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Laos Food & Drink
As with so much in Laos, it comes as no surprise that the food is closely affiliated to that of Thailand. It is, however, a lot more basic and lacks the huge variety of Thai cuisine. The basic ingredients are the same, with lots of lemon grass, coriander, basil, galangal, and, of course, the very pungent fish sauce. Like Thai food, it is often lemony and tangy, using fresh ingredients swiftly prepared.
The staple for lowland Lao is sticky rice, though many highland groups don't eat it at all. In fact, Laos boasts more than 3,000 traditional rice varieties, with colors ranging from black and purple to red and brown. It is eaten steamed or boiled, with a wide range of meats, vegetables, poultry, and fish, all well spiced and flavored. Lao cooking uses an astounding array of flavorings including garlic, chilies, tamarind, sugar, lime juice, and fermented fish sauce. Fresh salads, native sausages, and noodles are other common ingredients. Most food is dry and spicy, and often watered down with fruit juices, beer, or plain water. Grilling, boiling, stewing, and steaming all come into play in a Lao kitchen. Stir-frying is now also very common, but actually considered to be a Chinese influence. Stews are often green because of the many fresh vegetables used. Soups you will encounter include tom cheut, keng, and keng soua. Keng is characterized by ginger and padek, and keng soua is keng that contains both galangal and ginger. Tom cheut is a mild soup with tofu and no spices.
Ping is grilled food, be that chicken, pork, or field rat (everything that is healthy and edible in the rice field will eventually go into the pot). Laab is a spicy salad that is very popular. You will also find restaurants serving the "cook-it-yourself" steam boat and grill. A fire is lit under a large metal grill, surrounded by a trough at the side for boiling vegetables and noodles.
Since Laos is landlocked, it will come as no surprise that fish tends to be freshwater. You will also find a lot of Vietnamese food and Chinese food. Pho (pronounced "fur") is the ubiquitous Vietnamese noodle soup. It contains pork or beef, plenty of fresh vegetables, and fragrant fresh mint.
As with elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the French influence remains. Fresh baguette (khao ji), strong filtered coffee, and pâté sandwiches (khao ji pâté) are all available on the street. Laos is also a major coffee producer, so if caffeine is your thing you are in for a treat. Ask for "kah-fe Lao" to make sure you don't get served a cup of instant granules rather than the real thing. Both Vientiane and Luang Prabang boast superb French restaurants with authentic Gallic fare and great wine. Both places are a gourmet treat and have gotten better over the years as competition has forced up quality. The food in both towns is world-beating in terms of both quality and price.
Water in restaurants is safe to drink since it is purified. Apart from that, stick with bottled water. There are also the usual soft, sweet fizzy drinks available. Then there is Beer Lao. This used to be the only beer on the market -- now in tourist areas you can also get Heineken, Carlsberg, and Tiger, although Beer Lao is still by far the cheapest and most popular. Beer Lao has achieved high international status and is now widely exported. People rave about it as if they had joined a religious cult. It's hip, it's fashionable, and it's popular. Laos is a country that is very proud of its national beer, though there is serious dissent. Some people describe it as a flat, overrated, chemical brew. If you like beer, you will have to decide for yourself whether you wish to be a Beer Lao evangelist. The other thing that Lao people drink in quantity is "lao-lao." It is an astonishingly cheap, brutally strong white rice liquor and is really best avoided unless you are a supremely confident hangover adventurer. The stuff is lethal. As with French food, Laos is also a great place for French wine in the major towns and it is also very reasonably priced.