Lao Cuisine and Recipes

Lao Cuisine

A Lao meal in Luang Prabang, Laos.

A Lao meal in Luang Prabang, Laos.

Lao cuisine is the cuisine of Laos, which is distinct from other Southeast Asian cuisines. The Lao originally came from the north in a region that became China, but moved southward and brought with them their Lao traditions. Due to historical Lao migrations from Laos into neighbouring countries that share borders with Laos, Lao cuisine has strongly influenced the neighbouring region of Northeastern Thailand (Isan) and some Lao culinary influences have also reached Cambodia and Northern Thailand (Lanna) where the Lao have migrated. The staple food of the Lao is steamed sticky rice which is eaten by hand. In fact, the Lao eat more sticky rice than any group or people in the world; sticky rice is considered the essence of what it means to be “Lao”—many Lao even referred to themselves as, “Luk Khao Niaow”, which can be translated as, “children/descendants of sticky rice”. Galangal, lemongrass and Padaek (Lao fish sauce) are important ingredients.

The most famous Lao dish is Larb, a spicy mixture of marinated meat and/or fish that is sometimes raw (prepared like ceviche) with a variable combination of herbs, greens, and spices. Another of Lao people’s delectable invention is a spicy green Papaya salad dish known as tam mak hoong (ຕໍາໝາກຫຸ່ງ) or more famously known to the West as som tam. Lao cuisine has many regional variations, according in part to the fresh foods local to each region. A French legacy is also apparent in the capital city, Vientiane, such that baguettes are sold on the street, and French restaurants (often with a naturally Lao, Asian-fusion touch) are common and popular.

Cooking methods

Grilling, boiling, stewing, steaming, searing and mixing (as in salads) are all traditional cooking methods. Stir-frying is now common, but considered to be a Chinese influence. Stews are often green in colour, because of the large proportion of vegetables used as well as ya nang leaf. Soups/stews are categorized as follows, tom, tom jeud, keng, and keng soua.

“Ping” means grilled. It is a favourite cooking method. Ping gai is grilled chicken, ping sin is grilled meat, and ping pa is grilled fish. Before grilling, the meat is typically seasoned with minced garlic, minced coriander root, minced galangal, salt, soy sauce, and fish sauce, each in varying quantities, if at all, according to preference. The Lao seem to prefer a longer grilling at lower heat. The result is grilled meat that is typically drier than what Westerners are accustomed to. The Lao probably prefer their food this way, because they wish to keep their hands dry and clean for handling sticky rice. They also typically eat the grilled food with a hot sauce (chaew) of some sort, which takes away the dryness.

Lao food differs from neighbouring cuisines in multiple respects. One is that the Lao meal almost always includes a large quantity of fresh raw greens, vegetables and herbs served undressed on the side. Another is that savoury dishes are never sweet. “Sweet and sour” is generally considered bizarre and foreign in Laos. Yet another is that some dishes are bitter. There is a saying in Lao cuisine, “van pen lom; khom pen ya,” which can be translated as, “sweet makes you dizzy; bitter makes you healthy.” A couple of the green herbs favored in Lao cuisine but generally ignored by their neighbours are mint and dill, both of paramount importance. Galangal is a cooking herb that is heavily favoured in Laos, unlike in neighbouring countries. It appears in probably the majority of Lao dishes, along with the conventional herbs: garlic, shallots, lemongrass, etc. Another distinctive characteristic of Lao food or more properly, Lao eating habits, is that food is frequently eaten at room temperature. This may be attributable to the fact that Lao food served with sticky rice is traditionally handled by hand.

A ka toke, a platform for arranging and presenting a Lao meal.

A ka toke, a platform for arranging and presenting a Lao meal.

Eating customs

The traditional manner of eating was communal, with diners sitting on a reed mat on the wooden floor around a raised platform woven out of rattan called a ka toke. Dishes are arranged on the ka toke, which is of a standard size. Where there are many diners, multiple ka tokes will be prepared. Each ka toke will have one or more baskets of sticky rice, which is shared by all the diners at the ka toke.

In recent times, eating at a ka toke is the exception rather than the rule. The custom is maintained, however, at temples, where each monk is served his meal on a ka toke. Once food is placed on the “ka toke” it becomes a “pha kao.” In modern homes, the term for preparing the table for a meal is still taeng pha kao, or prepare the phah kao.

