We headed to Laos without any expectations; perhaps it’s the best way to travel to a new country. Anyway, we soon discovered that the national dish in Laos is larb, also known as laab or larp, and we fell in love with the country immediately.
Larb is a spicy meat salad consisting of minced meat, which can be pork, beef, duck or fish, with lime juice, padaek – a Laos variation of fish sauce – ground rice, chilli, mint and often lemongrass. It’s a really tasty dish – fresh with a bit of spice, and the mint gives it a really nice flavour. My girlfriend, Jess, described it brilliantly as a “meaty mojito”.
Luang Prabang, like most of South East Asia, has a night market with what we described as ‘the food alley’. Some of the best street food in our South East Asian adventure was eaten here. There are a number of stalls selling different dishes and it’s fun to eat a bit from each.
When we visited, there was a young woman who cooked a whole fish stuffed with lemongrass on a barbecue – the fish had a sweet, almost teriyaki glaze, and it was absolutely fantastic. I could happily eat that every day for the rest of my life. We often ate Laos sausage in the ‘food alley’, served with a Laos variation of som tam (a spicy papaya salad) called tam mak hoong; it’s pretty much the same flavours as the Thai style of the salad but with the addition of green beans.
Laos sausage was quite unlike an English or European sausage as it had a lot of garlic, chilli and lemongrass in it, and strong punchy flavours with a more fibrous texture than I’m used to; it was more like chorizo than a Cumberland.
Almost everything in Laos is eaten with sticky rice and it arrives in its own little woven basket to keep it warm – it’s a little chewier than regular rice but goes well with grilled meats and other typical Laos dishes. It’s eaten by rolling it into a ball between your fingers and thumb and dipping it into your sauce or juices – known as jaew.
One of the best and simplest thing I’ve eaten in recent travels is nam khao, a rice salad. Cooked rice is mixed with red curry paste, balled, and deep fried with an egg wash. It’s broken up and served with coconut, coriander, peanuts, fish sauce, lime, chilli and mint. It can also be served with fermented sausage. The flavours are fresh and punchy with a crispy, crunchy texture; it’s surprisingly good.
Another rice dish (Laos, like all of South East Asia, consumes a lot of rice) is a kao piak kai, a rice soup, or congee. This was a popular choice at the coffee place near our hotel in Luang Prabang and we enjoyed eating it for breakfast. It’s a warming broth, made with rice, garlic, chicken and stock, seasoned with spring onions, herbs and chillies. It has a similar consistency to a rice pudding, but with deep meaty flavours.
One thing I tried in Laos that I wasn’t overly keen on was bamboo. I’ve never liked the bamboo available in Chinese food in the UK and I found it to be unappetising here too. I tried stuffed bamboo from a Luang Prabang restaurant that made delicious larb but found its deep fried texture unappealing and greasy; the pork filling was quite nice though!
Lastly, Laos has some of the best beer we’ve sampled in South East Asia. Beerlao is a crisp and refreshing lager, perfect for humid evenings. There is also Beerlao Dark, a rich, smooth and flavoursome beer; a perfect accompaniment to spicy food with a pretty boisterous 6.5% alcohol content!
All in all, Laos is a beautiful country with fantastic food, great beer and nice people. I’m sure a lot of people, ourselves included, do not expect such highlights from a country sandwiched between Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, but it is exceptional in its own right. Luang Prabang is one of the most enjoyable South East Asian cities we visited and has excellent food and an unusually relaxed pace of life. For that you are going to have to experience it for yourself.