In Laos, food is the most important activity throughout the day. In the local language, it is quite common for people to greet each other by immediately asking, “Have you eaten food?” (“Kin khao laeo bor?”). Food is often the topic of many conversations, especially when eating and sharing dishes between friends and family. Additionally, Lao people take great passion in sharing traditional dishes with curious travelers.
Laotian dishes are very similar to Thailand and Vietnam in terms of flavor and ingredients, which often consist of fresh herb, spices, noodles, and rice. Khao niaw (sticky rice) is a staple food among the Laotians. Traditionally steamed in a cone-shaped bamboo basket, the rice is then placed in a covered basket, where it is eaten by hand alongside spicy soup, and meat-based dishes. Eating in Laos is also a communal activity, where dishes are shared by all at the table.
Lao cuisine or Laotian cuisine is the cuisine of Laos, which is distinct from other Southeast Asian cuisines.
The staple food of the Lao is steamed sticky rice. In the Lao language, sticky rice is known as khao niao: khao means 'rice', and niao means 'sticky'. In fact, the Lao eat more sticky rice than any other people in the world. Sticky rice is considered the essence of what it means to be Lao. It is a common belief within the Lao community that no matter where they are in the world, sticky rice will always be the glue that holds the Lao communities together, connecting them to their culture and to Laos. Often the Lao will refer to themselves as luk khao niaow, which can be translated as 'children or descendants of sticky rice'.
The trifecta of Laos' national cuisine are sticky rice, larb, and tam mak hoong. The most famous Lao dish is larb (sometimes also spelled laab or laap), a spicy mixture of marinated meat or fish that is sometimes raw (prepared like ceviche) with a variable combination of herbs, greens, and spices. Another Lao invention is a spicy green papaya salad dish known as tam mak hoong more famously known to the West as som tam.
Lao cuisine has many regional variations, corresponding in part to the fresh foods local to each region. A French legacy is still evident in the capital city, Vientiane, where baguettes are sold on the street and French restaurants are common and popular, which were first introduced when Laos was a part of French Indochina.
Top 10 Laos dishes you must try
Sticky rice (Khao Niaw)
Sticky rice is a staple throughout the country. It is commonly said that Lao citizens eat more sticky rice than anyone else in the world. It is traditionally steamed in a cone-shaped bamboo basket, and placed in a covered basket where it is eaten alongside many dishes. In Laos, there should always be sticky rice available to eat at any time of day.
Check out the dedicated article about Laos sticky rice
Minced Meat Salad (Larb)
This dish is a type of minced meat salad, and widely considered to be the national dish of Laos. You can find Larb made with chicken, beef, duck, fish, or pork. It is usually flavored with fish sauce, lime juice, fermented fish juice, ground rice, and fresh herbs. It will usually come with a few chili peppers, which you can avoid eating if you cannot handle spicy food. Larb is an essential dish to pair with sticky rice.
Check out the dedicated article about Laos Larb
Green Papaya Salad (Tam Mak Hoong)
Green Papaya Salad is typically made with shreds of unripen papaya. It is of Lao origin, but served in different varieties around the region. Green Papaya Salad was a dish imported to Bangkok from Lao immigrants. It is similar to Thailand’s Som Tam dish, but does not contain peanuts and is usually made with fermented fish sauce. Other ingredients include palm sugar, lime, garlic, tomatoes, dried shrimp, chilis, and raw eggplant. All of these ingredients are pounded together in a traditional mortar and pestle.
Check out the differences between Laos-style & Thai-style papaya salad and
Steamed Fish (Mok Pa)
Mok Pa is steamed fish that is typically wrapped up in banana leaves and tied with bamboo string. It is prepared with lemongrass, kaffir leaves, green onions, fish sauce, green chilis, shrimp paste, and fresh dill. All these ingredients are mixed together with steamed fish. Mok Pa should never be served dry, and is also another dish that must be paired with sticky rice.
Baguette Paté (Khao Jii Paté)
Due to its French influence, delicious baguettes are commonly found on many streets in Laos. This baguette sandwich largely resembles a Vietnamese Banh Mi, but instead of using cilantro and pickles, the Lao version consists of watercress, grated carrots, and a good amount of chile-garlic sauce. It is a quick meal that can be enjoyed on the go for either breakfast or lunch.