Traditionally, spoons were used only for soups and white rice, and chopsticks were used only for noodles. Most food was handled by hand. The reason this custom evolved is probably due to the fact that sticky rice can only be easily handled by hand.

Lao meals typically consist of a soup dish, a grilled dish, a sauce, greens, and a stew or mixed dish (koy or laap). The greens are usually fresh raw greens, herbs and other vegetables, though depending on the dish they accompany, they could also be steamed or more typically, parboiled. Dishes are not eaten in sequence; the soup is sipped throughout the meal. Beverages, including water, are not typically a part of the meal. When guests are present, the meal is always a feast, with food made in quantities sufficient for twice the number of diners. For a host, not having enough food for guests would be humiliating.

The custom is to close the rice basket when one is finished eating.

Dip

  • Jaew Mak Khua: Dips made from roasted eggplant
  • Jaew Mak Len: Dips made from roasted sweet tomatoes
  • Jaew Bong: sweet and spicy Lao paste made with roasted chilies, pork skin, galangal and other ingredients.
  • Jaew Padeak: Dips made from fried padeak fish pieces,roast garlic, chililes,lemon grass and other ingredients.

Appetisers

  • Kaipen: fried snack made of fresh water algae, usually served with jaew bong
  • Miang
  • Look seen:Laotion beef meatballs
  • Khua Pak Bong
  • Yor
  • som moo: pickled pork with pork skin (summer sausages)
  • som pa: pickled fish
  • som khai pa: pickled fish roe
  • som phak kad: pickled greens
  • som phak kai lum who moo: pickled cabbage with pickled pork ears
  • Lao sausage(sai kok): chunky pork sausage
  • sai oua
  • seen hang: beef jerky that is flash-fried beef
  • khai khuam: stuffed eggs “upside down”
  • seen tork
  • seen savahn: thin sliced beef jerky with sweeter taste and covered with seasame seeds
  • khai nug: egg is cracked with a little hole at one end; contents poured out scrambled with spices and pour back into egg shell and steamed

Salads

  • Larb: a spicy Lao minced meat salad (Lao: ລາບ, Isan: ลาบ, Lao pronunciation: [laːp])
    • Larb Pa: Lao-style fish salad
    • Larb Ped: duck salad
    • Larb Gai: chicken salad
    • Larb Moo: pork salad
    • Larb Ngua: beef salad
  • Ping Sin Nam Tok: Laotian Grilled Waterfall Beef Salad – This wonderful South East Asian salad is based on the famous Laos salad Larb. Found all over Laos, larb is their national dish. Created by the Laos people and eaten both in their native country and neighbouring Thailand this salad is hot, spicy and incredibly tasty. This version uses sliced beef instead of larb’s minced meat. 
  • tam som: is the following salads made with Lao chili peppers,lime juice, tomatoes,padeak,sugar, crab paste and shrimp paste (last 2 items can be left out in the dish)
  • tam mak hoong (Lao: ຕໍາໝາກຫຸ່ງ, Isan: ตำบักหุ่ง, Lao pronunciation: [ɗammakhuŋ]): spicy green papaya salad
  • pon: spicy puree of cooked fish
  • tam mak guh: spicy green plantans (bananas) salad
  • tam mak thou: spicy green long/yard beans salad
  • (tam mak taeng)Cucumber salad: Lao-style spicy cucumber salad
  • tam kow phun: spicy vermicelli noodles salad
  • tum mak khauh: spicy Lao eggplant salad

Stew

  • or lam: Luang Prabang style green vegetable stew
  • or: green vegetable stew
  • kaeng nor mai (Lao: ຊຸບໜໍ່ໄມ່, Isan: ฃุบหน่อไม้, Lao pronunciation: [sup nɔːmaj]): green bamboo stew
  • tom padaek: fish stewed in padaek
  • kaeng kalee: Lao curry
  • tom jeaw pa: spicy fish soup

Grilling dishes

  • ping gai: grilled marinated chicken (ປິງໄກ່, Lao pronunciation: [piŋ ɡaj], Isan: ไก่ย่าง, Lao pronunciation: [ɡaj ɲːaŋ])
  • ping pa: grilled fish mixed with Spiced and Herbs.
  • ping sin: grilled marinated beef
  • ping moo: grilled marinated pork
  • ping ped: grilled marinated duck
  • ping theen gai: grilled marinated chicken feet
  • ping huwah ped: grilled marinated duck head (more of an appetizer)
  • sin dat or “Lao BBQ”: traditional Lao BBQ—meat and vegetables seared on a dome-shaped griddle

