The Lao People’s Democratic Republic is one of the world’s few remaining communist states, moving tentatively towards capitalism but otherwise seemingly frozen in time. Bordering China, Cambodia, Burma, Thailand and Vietnam, Laos is mountainous and covered by largely virgin tropical forest, with most of the population of 6.5 million living in valleys of the Mekong River and its tributaries. The vast majority of Laotians live off the less than 5 per cent of land suitable for subsistence farming.
In the fertile floodplains of the Mekong, vegetables, fruit, spices and cotton are grown. But mostly, it’s all about rice. Rice plantings cover more than 80 per cent of Laos’s cropland and its people have an incredible appetite for the grain, each consuming an average of 160 kilograms per year. A family will go through kilos of rice every week.
The staple that distinguishes Lao cuisine from that of its South-East Asian neighbours is sticky rice (khao niao), which is eaten with every meal. Whether shaped into balls with the fingers and used to scoop up wet foods, ground and toasted and added to dishes, shaped into sweet cakes or ground to bind sausages, this is Laos’s defining food. Bread is not traditionally part of the diet, though baguettes are a popular street food – particularly in the capital Vientiane and cities such as Luang Prabang, where the legacy of French rule in the first half of the 20th century can be seen everywhere.
Laos’s savoury dishes have a particular piquancy that sets them apart from those of neighbouring cuisines. Like the Vietnamese, Laotians like salty, sour and spicy (and a little sweet) – think fish sauce, lime juice, chilli and palm sugar. But the balance tips towards the sour and even bitter – perhaps partly imparted by the widely used fermented fish sauce padaek, but noticeably by great volumes of herbs and bitter greens. Laotians love lemon basil, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf, dill, galangal, coriander and Vietnamese mint, using them abundantly in cooking but also serving them as an accompaniment piled high on a plate of fresh, undressed raw greens. Meals usually come with one or more small dishes of spicy dipping sauce or condiment (jaew), to be added according to taste.
Dishes are traditionally placed on the table all at once and shared, with larger meals normally comprising soup, a grilled dish, jaew, greens and a mixed dish such as larb. Also known as laap, laab or larp, this salad is perhaps Laos’s most famous culinary invention and a triumph of fresh, simple and zesty: minced or finely sliced meat or fish mixed with lime juice, padaek, mint, coriander, spring onion, chilli and ground, toasted rice. Another dish that’s travelled far is green papaya salad (tham mak hoong), which features strands of unripe papaya, chilli, garlic, shrimp paste, fish sauce, lime, palm sugar, tomatoes and herbs; the Laotian cook knows to gently pound and stir with a mortar and pestle to release and combine the flavours.
Many soups feature noodles, as in khao piak sen and khao poon, and are commonly eaten with chopsticks for breakfast. Keng no mai, prepared in the wet season, celebrates fresh bamboo shoots (a taste sensation a world apart from the canned variety) and owes its dark green hue to the extract of yanang vine leaves. In the meat department, pork, chicken, goat, water buffalo and duck are favoured, often grilled and skewered. And Laos is known for having the best snags in the region – think delicious pork sausages, lifted to another dimension with lemongrass and spices. As Laos has no coastline, freshwater river fish is the norm and is the hero of mok pa (fish steamed in banana leaf parcels).
At the end of a meal, Laotians might share a plate of sliced tropical fruits such as mango, pineapple or dragon fruit. Sweets tend towards coconut and/or rice, as in khao niao mamuang (sticky rice with fresh mango); bananas in coconut cream; and the traditional delicacy khao tom (steamed banana leaf parcels of sticky rice with coconut and banana or taro). Kanom krok are little griddle cakes made with rice, coconut milk and sugar, sometimes sprinkled with fresh corn kernels and spring onions.
Favourite drinks include BeerLao and the sake-like lao hai; sugar cane juice; coconut milk and mulberry tea. Coffee from the southern Bolaven Plateau is lauded around the world – to buy beans in Australia, try Lao grocery stores in Fairfield and Cabramatta in Sydney’s outer south-west, where Australia’s small and close-knit Lao population is concentrated.
View our Lao recipe collection here.
While some Lao households make their own padaek, if you want to buy it ready-made, try the Thai Budu or Filipino Monamon brands. In keeping with the Lao way, prepare this green papaya salad recipe just before serving, and not in advance.
This popular Laotian salad recipe requires an extensive list of ingredients and a bit of preparation, including four days marinating time, but the results are well worth the effort. You can shape and crumb the rice balls a day ahead and deep-fry them just before serving. This recipe serves 10 as an appetiser, or 6 as an entree.
Also known as laab and laap, this recipe for spicy Laotian beef salad is packed with flavour thanks to a plethora of Asian herbs, a good hit of chilli and a dash of the pungent fermented fish sauce called padaek. Larb is usually served with steamy hot sticky rice as a main dish or as an appetiser.
Khao tom is a Laotian steamed dessert made with sweet sticky rice, coconut and a variety of additions to taste, all wrapped up in banana leaves.
Yanang leaves are popular in Laotian and Thai cuisine. The juice is extracted by bruising the leaves than soaking them in water. Alternatively, you can purchase cans of yanang extract.
Like a good steak, you only flip the ox tongue once on the barbecue. The papaya in the marinade helps to soften the tongue, which, when cooked, is wonderfully tender. Jaew som, sometimes referred to as jaew bong, is a sweet and spicy Laotian dipping sauce. Any offal doubters will be converted by this recipe.