Wet Noodles (Khao Piak Sen)
Khao Piak Sen is a chewy noodle soup that has a similar consistency to Udon, but it is made with rice instead of wheat. It is considered to be a comfort food in Laos, typically made with pork or chicken, lemongrass, galangal, shallots, garlic, chopped coriander leaves, bean sprouts, and served with freshly sliced limes.
The most crucial factor is the broth, which should be slowly cooked with bones for the best flavor. At many restaurants, you will be encouraged to add in your own amount of sugar, chili sauce, dried chili powder, fish sauce, or soy sauce.
Pa Mak Niao (Steamed fish with sour sauce)
Fresh water fish is a staple of the Lao diet and steamed fish with citrus is served both at home and in restaurants. Lao chefs steam vegetables, rice and fish in bamboo baskets that fit over special aluminium vessels that hold water and are placed over open coals or on a gas range.
Lao Sausages (Sai Uah, Sai Gok)
Lao-style sausages are an herb-infused meat that are unlike any other sausage you have tried before. These pork sausages are mixed with lemongrass, galangal, kaffir leaves, shallots, cilantro, chillies, and fish sauce. You may also find another variant of this sausage in Laos, known as Soured Lao sausage.
In addition to the above ingredients, sticky rice is included and the sausage sits outside for a couple of days before it becomes sour. Sausages are essential to many dishes, and must be eaten by hand with sticky rice.
Or Lam (Lao Stew)
Or lam is a mildly spicy and thick Lao stew that originates from Luang Prabang. It contains beans, eggplant, lemongrass, basil, chilies, wood ear mushrooms, cilantro, and green onion.
A unique ingredient in this stew is mai sa kaan a locally grown vine that’s not exactly edible (you’re supposed to chew and spit it out). Or lam also contains dried buffalo meat, beef, or chicken meat.
Lao Beer (Bia Lao)
While Lao beer is not technically food, it is an essential companion of any dish when your in the country. It is the most famous brand of beer found in Laos, and widely considered to be the best tasting beer in the region. Lao beer is traditionally served with ice in small glasses, where it is enjoyed amongst friends and families.
If you find yourself invited for a glass, be prepared to finish a few more bottles than you may expect!
A bite of history & origin
The Lao originally came from a northern region that is now part of China. As they moved southward, they brought their traditions with them.
Due to historical Lao migrations from Laos into neighboring regions, Lao cuisine has influenced the mainly Lao-populated region of Northeastern Thailand (Isan), and Lao foods were also introduced to Cambodia and Northern Thailand (Lanna) where the Lao have migrated.
With the Columbian exchange, non-native crops such as tomato, papaya, sweetcorn, pineapple and chili peppers were introduced to Southeast Asia probably through the various seaports of modern-day Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam via the Philippines and Malacca. Through trades with the Portuguese and Europeans, acceptance and cultivation of non-native crops and ingredients quickly spread throughout Southeast Asia.
By the mid-1500s, the Europeans were already exploring and trading with mainland Southeast Asia reaching as far as Vientiane and Luang Prabang, Laos. Some of the more notable Europeans who had travelled as far as Vientiane and Luang Prabang or wrote extensively about their experiences were Fernão Mendes Pinto (1542-1545), Diogo Veloso and Blas Ruiz (1596), Geebard van Wusthof (1641), Giovanni Filippo de Marini (1642-1648), Jean-Baptiste Pallegoix (1830), and Henri Mouhot (1861)
Simon de la Loubère (1642-1729) observed that the cultivation of the papaya was already widespread in Siam around the early-1700s and by the time Jean-Baptiste Pallegoix (1830) arrived as missionary to Bangkok; the papaya and chili peppers was already fully integrated in the Lao territory, dependencies and the Southeast Asian food culture as a whole.
According to Henri Mouhot (1826–1861), French explorer and "discoverer" of Angkor Wat, during his trip to Luang Prabang, noted that the Laotians absolutely adored chili peppers.
Laos vs Thai Cuisine
In his book, Culture and Customs of Laos, Arne Kislenko noted the following about Lao cuisine:
Any discussion about Lao cuisine cannot be limited to Laos.
There are approximately six times more ethnic Lao in the Isan region of northeastern Thailand than in Laos itself, which makes it necessary to go beyond national boundaries in search of definitively Lao food.
In fact, with the recent droves of migrants from Isan further south to Bangkok, the Thai capital has in many respects become the epicenter of Lao cuisine.
Some estimate that more Lao are there than in any other city in the world, including Vientiane.
There are also sizable expatriate communities in places like the United States and France that make for numerous culinary variations abroad.
