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.

More Than a Country

The Lao People’s Democratic Republic, as it’s formally known, is somewhat smaller than the state of Oregon, but it used to be a lot bigger. When the French invaded Southeast Asia (known in the 19th-century West as Indochina), they set the Mekong River as the border between Thailand and Laos, effectively splitting off a significant portion of the country and transforming it into what is now the Isan region of Thailand.

James Syhabout, chef and owner of Hawker Fare (as well as Commis in nearby Oakland), has written one of the few books about the region’s cuisine available in the US, Hawker Fare: Stories & Recipes From a Refugee Chef’s Isan Thai & Lao Roots. While Commis is a New American fine-dining restaurant, at Hawker Fare Syhabout serves both Lao and Isan Thai food, which speaks to the cultural heritage of his family. He says the food of Laos and Isan are in many ways one and the same: “The border’s just a political border,” he explains. “One-third of Thailand is people from Isan, and they’re culturally Lao.”

Forget About Coconut Milk

Syhabout says both Isan and Lao food are herbaceous and vegetable-heavy, and make ample use of bitter flavors. Dishes like naem khao and larb will often incorporate thinly sliced banana flower, which adds bitterness and floral notes, while ingredients like sliced raw Thai eggplant lend bitterness as well as texture. Other common ingredients are fresh bamboo shoots, ginger, galangal, and copious amounts of fresh herbs, like mint, cilantro, makrut lime leaf, and dill.

Syhabout says, “The foods are simpler; they’re not as elaborate [as in Thai cuisine]. It’s also a lot spicier, using dried chilies.” While Isan and Lao foods do occasionally make use of coconut milk, the sweet, thick sauces that are frequently associated with Thai food generally do not appear in Lao cuisine.

Unfortunately, Lao restaurants stateside are still relatively rare. If you’re lucky enough to be able to visit one, or if you can locate a Thai restaurant that serves dishes from Northern Thailand, here are some specialties to look for.

Top 15 Laos traditional dishes you must try

The traditional dishes below in this article are on the tame side and will gently introduce travelers to delicious, must-try Lao foods.

Larb

Translated on most menus as simply a ‘meat salad,’ and also spelled in English commonly as larb or larb (larb or larb would be the most phonetically accurate), larb is one of the ultimate staple Laos foods, a heavyweight.

The word Larb actually refers to any meat prepared immediately after butchering. Always fresh, often eaten raw, this dish is a mainstay in the Laos local diet.

You can choose from any meat that the restaurant has available, but often a certain individual restaurant in Laos may specialize in pork larb, or fish larb.

The chef will often mince, then quickly fry (or keep it raw if you order the raw version) the meat while adding fish sauce, a garden full of fresh herbs (including Laos mint, cilantro, and green onions), lime juice, and toasted sticky rice powder. The rice powder is an ingredient that gives Larb its signature flavor.

All ingredients are mixed until everything is perfectly even. Local versions of Laos larb can also include bile, yes the digestive fluid, adding a unique bitterness to your plate of larb.

As opposed to the larb you’ll find in Thailand (or Isaan more specifically), Laos larb is usually heavier on the herbs.

There’s also koi, a Laos mixed salad very similar to larb, but often made with slightly blanched meat or fish.

Where to find it: Larb is widely available, and there are many different kinds, but I would recommend Pa Kam Tan restaurant in the capital city of Vientiane, or Xieng Thong Phonsavanh Restaurant in Luang Prabang, for two dishes of Larb that were out of this world.

Here is our dedicated article about Laos larb

Khao Niew (Laos Sticky Rice)

There is no Lao food which is more fundamental and ubiquitous than khao niew (also kao niao), or sticky rice.  Its importance to Laotian cuisine cannot be understated.  In fact, Lao often refer to themselves as “Luk Khao Niaow” or “descendants of sticky rice.”  

No meal in Laos is considered complete without sticky rice and because eating is a communal activity, the act of sharing sticky rice also has an important social and cultural role.  Sticky rice is undoubtedly the most essential food in Laos and is the foundation for every meal.

Traditionally steamed in a cone-shaped bamboo basket, the sticky rice must first be soaked overnight in water.  After steaming, mounds of khao niao are placed into a thip khao or covered rice basket. Thip khao can either be small baskets served to individuals or large enough to serve a whole family.

Sticky rice accompanies virtually every Lao dish from simple grilled chicken or fish to spicy soups and dips. Khao niao is always eaten by hand and used like an eating utensil. Rice is rolled into a small ball where an indentation is made with the thumb. The ball of rice is then used as a type of “scoop” for food and sauces.

