A frequent traveller to Southeast Asia, Philip Moss is a true enthusiast when it comes to Asian cuisine. On his recent trip to Laos, he explored the restaurants and streetfood stalls of Vientiane to give you a flavour of what you might expect to sample there. Make no mistake. There is nothing 'beige' about these dishes. Laos food is not noted for its bland flavours....
Anyone who has eaten street food in Bangkok or in Thailand's north-eastern Isaan region is likely to have sampled Laotian delicacies like the tiny sausages (Sai Oua) with a glass of beer or enjoyed the theatre of a stall holder preparing papaya salad (Som Tam) in a large wooden pestle and mortar. As people from Laos and Isaan travel to the cities of Thailand to find work, their food culture has travelled in their wake.
In Vientiane, you'll be confronted by the full glory of Laos cuisine ranging from soups, dry or drier meat dishes both cooked and raw called laab (Laab Muu for pork, Laab Ped for duck, Laab Pla for fish), noodle dishes, stews and an array of spicy sauces and dips. Then, there is sticky rice (Khao Neow) - sometimes served in a traditional woven basket (Laos Ep Khao) - which together with a pronounced reliance on fresh herbs like mint, hot basil, dill, lemongrass, galangal and coriander really characterises Laos food. In either its sweet or savoury form, sticky rice can accompany most dishes. Rolled into a ball, it is dipped into sauces, smeared with pastes or used as base for mouthfuls of delicious meat or fish. Despite its alternative name of glutinous rice, it is actually gluten free and therefore ideal for coeliacs.
After a 'heart-starter' drip-brew of Laos robusta coffee and a food stall breakfast of Bud Wat (delicate rice pasta rolls with pork and leek stuffing garnished with fried shallots and a peanut and fish sauce condiment), head off to the Khua Din market. In the morning, you can sample grilled regional sausages full of galangal, garlic and herbs like the Sai Oua Kuang (Luang Prabang style), grilled pork satay (Muu Ping), chicken (Gai Ping) or beef (Sin Gua Ping), all served with a selection of fiery sauces called Jeow.
Jeow Bong is a sweet and savoury chilli paste, originally from Luang Prabang, often pounded together with wind-dried beef. Jeow Som is a savoury sweet mixture of garlic, chillies, palm sugar, lime juice and fish sauce with an almost universal application. Jeow Mak Keua Nyao combines charred aubergines, hard boiled egg, dried shrimp, coriander, fish sauce, chilli and garlic to make something useful and delicious out of the world's least-loved purple fruit (although most aubergines in Southeast Asia, in my experience, are small and green!). Jeow Pla is a heady mixture of fish, roasted chillies and herbs. Pa Dek is a particularly potent fish paste fermented in a clay pot which is the very quintessence of umami.
After a busy morning food tasting, you'll probably be in the mood for something more substantial. Try Vientiane's world-beating Khao Jee Pa Tay baguette from one of the many street stalls. With or without home-made pate, dressed with spring onion, coriander and various julienned vegetables, these stuffed baguettes are a French colonial inheritance bringing together homely Gallic flavours and the fresh, fragrant components of Laos and Vietnamese dishes - a deliciously light but satisfying lunch on the move!
Noodles are a big part of the Laos diet. A bowl of thick rice noodles in a heavy savoury broth such as Khao Piak Sen is fortified with pork, herbs, a condiment of roasted chilli with pork crackling and, for the adventurous, cubes of blood jelly (optional) which will keep you firing on all cylinders for most of the day.
You find Khao Soi noodle soup in Thailand made with coconut milk. Laos Khao Soi is different in preparation and seems to take hours to make with the slow roasting of minced pork and the pounding and addition of herbs, garlic, chilli, fermented soybean paste and tomato before we even get to the wide noodles, spring onions, water vegetable, coriander and bean sprouts. But the clarity and combination of complex, slow-cooked flavours is truly wonderful. This dish is history in a bowl. It is supposed to derive from 19th century Chinese merchants who plied their trade on the Yunnan, Thailand, Burma route. Good in Vientiane. Best, I'm assured by Laos friends, in Luang Prabang.
