Laotian food (aka cuisine hailing from Laos!) is just as tasty as Vietnamese and Thai Food.
Dishes like Pad Thai and Pho—staples of Thai and Vietnamese cuisines—are available at the click of a button. (And in big cities, you'll find great Thai and Vietnamese shops on practically every street corner.) But there's one Southeast Asian cuisine you've probably never heard of: Lao food. I recently spent some time in Laos—a landlocked country in Southeast Asia with no trading ports and a small population—and was blown away by their flavorful dishes, packed with fresh herbs and rich flavors.
Consider Lao food Southeast Asia's best-kept secret. Dishes are rich in nutrition, flavor, and taste. Even more: Many of the dishes that we think of today as Thai (papaya salad, sticky rice, and laap—a minced meat salad) are actually Lao in origin.
Laotians know how to do food right. Here, the top three reasons to try Lao food ASAP. (And if you aren't able to travel halfway across the world to experience the cuisine, search for Laotian restaurants in your area or try recipes at home for staple dishes like laap, Luang Prabang salad, Mok Pa, or papaya salad.) You could also check out these 10 easy recipes tastier than takeout food.
It's Healthy and Flavorful
Forget the oil; forget the heavy curries and stews. Lao food, unlike its heavier Thai counterpart, is light but still super satiating. Thank strong flavors (think: bitter, salty, spicy, sour, and umami) that balance out the blandness of sticky rice. "The Lao have a saying that translates as 'bitter flavors are healthy, sweet will make you faint.' This is born out of a general low level of sugar [in dishes] and a large number of dishes featuring bitter flavors and ingredients," says Joy Ngeuamboupha, head chef at Tamarind, a restaurant in Luang Prabang, an ancient town in northern Laos. That bitter element comes from ingredients like small pea eggplants (aubergines), bitter greens, and herbs. Unlike Vietnamese or Thai food, you'll also find lots of dill in Lao cuisine, especially in staple dishes like laap, Mok Pa (steamed fish in banana leaf), and Luang Prabang salad (a northern Laos dish made with watercress, dill, spring onion, egg, and lime juice). Want more flavors? Here are 13 never-fail flavor combos.
The food culture in Laos is the best kept secret. Part of me wants to preserve that and keep hush hush about it and then another part of me wants to open like 20 Laotian restaurants and eat the food every damn day. It's bitter, salty, sour, spicy and umami heavy. It's light yet satisfying and almost always involves sticky rice. More about Laotian food AND a delicious recipe for Luang Prabang salad that involves ALL THE FRESH HERBS and a creamy sweet and sour dressing.
Meat is prominent in Lao cuisine but it's not the main event. It's treated more as a condiment. Lao food is heavy on the fresh vegetables and herbs and a small portion of meat or fish is served on the side. This means you can rest assured that your Lao meal will be packed with satiating fiber and lots of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
It's Not Fried
Laotians aren't frying their foods in a ton of oil. In fact, they're not frying at all. According to Ngeuamboupha, Lao food is traditionally cooked in a clay or tin brazier (a portable stove) over a charcoal fire. Many foods are grilled or barbecued, imparting a tempting smoky flavor. Steaming foods is also common and many Laotians wrap meat and fish in banana leaves to retain moisture and flavor. One of my favorite Lao dishes? Mok Pa (fish in banana leaf) steamed with lots of fresh herbs and flavors like lemongrass, dill, spring onion, kaffir lime leaves, and galangal (ginger).