Where to go: Sticky rice can be found throughout Laos at street-side stalls and in even the smallest of remote restaurants.

Here is our dedicated article about Laos sticky rice

Paeng Pet

Stunning!

Eating raw duck blood, or even pig or goat blood, is very common in Laos.

Fresh blood is a given, and in this duck version, the blood is mixed with some cooked minced duck and organs, and again, heaps of Laos herbs like mint, green onions, and cilantro. They also often add some crispy shallots and peanuts.

Jam-packed full of herbs, yet not even close to being a vegetable dish, this combination of minty-ness, lime juice, and fire-hot from raw local chilies will set you on fire.

The one-two combo of rich, oily goodness from the fried duck meat as well as its gooey and creamy blood will have you coming back for breakfast the next day.

Spooning up the duck blood, squeezing out the lime juice, chasing each bite with a shrimp paste-covered green chili pepper – this dish is just a joy to eat.

Laos friends were raving about this dish, saying that we absolutely couldn’t miss having it, and you need to be on the lookout for Paeng Pet as well.

Where to go: Anna Grilled Duck Restaurant in Vientiane

Jaew

Jaew can refer to any type of dipping sauce, of which Laos has a never-ending abundance.

These dishes always contain chili peppers, and usually some type of grilled vegetable, giving them a distinct smoky flavor, and sometimes fermented fish. Enjoyed with sticky rice or vegetables, this is one food dear to the heart of Laos cuisine.

Made with a mortar and pestle, it’s the pounding action smashing ingredients together that makes the taste so delightfully strong. Full of Laos’ dearly-loved ingredient, the clay-pot fermented fish known as Pa Daek, is umami in the extreme.

First the garlic and raw chilis, then fish sauce and some squeezes from a lime or two, this basis can then be made into any one of a dozen recipes by adding a final vegetable and/or meat ingredient.

Some of the more common types would be Jaew Ma-Keua, made with roasted eggplant, or Jaew Moo, pork meat and pork cracklings pounded together, strikingly similar to the Chicharron Tacos in Mexico City.

Buffalo Jerky is the Secret Ingredient

Jaew bong is another local Laos favorite, a chili dip made with dried chilies, garlic, galangal, shallots, and a little dried buffalo for taste.

Where to go: This dish would usually be available at fresh markets, food markets, as it is mainly a smaller home-cooked dish. We found it at a road-side stall on the way to Phosi Market.

Or Lam

Or Lam (but better pronounced as aw lahm) is always prepared using animal fat (usually pork) instead of vegetable. Traditionally including tough yet flavorful buffalo skin, and Mai Sakaan, a magic ingredient that can only be described in English as ‘spicy chili wood.’

An extremely earthy flavor combination, it usually contains some herbs like dill or holy basil and sometimes a wild ingredient like again, mai sakaan.  The broth is thick and usually kind of sticky – you can almost feel the potent nutrients among all that hearty flavor.

The special wood ingredient is very fibrous, meant to be chewed but then spit out, and it makes for a tasty and fun bite, that tingles the tongue slightly similar to Sichuan pepper. It is full of the oils and juices produced during the long stewing times of different pork parts. Or lam is an amazing Lao dish.

Sticky rice is also a must, and this was one of the most commonly ordered dishes we saw on local tables when visiting Luang Prabang.

Where to go: Find this at any higher-end Laos restaurant, we had a great dish of it at Phamsai Houngchalern Restaurant in Luang Prabang, Laos.

Khao Piak Sen

A great first meal of any full-day Laos food tour, this simple and satisfying bowl of rice noodles can be found on nearly every street corner in Laos.

Common throughout both Laos and neighboring Vietnam, there’s a reason why this dish is so iconic among travelers in the region.

Hours in the making, it begins with a massively deep flavorful meat-stock. The chef is usually up long before dawn, creating a gigantic drum full of soup and wheeling it to a restaurant’s front door. Be on the lookout for this stainless steel container, and a line of excited people beside.

Khao Piak Sen is unique among rice noodle dishes in that they use thick, hand rolled noodles. They blanch the noodles in the soup stock without removing the starch from the noodles, giving the soup an almost gravy like thickness – rather than a typical watery soup.

At the table setting you will usually find a small dish of fresh herbs, hot red peppers fried in oil (insanely good), shrimp paste, and often some dried crushed peanuts as well.

The history of this dish goes back thousands of years, the better-known version made with rice instead of noodles. (I had a great dish of it myself, called Khao Piak Kao, on the way to our Khmu Village Homestay). If you find it, don’t forget to ask the chef for a few pieces of lime to take your rice soup to the next level.