According to the cultural anthropologist Penny Van Esterik, during the 1950s and 1960s, Lao food was little known by the central Thais and could only be found where there were gatherings of Lao or northeasterners:
In the 1950s and 1960s glutinous rice, roast chicken, laab, somtam (papaya salad), and other Lao favorites were available in Bangkok only around the boxing stadium where northeastern boxers and fans gathered to eat and drink before and after boxing matches. Lao food could also be found outside construction sites in mobile food carts providing construction workers from the northeast with their regional foods and beside gas stations serving long-distance bus drivers
At the conclusion of the Vietnam War, between 1975 and 1995, it was estimated that approximately 200,000 Lao refugees crossed the Mekong River into Thailand. Most stayed in the refugee camps while other moved to Bangkok looking for work.
With the opening of the Mittraphap Road and the northeastern railway connecting central Thailand to her northern provinces created a gateway for one of Thailand's biggest inter-regional migrations during the economic boom of the 1980s, as demand for labour increased.
It was estimated that between 1980–1990 about 1.1 million northeasterners moved from the northeast to central Thailand and Bangkok. This, in turn, helped popularize and create an unprecedented demand for Lao food outside of Laos and the northeast.
Van Esterik also noted that, "in attempting to include northeastern food in a standardized national cuisine, middle-class Bangkok selected and modified the taste of a few dishes—grilled chicken, somtam, laab—by reducing the chili peppers and increasing the sugar, and ignored other dishes such as fermented fish and insects." According to Professor Sirijit Sunanta these dishes were then represented as Thai food when presented to the world.
Although more ethnic Lao live in Thailand than in Laos, and Lao cuisine is key to popularising Thai food abroad, the word "Lao" is hardly mentioned; perhaps due to forced Thaification (1942–present), an official attempt to promote national unity and "Thainess", in which any mention of "Lao" and other non-Thai descriptors were removed and replaced with "northeastern Thai" or "Isan".
Consequently, Thaification has led to social discrimination against northeasterners, and the word "Lao" became a derogatory term. Being "Lao" was stigmatized as being uneducated and backward, thus causing many northeasterners to be ashamed to be known as Lao. More recently, as Lao identity loses its stigma, there is now a real sense of resurgence and pride in Lao identity, particularly among the Isan youth.
In the West, even with sizable expatriate communities, Lao cuisine is still virtually unknown, even though much of what is served in Thai restaurants is likely to be Lao or Lao-owned. In fact, unbeknownst to most people, when they eat their favourite som tam, larb, and sticky rice at their favourite Thai or northeastern Thai (Isan) restaurants they are actually eating the Thai versions of traditional Lao food.
This accidental reinforcement of Thaification by the expatriate Lao communities and Lao restaurateurs is well observed by Malaphone Phommasa and Celestine Detvongsa in their article, Lao American Ethnic Economy:
Unlike […] ethnic specific stores, Lao-owned restaurants are doing better in reaching out to the general public. Although there are some restaurants that advertised as singularly "Laotian", many Lao restaurants are established under the guise of Thai restaurants and Thai/Lao restaurants to entice mainstream customers.
Because most foreigners are unfamiliar with Laotian food, Lao entrepreneurs have aimed to acquire more business by advertising themselves as Thai restaurants: the latter have successfully achieved popularity with the mainstream population.
These restaurateurs would then incorporate Lao dishes onto the menu. Although there are many similarities between Lao and northern Thai cuisine, certain foods will distinguish a true Thai restaurant from a Lao-owned restaurant would be the inclusion of "sticky rice" on the menu...
There is now a growing movement to promote Lao cuisine led by Chef Seng and executive chef Phet Schwader, to name a few.
Laos food culture
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 (mai thu) 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.
Laos traditional food
Experiencing all that Lao cuisine has to offer is not an experience for the faint of heart. Laos’ famous fermented fish sauce, padek, has a distinct fragrance. Insects ranging from silk worms to ants and crickets can be found on many menus. Raw and cooked meats from all manner of animals are grilled and served on a stick or sautéed and served with rice.
Here is our dedicated article regarding the top 10 traditional Laos food dishes
Laos street food
A fan of street food? Laos is your heaven! No doubt! You can find plenty of street food on offer everywhere you travel in Laos. From the rural towns of Muang Sing or Muang Ngoi to the big cities of Vientiane and Luang Prabang.