The Vietnamese noodle dish, Pho, has been made in Laos for so long it's beginning to take on a distinct Laos character of its own compared to the Vietnamese original. The broth is often lighter, pork-based, more likely to include tiny strips of buffalo meat and meat balls rather than beef, but still retains all the fragrant wonder of the original with garnishes of lettuce, watercress, long beans, coriander, hot basil, mint, lime, fresh chillies and condiments like soy sauce, fish sauce and rice vinegar.
If you crave something lighter or fresher, there's always the astounding array of lettuce wraps containing endless variations of fillings; meat, peanuts, herbs, chilli, pastes and every type of seasonal leaf and shoot. Vendors and restaurant staff seem genuinely delighted when asked for their advice.
Another lighter alternative - yet still with a spicy kick - is Tum Muk Hoong (Som Tam in Thai), a pounded salad of green papaya fish sauce, garlic, chilli, fermented tomatoes and roasted peanuts. Tum Mak Kuay is a spiced salad made with green finger bananas and Tum Muk Thang is a refreshing cucumber salad option. Available in eye-watering local spiciness or more manageable tourist versions. Ask for 'baw ped' for the milder version.
Look out for duck dishes (especially at specialist food stall, Anna Grilled Duck) which range from plain but delicious grilled duck to Laab Paed - a spicy nearly dry dish of cooked minced duck with the usual accompanying bouquet of fresh leaves and herbs - and finally to Laab Paeng Paed. This majestic dish is often made from fresh raw duck meat but is mostly offered with cooked meat and some fresh duck blood nowadays. This dish is highly flavoured with each mouthful delivering a delicious combination of fresh herbs, savoury minced duck, jellied duck blood seasoned with fried shallots brought together with generous amounts of freshly squeezed lime. Duck, mint, spring onions, roasted peanuts, fresh chillies and crispy fried shallots combine in a riot of flavour, albeit, hot, spicy flavour. Laotians seem to have no limit when it comes to spiciness, and accompany this dish with whole fresh chillies dipped in shrimp paste for that authentic, hop-around-the-restaurant-speechless-and-tearful kind of heat.
Dishes like Or Lahm are also worth keeping a lookout for. This dish is an earthy, rich soup made from pork skin with an array of cultivated herbs like dill and hot basil, plus some wild components like Mai Sakaan, a type of bark or wood which, having been chewed to extract the mildly spicy flavour, is then spat out. This preparation process makes it an acquired taste for some... but it adds a chilli-flavoured kick.
For those of you who don't have tastebuds of steel, it's worth noting that not all Laos food is super spicy or challenging. There are milder and more conventional dishes which are every bit as enjoyable. The ubiquitous Ping Gai or barbecued chicken is readily available at every turn. Secured between the jaws of bamboo clamp, this is chicken with a flavour that some of us are old enough to remember. Sliced on a bed of rice, there's no finer meal. For those who prefer beef, there's delicious barbecued wind-dried jerky (Siem Mua). You can take or leave the proffered Jeow, as you see fit.
Grilled river fish is also readily available in both mild (baw ped = less spicy) and spicy (ped mak = very spicy) versions. You occasionally see dishes of Pla Duk or Mekong Catfish. Although delicious, the species seems to be struggling in recent years against changes in its environment so I tend to stick to other species.
Coconut Khao Poon (sometimes called Kapoon or Laos Laksa) is a classic Laos curry served with shredded chicken or pork and fermented rice noodles. Far from being 'noodles that were forgotten about', the process of making fermented rice noodle is long and complicated, producing one of Laos cuisine's most characteristic flavours. Although it has all the usual strong flavourings like galangal, lemongrass, sweet and spicy chilli, gentle cooking in coconut milk tends to take away any assertive edge producing a mild yet rich curried noodle dish. This is typically garnished with crunchy bean sprouts, pandanus leaf, julienned carrot or Chinese cabbage.
Look out for Jeow Mak Lin, a mild dip made of pounded roasted tomatoes, garlic, onions and herbs. Just when you have given up hope of finding something 'baw ped' (less spicy) to dip your ball of sticky rice into, Jeow Mak Lin saves the day!
Laos cuisine is dynamic and varied. Different cities have different dishes, different seasonings and different ingredients. Hopefully, this brief introduction to food available in Vientiane will encourage you to travel further afield in Laos and seek out local specialities and try more of the country's robust, earthy and refreshing cuisine.
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