Where to find it: There are a few stalls in the morning market in Luang Prabang

Khao Soi

Laos is such a laid-back place that I’m sure the most common argument must be over which restaurant has the best Khao Soi.

You can immediately see how the Laos version differs from the one famous in Thailand in that they make it without using gati (coconut milk). Instead of the creamy, slightly sour Northern Thai version, I noticed right away how cleanly I could taste the meat, a warming pork blend of tomatoey spices.

The minced pork is slow cooked for hours, traditionally over a charcoal fire, the chef turning the meat while mixing in roasted chilis and chili oil as well as herbs that have been crushed using a mortar and pestle.

I tasted galangal, lemongrass, and the small Laos home-grown sour tomatoes as well. This is a dish that will capture both your eye and your appetite – Guaranteed customer satisfaction.

Where to go: The best dish we had was in Luang Prabang, at an unmarked home-restaurant across from the Wat Sene Temple.

Tam

The word ‘Umami’ was invented to describe this next plate

To go a day without eating Tam is almost a challenge in its own right when traveling in Laos. Always paired with sticky rice, this is literally the staple of the Laotian diet.

Made with a variety of fruits, the most common way to have it is with wonderfully crispy shredded green (unripe) papaya, known as tam mak hoong.

Each ingredient is either pounded, sliced, or shredded, but they are all raw, and go one by one into a massive pestle. The pounding of the mortar, the ‘Tam’ action, is what gives this dish its name.

To talk about Tam Mak Hoong as ‘Papaya salad’ though, won’t quite prepare you for what you’ll get when you order a great version. Pa Daek, that dearly loved fermented fish sauce addition in nearly every part of Laos local cuisine, shows its presence nowhere more than in this dish.

Mak Hoong means Papaya, but you can order it with any fruit or vegetable you see around you. Try pointing to something, say the word ‘Tam,’ (sounds like ‘Thumb’) and wait to see if the chef starts to reach for another handful of fresh chilis.

Using what you see around you would be simply following what Laos people have done for centuries – trying out anything that grows as something for fermented fish juices and mashed chilis to grab onto, and thoroughly soak with flavor.

Another impressive version that will blow your taste buds is tam mak kluay, a green banana pounded mixture.

It took me a minute to even begin to put into words the feelings that were coursing through my taste-buds while eating this.

If you can imagine every flavor center of the tongue being pushed to maximum stimulation, that would be the same feeling it will give you. It was insanely sour, while also fully bitter amidst blazing chili heat, while also just umami in the extreme – this dish has it all.

Where to go: Som Tam Luang Prabang in Vientiane

Sai Oo-ah

This is one of those Laos foods where you’ll be ordering seconds before you’ve finished your first plate.

Well deserving of a spot on the list of “World’s Best Uses of Meat,” it would be worth your time to visit Laos just to try these.

My mind drifted off as my tongue rejoiced in the fatty goodness and smoky aroma. Sai Oo-ah is the perfect sausage balance of firm, springy, and juicy – the taste available in a single bite is astounding.

Every millimeter of this lovely little sausage is packs absolutely incredible flavor. Using a mixture of pork belly, skin, and minced meat, it can also include diced galangal, chopped green onions, cilantro with a ton of dill, and of course a kick from the fresh chili peppers.

Eat this hot, directly from the grill, and get another two or three in a to-go banana leaf packet.

What truly makes Sai Oo-ah stand out from any other sausage around the world, is the massive herb quantity.

Do yourself a favor, order another one to go

Where to find it: Try it anywhere on the streets of Laos.

Naem

This sun-ripened pork delicacy is a must-find during any morning market stroll when you are in Laos.

Gently sour flavors and mushy meat goodness, Naem ferments to perfection. This pork mixture cooks with steam before being hung out, usually in bright sunshine for 1-2 days.

Containing various combinations of what might feel at first like all the lesser used parts of the pig (and they most definitely are), this dish is really a beautiful and deliciously efficient way to use more than just the usual cuts of ribs, shoulders, or porkchops.

Cartilage crunching, chewy skin goodness, don’t forget the powerfully hot chili peppers, all smoothed together by your necessary dose of collagen, Naem is yet another example of how Laos cuisine is just full of ideas for how to make the best use of all that nature provides.

Where to go: Food night market next to the walking street in Luang Prabang, look for it on a seller’s table. At the morning market in Luang Prabang you will find an excellent version.

