Before I visited Laos last year, I knew little about its cuisine – unlike Thai and Chinese, Laos food is little known in the UK. When I arrived, I discovered fresh ingredients, delicious local dishes, and some surprisingly familiar flavours.
Sticky rice, vegetables, herbs, meat and fish form the basis of traditional cuisine, and there's lots of regional variety. Having migrated through Asia over the centuries, the Lao people also share certain cooking styles and dishes with neighbouring countries like Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. French foods are another Laos trait – a legacy of its colonial past, you can buy everything from croissants and pate to filled baguettes.
My quick guide to Laos cuisine
During my trip, I sought out the country's national dishes, and tasted as many different foods as possible. Here's what I discovered:
A national staple, Lao people eat more sticky rice than any other country. It's so ingrained in their culture that they're known as "luk khao niaow," or "children of sticky rice."
Lao rice is often served in the bamboo basket it was steamed in. Available in many different varieties, my favourite was the purple kind, which has a lovely bite and a sweet, nutty flavour. It's traditionally eaten by hand, so you can use your rice as a utensil to scoop up meat and vegetables.
Padaek – Lao fish sauce
A thick, savoury sauce, padaek is made from cured and fermented fish. With a savoury "umami" flavour, it's a common ingredient in many Lao dishes. Also served as a condiment, if you eat it straight-up with rice you'll notice its strong smell and anchovy-like taste.
Laos' most famous dish is a spicy salad made with minced and marinated meat or fish. Chicken, beef, duck, and pork are popular, and lemongrass, chilli, lime juice, padaek, ground rice and galangal are added, plus other herbs, spices and vegetables.
It's often served with young lettuce leaves, which you can use as a wrap. A perfect combination, the lettuce adds crunch and freshness, as well as a healthy kick. Yum!
This traditional Laotian snack was one of the first things I tasted when I arrived in Laos. A crispy sheet of flavoured green algae and sesame seeds, it's often served with spicy jaew bong sauce. Almost seaweed-like, the taste is similar to Japanese nori.
This spicy paste is another staple. Served as an accompaniment, the key ingredients include buffalo skin, chilli, salt and herbs. Other ingredients can be added, like aubergines, tomatoes, fish and padaek. Traditionally, the ingredients are roasted over a charcoal fire before being pounded to a paste.
Jaew was served with many of my meals in Laos. I loved smearing it on fish, meat and sticky rice, or using it as a dipping sauce for kaipen.
Green papaya salad
This healthy salad is known as "tam mak hoong" or "tam song". It's made from fresh green papaya fruit, chilli, garlic, peanuts, sugar, padaek and lime juice. Full of flavour, the raw papaya has a refreshing twang, while the other ingredients create a savoury, sweet and spicy combo.
Popular across Asia, green papaya salad is also eaten in Cambodia (where it's known as bok l'hong), in Thailand (where it's called som tam) and in Vietnam (goi du du).
Known locally as "sai oua", Lao sausage is usually made with seasoned pork. Beef sausages are also available. Common flavourings include lemongrass, shallots, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, cilantro and fish sauce.
Great as a snack or as part of a meal, I tasted several different sausages during my trip. My favourite was served at Mande de Laos restaurant in Luang Prabang.
Barbecued meat and fish
Wander through any street market and you'll find an array of marinated meats and fish being cooked over hot coals. All parts of the animal are eaten in Laos, so you'll see some some unusual cuts sizzling away on sticks.
Luang Prabang night market is a great place to try a variety of different things – from whole fish to thick pieces of pork, all the barbecued foods I ate here were excellent.
Laotian noodle soups are hugely varied. A good breakfast option, "khao piak sen" is made with thick, chewy noodles and a viscous broth, topped with chopped meat and fried garlic. In contrast, "khao pun" uses thinner rice noodles, a clearer broth, and is served with raw vegetables and herbs.
For a thicker, richer soup, try "khao soy" – a combination of flat rice noodles, ground pork, tomato, pork broth and watercress. "Khao poon nam sim" is another hearty option, made with beef chunks, bamboo shoots and thin rice noodles.
French-influenced foods are eaten throughout Laos but this colonial legacy is strongest in the capital city, Vientiane. Here, bakeries and French restaurants sell everything from croissants to escargots.
However, be prepared for a Laos twist on your French favourites. "Khao jie pate" – the Laos take on a French baguette – is stuffed with pate, greens and chilli paste. This Franco-Laos fusion also works the other way round: Vietnamese-style fresh spring rolls, for example, sometimes come with European-style fillings like soft cheese or pesto.
A desert or sweet snack, "kanom kroks" are made from coconut milk, sticky rice, sugar and rice flour. To find them at street markets, look for a white liquid being poured into a cast iron pan with small round moulds. When served, two halves are sandwiched together to create a sphere.
I think they taste best when they're piping hot and fresh from the pan. In southern Laos, you may come across a savoury version made with salt and minced pork.
Laos opened my eyes to a whole new world of flavours, and taught me more about shared culinary influences across Asia. Simple ingredients and freshly prepared food make Laos a relatively healthy option, and the sheer variety is another plus – as well as different dishes, the country offers a full spectrum of dining options, from bakeries and street stalls, to French-inspired eateries and fine-dining restaurants.
With so much to enjoy, I think it's high time we saw more recognition for Laos cuisine in the UK – if I had a Lao takeaway here at home in Brighton, it would definitely be on my Friday-night list!