The more I travel in Asia, the more I realize how much of my days are planned around food. As I recently wrote to someone asking about my routine in Chiang Mai, “in between my delicious street food meals, I write.” This wasn’t always the case. At home I rarely did anything of the sort – my days were spent at my desk and I while I wrote a post about cheap eats in New York City (Asia-focused, shockingly), I rarely cooked. But my love of food percolated under the surface, primarily focused on spices and how they can so effectively transform one item of produce or food into a staggering amount of dishes. So it’s no surprise that during my recent trip to Laos, food figured prominently.
What caught my eye almost immediately was the colour, the brightness and intensity of which was undeniably special. Something as basic as lettuce or chili appeared totally different, as though I had never really looked closely at the building blocks of food until now. That’s untrue – I had. But the morning light against the fresh produce, the contrasts of greens and reds and yellows, they all made me forget about how I used to see food and just focus on the wide spectrum of colours in front of me. As can be expected, I went a little food-photo-crazy.
Chili peppers from Luang Prabang’s morning market:
Typical accompaniment to foods in Laos: fresh mint and spring onions, lime, garlic and chilis:
Easily the best bananas I’ve ever had: far tinier than I’d seen prior and packed with taste:
Have you seen greener lettuce than this?
Rice cakes drying in the afternoon sun:
The thing is, when you coo over a food that locals view as merely a part of their daily routine, they get a bit confused. It’s one thing to photograph elegant restaurants and the artfully arranged dishes with a DSLR camera, but it’s entirely another to whip out a point-and-shoot and wax poetic about a bowl of soup. Inevitably this is the reaction I get:
This girl worked (and by ‘worked’ I mean drooled plentifully, carried bowls of soy sauce and did a terrific job of looking adorable) at her mother’s fresh spring roll stand in Vientiane’s morning market. Both mother and daughter were exceptionally concerned when I started taking photos of their rolls inside the crowded market. But even on a plastic plate, these rolls look delicious.
Spring Rolls from Laos
I ate a lot spring rolls in Laos, in part because I can’t eat wheat flour (though baguettes were plentiful, a holdover from the French colonization of Laos, they were not for my consumption), in part because they were just so good. The rolls above were filled with fresh greens like lettuce and mint, stuffed full of shredded banana heart and bean sprouts, and rounded out with an egg and some vermicelli rice noodles. But there were others, served warm and smothered in fried garlic – light airy rice crepes folded like an envelope around a pocket of cooked pork and mushrooms. Like this:
And the same warm roll, but mid-steaming, an egg is cracked over the crepe and cooks along with the rice flour:
These rolls were the perfect meal or snack, served at rickety tables with plastic chairs, eaten so tightly squeezed in that I barely had enough room to lift my hands to my mouth. Sitting alongside women on their way home from work or kids who wanted an afternoon snack, I savoured each and every one of these rolls. Dipped into a light peanut-tinged sauce, spicy and tangy all at once, they are made by pouring batter on a steamer like this:
One by one, this woman would methodically steam her rice crepes and serve them to her patient customers. Well worth the wait.
There’s another iteration of the spring roll in Laos, the fried version. Equally available in vegetarian or pork varieties (and in Luang Prabang, chicken too!), the rolls are folded, deep fried and piled high in a greasy pool of awesomeness.
But it wasn’t all about the rice rolls. There was soup to be had!
Soups from Laos
A closeup of the soup from my Exploring Northern Laos post, with its light brother and perfectly steamed chicken:
While lacking in complexity, this simple foe (Laos’ version of pho) from Muang Ngoi was a favourite part of my day. Up just after dawn, I’d wander down the street and stand eating soup with the locals. A light fish-based broth with vermicelli noodles, shredded banana heart and sprouts and topped with mint and cilantro. Simple and tasty, all at once:
Upon Robyn from Eating Asia‘s recommendation, I also had to try Mrs. Sum’s noodle soup at the morning market, which did not disappoint. She had a rich broth topped with piles of freshly cooked pork, fresh herbs, fried garlic and springy thick rice noodles. I went back several times during my stay in Luang Prabang.
And on my last day in Luang Prabang, I met an Aussie chef who talked lovingly about a breakfast soup made from coconut milk and shredded pork, khao poon nam phik. And it was superb. (I acknowledge that presentation was not the selling point – this does vaguely look like vomit in a bowl. But what it lacked in style, it had in taste – I promise).
Roasted Eggplant in Laos
One of my favourite dishes remained a roasted eggplant dip called jaew mak khua. While it consistently set my mouth on fire, it had such bursting, bold flavours that I kept going back for more. I just got used to bringing tissue with me to mop up the sweat and tears. (I should have also brought earplugs to drown out the laughter of the locals who found my intolerance to spice hilarious.) In Luang Prabang and Vientiane’s packed food streets or night markets, vendors would set up tables upon tables of dips and spreads and salads in metal bowls. I would pick several of the dips and get a pile of sticky rice to do a giant taste test. No matter where I went, I always swooned over the eggplant.
In Luang Prabang, a fellow traveler told me about Makphet (meaning chili in Lao), a great restaurant in Vientiane employing and educating street kids. Of course, I had to try the roasted eggplant. I was not disappointed.
Let’s get in a little closer: how good does this look? Very very good.
Meat and Seafood in Laos
No exploration of a Southeast Asian city is complete without diving into its meat-on-a-stick offerings. At least, not for those of us who are carnivores. I was vegetarian for many years, but now that I’m eating meat again I almost feel as though I need to make up for lost time. Let’s just say that Laos made that catch-up quite easy:
The prior picture is from the Vientiane night market, about a 15 minute walk away from the Mekong. The photo is but variety of what was essentially everywhere; barbecued meat and fish were often cheaper than any other food available. From pork-on-a-stick, squeezed between two bamboo skewers and grilled to perfection, to chicken, to random chicken parts, to water buffal0 (surprisingly tasty!), many meals consisted of meat and a bag of sticky rice. Simple, satisfying and smile-inducing.
For those who like fish, you don’t need to go far: inevitably half of the barbecue would be a dedicated fish roasting station, staked on bamboo and grilled, skin on, with chili and cilantro:
And in the same morning market as the adorable girl above, these breaded and fried giant shrimp with sweet chili sauce and fresh herbs were an excellent accompaniment to the spring rolls:
Finally, for those who don’t want to branch out too far? There’s always bread. Literally “foreigner baguette”, the bread was everywhere and sandwiches scarfed down by many a rice-filled tourist.
And thus concludes my favourite foods from Laos. Lao cuisine is much more than what I’ve posted here – I didn’t even get into the specialities such as laab or the complicated pâtés, tightly wound inside banana leaf wrappers, the myriad of stews on offer or the sweet fruit I had never seen prior. But these were the foods I tried and loved, and thus wanted to share with you.
Still more to come from Laos,