Steaming dishes

  • mok pa: fish steamed in banana leaf
  • mok gai: chicken steamed in banana leaf
  • mok khai
  • mok kai pa
  • ua dok kae
  • titi gai: steak in a banana leaf wrap

Rice

  • nam khao: fried rice ball salad and lettuce wraps
  • khua khao: Lao-style fried rice
  • khao ping or khao chee: baked sticky rice seasoned with eggs. The word khao chee is also used for bread.
  • khao piak khao: Lao rice porridge
  • khao niao: steamed sticky rice
  • khao chow: steam white rice

Noodles

  • khao piak sen: Lao noodle soup
  • khao poon: rice vermicelli soup
  • mee kati
  • mee num
  • pad sen lon: stir-fried glass noodles
  • yum sen lon: tangy salad made with glass noodles
  • khua mee: pan-fried rice noodles topped with thinly sliced egg omelet
  • pad Lao: stir-fried noodles mixed with lightly scrambled egg
  • lard na: stir-fried noodles covered in gravy
  • drunken noodles: stir-fried broad rice noodles
  • Lao suki

Desserts

  • num wahn: Directly translates to ‘sweet water’ which can contain tapioca and varies fruits
  • voon: Lao Jelly made with coconut milk
  • khao pard
  • khao tom: steamed rice wrapped in banana leaf
  • khao khohp
  • khanom maw kaeng: coconut custard cake
  • sweet steamed pumpkin
  • Fruits: water melon, pineapple, sugar apple, (custard apple or sweetsop), longan, litchi, Asian pear, mango, rose apple (water apple), banana, jackfruit, rambutan, young coconut, orange, sweet tamarind, papaya, durian, sugarcane, pomelo, sapodilla, guava, star apple, mangosteen, melon, santol, langsat, grapes, corossolier (soursop), mak yom, mak num nom

Drinks

Non-alcoholic

  • Num Mak Nao
  • Num Pun
  • Sugar Cane Juice
  • Fruit juice
  • Num mak pow: Coconut juice; with or without coconut meat
  • Ol’ Lien: Lao-style ice coffee; black or with condensed milk

Alcoholic

  • beerlao
  • lau-khao
  • lau-lao (Lao whisky)
  • lau-hai

Beverages

Lao coffee is often called Pakxong coffee (cafe pakxong in Lao), which is grown on the Bolovens Plateau around the town of Pakxong. This area is sometimes said to be the best place in Southeast Asia for coffee cultivation. Both robusta and arabica are grown in Laos, and if you ask for arabica, there is a very good chance the proprietor will know what you are talking about. Most of the arabica in Laos is consumed locally and most of the robusta is exported to Thailand, where it goes into Nescafé. The custom in Laos is to drink coffee in glasses, with condensed milk in the bottom, followed by a chaser of green tea. The highly-regarded tea is also grown on the Bolovens Plateau.

There are two general types of traditional alcoholic beverages, both produced from rice: lao hai and lao lao. Lao hai means jar alcohol and is served from an earthen jar. It is communally and competitively drunk through straws at festive occasions. It can be likened to sake in appearance and flavour. Lao lao or Lao alcohol is more like a whiskey. It is also called lao khao or, in English, white alcohol. However, there is also a popular variant of lao lao made from purple rice, which has a pinkish hue.

In more recent times, the Lao state-owned brewery’s Beerlao has become ubiquitous in Laos and is highly regarded by expatriates and residents alike. The Bangkok Post has described it as the Dom Perignon of Asian beers. In 2004, Time magazine described it as Asia’s best beer. In June 2005, it beat 40 other brews to take the silver prize at Russia’s Osiris Beer Festival, which it had entered for the first time.

Kitchen utensils

The typical Lao stove, or brazier, is called a tao-lo and is fueled by charcoal. It is shaped like a bucket, with room for a single pot or pan to sit on top. The wok, maw khang in Lao, is used for frying and stir frying. Sticky rice is steamed inside of a bamboo basket, a huad, which sits on top of a pot, which is called the maw nung.

A large, deep mortar called a khok is used for pounding tam mak hoong and other foods. It is indispensable in the Lao kitchen.

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