I love the cuisine of all parts of Asia so I was pretty sure I would enjoy food from Laos. I had trouble finding a few ingredients but otherwise, I think this was a successful week!
Laos is the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia, located between Thailand and Vietnam. It is thought that the native Lao people originally came from a northern region which is part of present-day China.
The present-day historic and cultural identity of Laos can be traced back to Lan Xang, which was one of the largest kingdoms in Southeast Asia from the 13th to the 18th century. The kingdom became a wealthy trade hub due to its central location. However, a period of internal conflict caused the kingdom to split into three.
The three kingdoms came under a French protectorate in 1893, and were united to form what is known today as Laos. There was a period during World War II when Japan occupied the region, and then it was re-colonized by the French before becoming independent in 1953 as the Kingdom of Laos.
A civil war began in 1959 and lasted until after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, when the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party came into power and ended both the civil war and the monarchy. Laos became dependent on military and economic aid from the Soviet Union, until it was dissolved in 1991.
Laos is still governed by the Laos People’s Revolutionary Party today, and the country is often criticized for human rights abuses. It has one of the fastest growing economies in the region.
What Do People Eat in Laos?
Lao cuisine shares many similarities with that of its neighbors, particularly Thailand. It is thought that the similarities come from the many native Lao people living in Thailand, and that over the years, many Lao dishes were modified slightly and then presented as Thai.
Lao food is characterized by strong, funky flavors, chilies, and lots of fresh herbs. There are some French influences such as baguettes, which are quite common, particularly in the capital city of Vientiane.
The staple Lao food is sticky rice. It’s so popular that Laos has the highest sticky rice consumption per capita in the world! It’s a common addition to many meals, and there are many types available.
Pork, chicken, and fish are all popular, but so are a variety of insects. Dried water buffalo skin is also a common ingredient, particularly in stews. Fish sauce and, in particular, a fermented fish sauce called ‘padaek’ are common seasonings.
Dishes often feature chili, as well as a wide range of fresh herbs and seasonings including garlic, galangal, makrut lime leaves, lemongrass, cilantro, and mint.
What I Made
- Khao Poon (Red Curry Soup)
- Sin Savanh (Beef Jerky)
- Khao Jee (Sticky Rice Cakes)
- Larb (Pork Salad)
- Tam Mak Hoong (Green Papaya Salad)
- Khao Piak Sen (Chicken Noodle Soup)
Scroll down to read about other popular Lao dishes I didn’t make!
Khao Poon (Red Curry Soup)
This red curry noodle soup is traditionally made with fish in Laos, but chicken versions are also common nowadays and that’s the version I made. ‘Khao’ means ‘rice’, referring to the rice vermicelli noodles, and ‘poon’ means ‘everything’, since this dish is topped with so many fresh herbs it’s almost like topping it with everything. Khao poon is often served for breakfast in Laos, but I made it for dinner.
I started by simmering my chicken in chicken broth with some galangal, makrut lime leaves, and lemongrass. The recipe called for chicken breasts but I used bone-in chicken thighs. This is because I had originally saved another recipe to use but on the day I went to make it, the site was down! So I had to follow a different recipe based on what I had.
Once the chicken was cooked through, I took the meat off the bones and shredded it.
Next, I heated up some oil and added minced shallots, galangal, garlic, makrut lime leaves, and paprika. The recipe also also called for ‘lemon leaves’ in this step but they weren’t in the ingredients list so I wasn’t sure what was meant by that. But upon looking at the recipe again now, I think it was meant to be minced lemongrass, since there’s a note about making sure you mince the lemongrass really well. However, the only lemongrass in the ingredients list is specified as ‘smashed’ and I put that in the broth. I also think the paprika feels like an odd addition but the recipe source seemed really authentic so I went with it!
I added red curry paste and coconut milk, then stirred in the shredded chicken and the strained broth I cooked it in. I was meant to add padaek at this point too, which is a strongly flavored, fermented fish sauce. I had thought I’d be able to get it at the Asian supermarket but they didn’t have it (I actually have a few Asian supermarkets in my area and I couldn’t seem to find it at any of them while searching on Instacart). So I added some regular fish sauce instead, which is much less potent.
I cooked some rice vermicelli noodles, then added them to a bowl with chicken and broth. I garnished the soup with cilantro, mint, bean sprouts, green onion, Thai chili, and lime juice. This recipe also called for shredded cabbage and lettuce, but the one I was initially going to use didn’t so I didn’t have either. My Instacart shopper also brought me green Thai chilies instead of the red ones I asked for, so they got kind of lost in the herbs.
This was a delicious dish and it was pretty easy to make too. I’d definitely make it again! The recipe I used is from Cooking with Lane.
Sin Savanh (Beef Jerky)
Homemade beef jerky is something I’ve always wanted to try, and this was the time. Sin savanh is a type of beef jerky popular in Laos.
I used thinly sliced top round and marinated it in a mixture of minced garlic, minced ginger, salt, sugar, sesame seeds, white pepper, Maggi seasoning sauce, and water. I used ginger instead of galangal powder, which the recipe called for. I did have a go at microplaning some galangal but it wasn’t really working, so I used ginger instead.
After marinating for about an hour, I lay out the beef on a wire rack set over a baking sheet and put it in the oven at the lowest setting until it was dried out enough that I could consider it jerky. This took nearly 4 hours.
I was pretty pleased with how this came out; I wasn’t sure how successful I’d be without a food dehydrator. The jerky had really good flavor and was the perfect texture.
The recipe I used is from Saeng’s Kitchen.
Khao Jee (Sticky Rice Cakes)
This is a really simple dish that’s popular in Laos (and also in Thailand). It’s basically just sticky rice that’s been formed into balls and grilled.
