If there is a national pastime in Laos it’s snacking, so this south-east Asian hideaway is the perfect destination for those with an appetite for gastronomic adventure. Our trip was defined as much by the local dishes we devoured as it was by the places we explored and the culture we tapped into. Here are my top ten gastronomic memories of Laos.
We arrived in Laos via ferry from Chiang Khong in northern Thailand, then headed south on a slow boat that meandered down the Mekong for two days, cutting through dense, jungle-like terrain interspersed with sandy riverbanks and stretches of steep, rugged rockface.
Before we knew it, we’d slipped into Laos-time – or more specifically Beerlao time – and were whiling away the hours watching fisherman casting nets in a river the colour of cloudy Gravox chicken gravy as we swigged the local amber nectar from 640 ml bottles before it got warm.
We were as chilled as the beer was when it first came out of the rusty fridge at the back of the boat. At around 50¢ to $1 for a 640 ml bottle we embraced Beerlao – dubbed the national beer of Laos – as our unexpected traveling companion. It accompanied just about every meal we ate – except breakfasts!
Laaping it up
Luang Prabang is a tarted up town of French colonial architecture – think elegant, white villas with shuttered windows – peppered by the spires of Laos temples on a peninsula formed by the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers in central Laos.
Many of the buildings in the UNESCO heritage-listed town have been renovated into hotels, guesthouses, bistros, cafes and patisseries – and it was here that we were introduced to laap (also spelled lahp, larb, lab) – a spicy meat or fish salad, one of Laos’ most famous dishes. Traditionally the meat or fish in laap is served raw and the dish sports entrails – slithers of lung, kidney or liver – and a dash of pungent fermented fish paste called pradek.
On the tourist trail it’s adapted for the Western palate and is usually cooked rather than raw, minus intestines and internal organs, and served with a splash of Westerner-friendlier fish sauce.
The ingredients for laap as are varied as the spelling of its name and renditions vary in different regions of the country. The constants are lots of herbs, particularly coriander and mint, finely sliced shallots, and chilli.
We loved the tanginess that lashings of lime juice brought to our first minced chicken version and the plate full of herbs and aromatic leaves that accompanied the dish.
Another day we hired bicycles and crossed a bridge to get to a laid-back lunch destination located behind the recently planted salad beds that lined the banks of the Nam Khan.
At Dyen Sabai customers are invited to lounge on floor cushions and eat from low tables in private thatched pavilions or larger tiered eating areas, which are surrounded by banana trees, coconut trees and towering clusters of bamboo.
We ordered a platter of traditional Laos snacks, including strips of sweet dried pork with sesame (sin ded dio), a smokey, avocado-green eggplant dip (jeo mak keua), herbaceous Luang Prabang sausage (sai houa mou), and dried mekong riverweed (kap peng kup), sprinkled with sesame seeds, lemongrass, and peanuts. We washed the lot down with ice-cold Beerlao.
A culinary destination that visitors to Luang Prabang should not miss is the night food market, which is a bustling strip of stalls where a full range of ping – grilled meats and whole fish – are on offer. Other stalls that allow customers to fill a plate for $1 from bowls of stir fries, roasted vegetables, rice, and noodles are a drawcard for droves of backpackers and travelers looking for a cheap feed.
We had two culinary epiphanies amongst the market stalls. The first was ping paa - a whole fish, stuffed with lemongrass, clamped between a split bamboo device and grilled over hot coals. The fish was sweet, moist and subtly fragranced. We picked it clean like a couple of scavengers, then tucked into fresh rice paper rolls made before our eyes.
At another stall a young girl wrapped lettuce leaves around a filling of finely shredded lemongrass, a peanut and a spoonful of white paste. She did it robotically as she talked to her neighbour, without even looking at what she was doing. Plunged into a fiery chilli sauce, those hand-made lettuce rolls (i’m still trying to find out what they’re called) were one of the gastronomic heroes of the entire trip.
A taste of Tamarind
Tamarind restaurant is a culinary hotspot in the old quarter of Luang Prabang where a full-house is not unusual and bookings are recommended. The crew here specialise in traditional Laos food, and put together tasting platters of some of the more unusual delicacies.
We cast off a dinner at Tamarind restaurant with a Beerlao snack plate, which included a beer accompanied with a platter of snacks, including banana chips, dried and fried mushrooms, cassava (which looked like small popadom), rice cakes (traditionally made from leftover sticky rice and dried in the sun), and sun-dried river weed. These irresistible nibbles are the salted peanuts of the Laotian beer scene – you can’t stop going back for more.
