This Lao staple is served in bamboo baskets at every meal. Guests help themselves to a small amount with their fingers, shape it into a ball and eat it plain, dip it into condiments or use it to scoop up wet dishes. Sometimes referred to as glutinous rice, but rice doesn’t contain gluten – the name simply reflects the texture of the cooked rice. Toasted and ground sticky rice (koa kore) is used to thicken and add texture and flavour to a variety of dishes, including larb and keng no mai, the much-loved soup from northern Laos.
Padaek (or padek)
Regarded by many as the “soul of Laos”, this highly pungent fermented fish sauce made from anchovies is thicker and creamier than the thin, clear fish sauces typical of South-East Asia, and often contains chunks of fish. It is traditionally home-made and kept in a pot hanging outside the house, although it is readily available to buy. Used as a seasoning for soups and sauces, and a key ingredient in larb and green papaya salad.
Green papaya (mak hoong)
The unripe fruit of the papaya tree (often confused with paw paw) is prized for its texture and mild flavour, which make it the perfect vehicle for strong flavours. Also valued for an enzyme called papain, an effective tenderiser for meats. Look for firm fruit with no signs of blackening on the base.
Fresh bamboo shoots
Harvested only in the wet season as soon as they appear above the ground, fresh and tender bamboo shoots far outshine their tinned counterparts. The shoots must be peeled and cooked before eating.
The leaves of the yanang plant are used to thicken (rather than flavour) soups, most notably keng no mai. The dark green liquid is extracted by rubbing the leaves between the hands in a bowl of water. The solids are discarded and the liquid reserved.
Fresh herbs add a characteristic zing to Lao dishes. Lemongrass and makrut lime leaf are must-haves; lemon basil (pak e-too), coriander and mint add freshness; Vietnamese mint (phak phaew or polygonum) gives peppery warmth; and rice paddy herb lends a sharp citrus flavour.