Mok

‘Mok’ is the term in Laos for a banana leaf wrap of a near infinite combinations. Typically using either banana or taro leaves, the cooking style is always either steaming, or roasting over coals.

Opening one of these is always exciting when there are so many variations out there to try. Fish, herbs, spices, or even pig brains, are common in a good Mok. And sometimes, if you don’t know all the ingredients, you’ll end up with what I call a “mystery mok.”

Many look similar on the outside, so you might have to pick a few from the grill until you get the one you actually have in mind.  Some chefs use a system of toothpick placement, half-toothpicks or full. I say just buy one of everything and guarantee yourself success.

Lao style mok goes great with sticky rice. I recommend trying the one with pig brains, called Mok Samong, or a gooey and warm bamboo salad, Mok Naw Mai, like the one in the photo below.

Where to go: Grills selling this will pop up anywhere, and its also common at markets like the Phosi fresh market in Luang Prabang.

Gaeng Naw Mai (Bamboo and Yanang Leaf Stew)

This stew is made from bamboo shoots and flavored with yanang leaf extract. Luangrath describes the flavor of the yanang plant, native to Southeast Asia, as similar to that of spinach. Its leaves are thought to have medicinal qualities, though they’re too fibrous and chewy to actually eat.

Instead, the leaves are placed in water and rubbed to extract their juices; the extract is then used, along with bamboo shoots, garlic, chilies, and padaek, a type of incredibly strong, unfiltered fish sauce, to make the stew’s base. 

It is the fact that padaek is much stronger, funkier, and more fragrant than the fish sauce most Westerners are likely to be familiar with, and it is common to find small shreds of fermented fish floating in it. The stew’s other ingredients can vary wildly and are usually determined by whatever happens to be on hand, including greens, wild mushrooms, all kinds of herbs, meats like pork or fish, dried fish skin, and whole quail eggs.

Where to go: Doi Ka Noi Restaurant in Vientiane

Khaiphaen (Dried Riverweed)

Khaiphaen (also transliterated kai paen, kai phaen, kai paen, and kaipen), is a Northern Laos speciality.  With a similar texture to Japanese nori, this tasty, crispy snack is made from riverweed which grows in Lao rivers.  The riverweed (which is actually an algae) grows on rocks during the months January to March when the rivers are cool and running fast.  

The algae is collected by hand, washed and then pressed into thin sheets which are spread over bamboo frames to dry in the open air.  The sheets are also sprinkled with slivers of dried tomato, onion, garlic and sesame seeds.

Once dry, the large sheets are then cut into small pieces before being fried and served with jaew bong.  Kai paen makes an ideal snack to have with drinks and is the perfect edible souvenir to take home to family and friends.

Where to go: Ka Tib Khao Restaurant in Vientiane or Tamarind Restaurant in Luang Prabang

Fried Insects

Crunchy crickets, water bugs, bamboo caterpillars, grasshoppers and ants are among the edible insect snacks consumed in Laos.  These grubs and bugs are most usually fried in oil along with kaffir lime leaves.  Lao are particularly adept at knowing what can and cannot be eaten and where to gather these tasty morsels.

I will often see my Lao friends diving into trees and bushes to emerge triumphantly with a handful of something small and wriggly to eat.  A popular snack to enjoy with Beerlao, why not broaden your palate with a plate of edible insects when travelling through Laos?

Where to go: Dong Mak Khai Insect Market in Vientiane; morning market in Luang Prabang

Soop Pak – not “Soup” but “Soop”

Last but not least, another impressive food on the local menu in Laos is this sour, herb and vegetables filled mix with sesame seeds. You can find many variations of soop pak, some with string beans, others with spinach like greens, and possibly my favorite, a local version with cashew tree leaves.

The vegetables are typically blanched, mixed with herbs, and the most necessary ingredient is a huge amount of sesame seeds to wrap it all together and give it its unique nutty taste.

Where to go: Soop pak is common at Laotian food stalls selling a variety of different stews and jaew. Ask them for soop pak, and they will surely have some variation of it. Find it at the night market just off the walking street in historical Luang Prabang.

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My name is Jolie, I am a Vietnamese girl growing up in the countryside of Hai Duong, northern Vietnam. Since a little girl, I was always dreaming of exploring the far-away lands, the unseen beauty spots of the world. My dream has been growing bigger and bigger day after day, and I do not miss a chance to make it real. After graduating from the univesity of language in Hanoi, I started the exploration with a travel agency and learning more about travel, especially responsible travel. I love experiencing the different cultures of the different lands and sharing my dream with the whole world. Hope that you love it too!

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