A warm long bean salad (tua fai daeng) with garlic, oyster sauce and a hint of chilli was stunning in its simplicity. Laos herb omlette (jeun kai) was heavy on aromatic greens and served with a zesty peanut sauce. Grilled pork (ping som moo) wrapped in lemongrass leaves was moist, pink, and fragrant – it was the evening’s winner.
Customers can be put through their paces at the Tamarind cooking school (post to follow).
Mulberry leaf magic
On the beer snack theme we loved the tempura mulberry leaves served at the Organic Mulberry cafe in the riverside town of Vang Vieng. In Ant Egg Soup: The Adventures of a Food Tourist in Laos, Natacha Du Pont De Bie names a chapter for these tasty morsels, which she discovered when she visited the farm in 2000 – before the cafe was open. They were crisp-thin and crunchy, dark green with a glistening golden sheen of batter. They shattered on our tongues with a punch of saltiness.
Makphet – which means chilli – is a restaurant and training school for disadvantaged youths in Vientiane ran by the non-profit organisation Friends International. The young staff were achingly friendly, and their unique and contemporary take on Laotian cuisine won the restaurant a mention in the 2009-2010 Miele Guide as one of Asia’s best restaurants.
Banana flower salad with grilled pork fillet, garlic and tamarind dressing was texturally brilliant. There was a pleasant dryness to the dish, due in part to the heavy addition of delicately shredded banana flower, which had the dual role of adding crunch and soaking up and transporting the sweet-sour-saucy tamarind element. The pork was succulent, its warmth drawing out the sweet nuttiness of sesame seeds sprinkled on top.
Golden pork and dried shrimp parcels with lime and chilli sauce were gorgeous, plump “money bags” bursting with flavour. This was one of our best meals in Laos.
We thought we’d hit a culinary desert when we arrived on the sleepy river island of Don Khon in the Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands) region.
Fried spring rolls served in lakes of oil, tough chicken skewers, and long over-cooked laap were our dining companions for the first few meals. The next day took off on bicycles to circle neighbouring Don Det in search of some decent tucker.
Just over the bridge that linked the two islands we saw a bright sign for the Veggie Patch Organic Farm Restaurant nailed into a tree in a fork in the road. We couldn’t resist the invitation.
Ran by Alex, a Frenchman, and his Australian girlfriend Nic, it had been open less than a week. There were just four low tables and cushions, a kitchen about the size of a garden shed, and an outdoor, hand-built, brick, French bread oven.
Alex was growing lettuce, herbs, and tomatoes in raised beds. We saw these stilted garden beds everywhere on the islands – sprouting spring onions, herbs, and salad leaves. We thought it was to stop the free-ranging chickens from plundering the harvest, but Alex said a bug in the earth ate the roots of vegetables growing in the ground.
Known by the locals as the ‘felang who grows vegetables’ he picked what was needed meal by meal.
We had a thin and golden buckwheat gallette filled with a chunky and fresh tomato and basil salsa, roasted and pureed aubergine and capsicum dip, and an egg. Served with a simple fresh salad, it was a slice of heaven after our torturous meals the previous day.
I cast a glance over my shoulder as we cycled away. Tending his garden, Alex pulled a leaf from a tomato plant, held it to his nose, and inhaled.
We ended our stay on the islands on a culinary high. Our last meal was at Mekong Dream Restaurant and Hammock Lounge – a no-frills, family guesthouse on the river bank.
Here we had ‘fish fondue’ or fish hotpot – which was theatrically cooked at the table in a large electric stockpot. A fish stock bubbled away, the head of a fish bobbing up occasionally to greet us. Dried vermicelli noodles were added. Also on the table were a huge plastic bowl overflowing with herbs and hand sized edible leaves, a bowl of spicy jeow, a plate full of small pieces of raw fish, a bamboo container of sticky rice, and a handful of forks.
The family’s friendly patriarch showed us the ropes. Pick a large leaf, put a large selection of herbs on top, add a slice of fish, wrap it up into a parcel, spear/secure it with a fork, and dunk it in the bubbling cauldron of fish broth.
While it is cooking, take a ball of sticky rice, dip it in the jeow, and pop it in your mouth with a spoonful of the broth. Retrieve your fishy parcel, allow it to cool momentarily, before dipping in jeow and devouring
Repeat 30-40 times until all the fish is used up. Good luck!
We made barely a dent on the bowl of herbs and leaves, slurped about one-third of the broth, and couldn’t finish all the fish. It’s a messy meal, but someone’s got to do it. If you ever visit Don Det, one of Laos’ Four Thousand Islands, make sure it’s you!