I probably ate too much of it as the hill after lunch seemed much more of a challenge than the day before!
So Lao cuisine, would I recommend it and how does it compare to the other countries we’ve visited? Unfortunately for me it was one of the most uninspiring cuisines on the trip so far and other travellers we’ve met seem to agree. That’s not to say they can’t cook and the food is bad, it’s just not as good as the cuisines of it’s neighbours. Don’t let this put you off a trip to visit Laos, there are still some tasty dishes to be found and the country has a relaxed feel and absolutely beautiful landscapes.