Looking for a culinary adventure in Laos? Sonasia Holiday has arranged a hands-on Lao cooking class in Luang Prabang, Vientiane, or Pakse. Explore the heart of Lao cuisine by making some of the most popular Lao dishes with the guidance of local chefs.
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The core difference between Thai green papaya salad and Laos green papaya salad is the liquid component of the recipe along with the topping.
Thai papaya salad, referred to as Som Tam, uses mainly fish sauce as the flavoring condiment and is generally topped with crushed roasted peanut.
Laos papaya salad, referred to as Tam Mak Hoong, uses fermented crab dip (nam pu) and padaek as flavoring condiments
The classic green papaya salad is loved throughout southeast Asia in various forms, but the two most popular are the Thai and Lao style papaya salad.
Padaek, sometimes known as padek, or Lao fish sauce or pla-ra in Thailand, is a traditional Lao condiment made from pickled or fermented fish that has been cured. It is thicker and more seasoned than the fish sauce more commonly seen throughout Thailand and Vietnam, often containing chunks of fish. The fermentation takes a long time, giving padaek an aroma similar to cheeses like Époisses.
Unlike other versions of fish sauce in Southeast Asia, padaek is made from freshwater fish, owing to the landlocked nature of the former kingdom of Lan Xang. Padaek is used in many dishes, most notably tam maak hoong, a spicy Lao papaya salad.
Laos street food is vibrant, colorful, packed with herbs and chilies, and the combinations of ingredients are guaranteed to thrill your taste-buds.
From Luang Prabang to Vientiane, you will not believe how complex, yet refreshing at the same time, the scene of Laos street food can be.
From scrumptious sweets to deliciously charred meat-on-a-stick, each afternoon around dust multitudes of food carts converge to Vientiane’s kerbsides peddling cheap and flavorful eats to the hungry masses.
The street food scene of Luang Prabang will attract you at the first sight once you step into the colorful night market. The smell, the taste, or the various dishes on offers all combine to make it something you cannot deny.
If you have already traveled to Laos, you will realize that it is one of the highlighted dishes of your trip.
Larb is basically a salad - made out of meat. (So, like, the best KIND of salad, right?). It’s a meat salad from Laos that has made its way into Thailand and other areas of Southeast Asia, as well as many countries in the world.
Like other dishes in Southeast Asian cooking, the dish combines savory flavors with fresh ones - fresh herbs like cilantro, scallions, and mint, and fresh lime juice. The addition of toasted ground rice also adds texture and nuttiness to the final dish.
Sticky rice is the staple food of any Laotian meal. It is called “khao niew” and made from glutinous rice. It contains a higher sugar level than normal rice, which gives it its stickiness.
Despite the name (glutinous rice), Laotian sticky rice is gluten free and therefore great for people with celiac. Sticky rice is steamed and traditionally served in small cute bamboo baskets in Laos called “lao aep khao”.
Sticky rice is a traditional Lao and Thai base dish that is served and paired another delicious main meal. You typically do not eat sticky rice on its own unless it’s been transformed into a dessert that is doused in coconut milk or sugar (if you’ve had Lao food, what I’m referring to here is purple rice).
Sticky rice is a transparent and opaque rice that requires soaking overnight for preparations. Once cooked, the rice “sticks” to each other, and you use your hands to eat the rice by forming delicious little balls of rice and putting it into your mouth!
Experiencing all that Lao cuisine has to offer is not an experience for the faint of heart. Laos’ famous fermented fish sauce, padek, has a distinct fragrance. Insects ranging from silkworms to ants and crickets can be found on many menus. Raw and cooked meats from all manner of animals are grilled and served on a stick or sautéed and served with rice.
Ah, while we are learning about Laos traditional dishes, why don't we take a break and take a bite of Laos food history and culture.
In case you want to move directly to the dishes that you prefer, just navigate via the below table of content.
Fresh herbs, hearty soups and powerful, funky fish flavors are just a few of the hallmarks of Laotian food, a cuisine that isn’t widely represented in the world but is showcased at a number of excellent restaurants in some big cities like NYC, Seattle, London, Sydney, or Melbourne.
Papaya salad, beef jerky, sticky rice and laap, or larb, are examples of typical Laotian dishes - there’s a commonality with Northern Thai food that frequently causes the two cuisines to be lumped together. Lao food, though, has unique characteristics that give it a flavor all its own.
Below is our recommended list of restaurants in Laos & some big cities where you can really enjoy the authentic Laos food.
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