First, I steamed some sticky rice. Then I made patties out of it. I brushed them with oil and seasoned them with salt, and then I grilled them. Or, at least, I tried! I have a George Foreman grill so I was trying to use that, but despite the oil the patties were just sticking too much. So I transferred them to my cast iron skillet (with a little oil) instead, where they didn’t stick at all. This meant I didn’t get nice grill marks on them.
Once the patties were crisp on both sides, I brushed them with eggs seasoned with Maggi seasoning sauce, and cooked them a little longer.
A traditional serving sauce would be made from fish sauce, garlic, chilies, and lime juice. However, I was feeling kind of tired on the day I was making these so I instead just got out some sweet chili sauce and added a bit of fish sauce and lime juice. It may not have been traditional but it tasted delicious!
These rice cakes were pretty good. I loved the crisp texture on the outside and they did have pretty decent flavor even without the sauce.
The recipe I used is from Simply Suwanee.
Larb (Pork Salad)
Larb is something I’ve made before, though I think it was a very simplified version. It’s a salad made from meat or fish and fresh herbs, and it’s considered the national dish of Laos. I used pork, which seems to be the most popular choice.
I started by toasting a small amount of sticky rice, which I then pounded into a powder in my mortar and pestle.
Next, I cooked the ground pork, and then I added the toasted rice powder, sugar, fish sauce, and lime juice.
After another minute or so of cooking, I added chili, shallots, scallions, cilantro, and mint, and after a couple more minutes it was done. I did add a little more fish sauce after tasting.
This was really good and it’s something I will definitely make again. I served it with sticky rice and papaya salad (next dish).
The recipe I used for this is from The Woks of Life.
Tam Mak Hoong (Green Papaya Salad)
Green papaya salad is really popular in both Lao and Thai cuisine. The Lao version is more strongly flavored, primarily because of the addition of fermented fish sauce, which I was unable to get as mentioned above. So what I made was probably closer to the Thai version.
After preparing all my ingredients, I started by pounding some garlic and Thai chilies in my mortar and pestle. Then I added some green beans (which I’d blanched because I wasn’t sure I wanted to eat them completely raw) and pounded them just enough so they were bruised.
Next, I added some halved cherry tomatoes and pounded them until they released their juices. I added shrimp paste, fish sauce, lime juice, tamarind concentrate, and sugar. I was also supposed to add fermented fish sauce, crab paste, and pickled crab at this stage, but I added more shrimp paste and fish sauce instead. I almost did buy the crab paste, but decided not to because I wasn’t sure what else I would use it for (though maybe it could be interchangeable with shrimp paste in some recipes; I just don’t know enough about it). I didn’t buy the pickled crab for the same reason.
Once everything was well combined, I had to transfer the mixture to a bowl to finish, because the mortar of my mortar and pestle wasn’t big enough. I added shredded papaya and carrot, as well as a bit more lime juice, and pounded it lightly.
I thought this tasted okay but it definitely felt like it was missing something—like the ingredients I didn’t buy, I’m sure! I’d like to try this again some time when I am able to get all the proper ingredients.
The recipe I used is from Simply Suwanee.
Khao Piak Sen (Chicken Noodle Soup)
This is a Lao take on chicken noodle soup, with fresh rice noodles that are usually made by hand. I fully intended on making the noodles, but the supermarket didn’t have rice flour (even though I know I’ve got it from there before). So I decided to just add the rice flour to my Instacart order, which I made to get some of the harder-to-find Asian ingredients. However, I made the order on the day I was planning to make this dish and my Instacart shopper got me mung bean vermicelli instead of rice flour. Not even close!
I ended up making this later in the week as a result, since I didn’t have any appropriate rice noodles as a replacement. By the time I did make it, I didn’t have time to make the noodles from scratch, so I used store-bought rice noodles instead.
I started by frying some garlic and shallots in oil for the garnish. My shallots didn’t come out as crispy as I would have liked but some pieces were on the verge of burning, so I had to take them out.
Next, I charred some onion and garlic for my broth. I chopped it, along with some uncharred onion and garlic, and added it to a pot with some of the oil I used for frying the garlic and shallots. I also added lemongrass, garlic, makrut lime leaves, and cilantro stems.
After the onions were soft, I added some bone-in chicken thighs and covered them with water. I added salt, soy sauce, fish sauce, and sugar, and let the pot simmer until the chicken was cooked through. The original recipe called for a whole chicken, but I used thighs since I was halving it.
I removed the chicken and let the liquid in the pot boil while I took the meat off the bones and shredded it. After it had boiled a while, I strained the broth and returned it to the pot.
I cooked the noodles in the broth, then transferred them to a bowl with some chicken. I ladled over some of the broth and garnished with green onions, cilantro, fried garlic, fried shallots, and a little lime juice. I was meant to add chilies too but I completely forgot.
This broth had amazing flavor and it was overall a great dish. I’d like to try it again one day but this time, make the noodles as I had originally intended,
The recipe I used for this is from Serious Eats.
Other Popular Lao Dishes
- Jaew bong – a sweet and savory sauce made from sundried chilies, garlic, galangal, fish sauce, and various other common Lao ingredients, including dried water buffalo skin.
- Sai oua – a popular Lao sausage made from pork, lemongrass, galangal, and a variety of other common Lao seasonings. This is just one type of Lao sausage; there are a few variations.
- Nam khao – a crispy rice salad made from a mixture of cooked rice and seasonings that is rolled into balls, fried, and crumbled. This is then mixed with other ingredients such as pork sausage, fresh herbs, and peanuts, with a dressing based on fish sauce and lime juice.
This was a great week! All the food from Laos was delicious. I enjoyed the soups the most; the khao poon was probably my favorite.
Next week, I will be cooking food from Latvia.