For a little land-locked country, Laos sure has some good grub. It's not as bold or fiery as Thai food but offers more spice and adventurousness than Vietnamese or Cambodian food does. Along the western border of Laos, the Isan culinary map overlaps with Thailand but in Laos, preparations of laab (minced pork salad) and tam mak hoong (som tam/papaya salad), contain far less spice and are friendlier to the traveler with a more delicate palate.
Generally, traditional Laotian foods are fresh, lightly cooked and heavily herbed. There's an abundance of stews, steamed or barbecued fish and meat, spicy aromatic dips and noodle soups, and most, if not all, dishes come with a side of raw greens and kaow niaow (sticky rice). In the home, multiple dishes are served up on a ka toke, a circular rattan platter designed for sitting around and sharing, though as a traveler, your experience will likely be more restaurant and street-stall oriented.
Here are some Laos dishes most deserving of attention, easily identifiable, and available without having to gate-crash any local family's dinner time.
Laab and khao niaow
There's no avoiding laab in Laos, and for good reason – it is a must-eat. Offered with a little extra mint and less chili than Thailand's version, it's a "salad" of minced pork, beef, chicken or fish seasoned with lime, chili and shallots. Beef laab is one of the more popular forms and, since beef is not popular in Thailand, it should be the type you defer to when in Laos. Cucumbers and green beans on the side help put out any chili fire. Non meat-eaters can go for the mushroom variant of laab as long as fish sauce isn’t out of bounds.
Another famous Isan treat, sai krok (sai oua in Thai) is the pork sausage you see at street stalls in round spiral form, smoking away over coals. Main ingredients are pork fat (mainly from the neck), galangal, coriander, shallots and kaffir lime. These smoky meaty coils are either chopped up and served on a plate or skewered for snacking on-the-go. There's a spicy beef alternative and a sour pork version with sticky rice mixed into the pork, cooked, left to "sour" at room temperature for a couple of days, then refrigerated and served with more sticky rice. This is nicely paired with tam mak hoong.
Another sour pork sausage variation, this one's raw and fermented, and found wrapped in banana leaves from street vendors (naem taeng in Thailand). Sometimes it's grilled, but for a complete Laotian pork sausage experience, go raw. Som moo leads to another Laos dish called nam khao – fried rice ball salad – as one of its optional ingredients. This is your must-eat rice dish; a richly textured dish with shredded young coconut and the crisp outer crust of crumbled fried rice balls. The sourness of the som moo completes the journey into taste bud heaven.
French occupation left more than just fancy colonial architecture as a legacy. As soon as you cross the border into Laos – particularly from baguette-scarce Thailand – you're accosted by rolls at every turn. Kind of like your Vietnamese banh mi, the Laos version (khao jii) are available at street stalls and stuffed with shredded raw carrots, cucumber, a few varieties of pork including paté, coriander a drizzle of sweet chili sauce – you can opt out of any of these ingredients as your vendor will make to order. These are supposed to be for breakfast only, so you might have trouble finding one after lunch time, ie. they’re unfortunately not a viable after-hours post-beer snack. If you're been suffering from bread deprivation, the women selling five-packs of baguettes for the equivalent of a US dollar should be immediately on your radar.
Perhaps surprisingly for Southeast Asia, Laos has great coffee. Grown in the highlands of the Bolaven Plateau, the beans are as rich and rewarding as any Colombian blend, and go fantastically with a bread-heavy breakfast. Served in a glass rather than a mug, you should be able to find a variety of different brands throughout Laos' main destinations. Coffee was originally brought from Vietnam by the French in the early 20th century as a means of making the region profitable – an industry Laotians continued after the Vietnam War, to make coffee the country's fifth largest export. JoMa bakery is a well-known place in Vientiane that is passionate about its Lao Arabica.
Luang Prabang Khai Phun
Fermented moss doesn't initially sound like something edible much less essential, but in Luang Prabang, that's the green stuff you see drying on racks in the sun. Hauled from the biologically rich & diverse Mekong River, this salty fried seaweed-like snack goes perfectly with beer – which draws this Laos food round-up to its natural conclusion…
Avoid the moonshine-type Laos beverages at all costs. You will wind up with what feels like a broken skull, especially if you've been bitten by the famed "Cobra Whiskey". This potent snake juice is rumored to improve male "fertility" but in fact is just a huge "no, thank you" in a jar, especially if you value your liver. Beerlao, on the other end of the scale, is the country's national tipple and, enjoyed by the Mekong around sunset, is a quintessential Laos travel experience. There's the original lager, a Dark with higher alcohol content and a Light variation that's less alcoholic. As they say while clinking glasses in Laos: dam jook!