What to Eat in Laos

Roasted peppers in Laos

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, Laotian food figured prominently.

Laos: Food Extravaganza

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:

Laos food: Roasted peppers

Typical accompaniment to foods in Laos: fresh mint and spring onions, lime, garlic and chilis:

Typical accompaniment to foods in Laos

Easily the best bananas I’ve ever had: far tinier than I’d seen prior and packed with taste:

Banana deliciousness in Laos

Have you seen greener lettuce than this?

produce in laos

Rice cakes drying in the afternoon sun:

Rice cakes drying in the hot afternoon sun in Laos

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:

Adorable girl in Luang Prabang

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.

Note from 2015: When I wrote this piece I was only starting to get into the food from Laos and Southeast Asia. It’s pretty general! To supplement it, please see the following:

Spring Rolls from Laos

fresh spring rolls in 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:

Pork-filled steamed rice springrolls from Laos

And the same warm roll, but mid-steaming, an egg is cracked over the crepe and cooks along with the rice flour:

Fresh springrolls with garlic, pork and egg in Laos

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:

Making steamed spring rolls in Muang Ngoi

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.

Fried pork springrolls from Laos

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:

Close up noodle soup laos

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:

Morning soup in Nong Kiow

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.

Mrs. Sum's noodle soup 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).

khao puun coconut soup in Laos

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.

Roasted eggplant, chili and sticky rice from Makphet restaurant in Vientiane

Let’s get in a little closer: how good does this look? Very very good.

Roasted eggplant from Makphet in Laos.

Grill Fish and Meat 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:

Terrific street meat in Vientiane

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:

Fish at Luang Prabang's night market in Laos

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:

Seafood platter of champions in Luang Prabang

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.

A foreigner's bread in Vientiane

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,


61 thoughts on “What to Eat in Laos”

  1. Those photos have made me so hungry! I am about to depart to South East Asia on a one-way ticket in less than two weeks. I am so incredibly excited. I have not planned anything definitive as of yet – I will just make my itinerary as I go – but this post has me salivating for Laotian food. The French influence and the prevalence of baguettes within the cuisine is intriguing.

    1. It’s definitely prevalent but in the North it was only the tourists eating the baguettes, no locals. In Vientiane before my bus ride to Udonthani, locals were also getting sandwiches, full of pate, chili, fresh herbs and lots of mayo. People seem to conflate Thai and Lao foods but in fact they’re quite different. Happy you enjoyed the post & safe travels!

  2. Awesome photo essay on food from Laos! We found so many travelers in Laos just assumed it was like Thai food because that’s what many restaurants served and didn’t seek out actual Lao dishes. They were missing out.

    One of our favorite snacks was khai paen (river weed) with jaew bawng (chili sauce or what I like to call Lao barbecue sauce) and sticky rice. Perfect with a Beer Lao in the afternoon by the mekong. Also fun was the numbing/pepper wood :)

    1. Thanks Audrey. I agree that most travelers don’t realize how different Lao food is (and how delicious it can be). I did try the fried river weed as it was the right season up in Nong Kiow, and with a shot of lao lao it’s a perfect pre-dinner snack ;) The numbing wood was crazy; reminded me of Sichuan peppercorns but less aggressive. Your Lao food post was certainly an inspiration for this one! Sadly Tamarind was moving to a new location when I was there and I didn’t get a chance to try their school out. Next time! Hope everything works out with the visas to Bangladesh…

    1. I didn’t actually – I can’t eat wheat so I didn’t see the point of drooling over what I can’t have! But many of the people I met went and said it was delicious. Ah well – the sticky rice kept me pretty happy ;)

  3. I skipped Laos when I left Chiang Mai, Thailand to go to Vietnam. I was considering crossing to Laos from Cambodia and this just gave me some extra incentive.

    *Wants the greasy fried spring rolls* Yum.

    1. Hi Lily – where are you these days? Very glad we got to meet up in Chiang Mai. Those fried spring rolls were delicious, not going to lie! But the fresh ones were my favourite – the banana heart makes all the difference, with a great nutty taste.

      1. It was great meeting you too in Chiang Mai. Maybe next time we’ll get acquainted some more :) I’m in Siem Reap and headed to BKK tomorrow morning (got to the 12 hour epic bus rides).

        One of my favourite things about Asia is the abundance of delicious food at a great price. It’s virtually impossible to go hungry of mouth-watering food, even if you only have a few dollars in your pocket. Yum.

  4. I heard that the bread in Laos is the best in Asia because of the French influences there. Was one thing I wanted to do but didn’t get to before I left Asia last time ( was visit Laos) and taste it myself.
    I really liked the soup photos best girl, as it had me wanting some from Latin America. Your photography is getting really good. You should come to India and give me a class on how you do so well on your food shots! ;)

    1. Thanks Foggy! I’m looking forward to seeing what trouble you and Drew get up to in India. Still up in the air for May, so you might be seeing me yet. Safe travels and hope the birds stay away from you – sorry ’bout that ;)

  5. Jodi! Mrs Sum’s but no Lao kao soi? The noodles with the golf ball of porky-tomatoey goodness on top? I’m very disappointed in you, and I hereby sentence you to another sojourn in Luang Prabang asap.
    (Seriously — great post!)

    1. No no! I did try the Lao kao soi, I just enjoyed it so much that I forgot to take photos. Testament to its deliciousness. Thank you for the recommendation – it was terrific. However, I’ll happily accept your sentence; more time in Laos would be fine with me…

  6. I love your food pics and the blog. Makes me want to go back to South East Asia.
    We met in Bagan, and my friend Markus is back there now.
    Cheers from Switzerland

    1. Hi Vedi, nice to hear from you. I wish I could return to Bagan as well – what a terrific few days that was temple-hopping in the sun. Hope life is treating you well and thanks for the comment!

  7. Wow. I’m not a foodie, I could care less what I eat, but you make all the food look fantastic. Guess I’m going to have to branch out from all the sandwiches I’ve been eating in Laos.

    1. Thanks Mike. I told you the food was good when we met in Chiang Mai but you didn’t believe me. Took some pictorial proof to get you off the fence, I see ;) Hope you’re enjoying Laos and do get yourself to a soup stall, STAT.

  8. Oh gawd, I think I’ve just died and gone to Laos (is it wrong that Laos has suddenly appeared on the list of places I want to go right now based solely upon food?) Yummy; especially liking the pork on a stick…

    1. Marsha, nothing wrong with that at all. I definitely plan my days around food and have seriously travelled to a new city just in search of a soup that came highly recommended by people whose taste buds I trust. Pork on a stick is great, but it’s prevalent throughout Southeast Asia – it’s what I had for dinner this eve in Chiang Mai! Thanks for the comment & for reading.

  9. Geez, thanks a lot, not only am I now really hungry, but I’m also checking flights back to SE Asia. I NEED to go back, if only for the food alone.

    Great work and awesome shots, seriously. You did an awesome job describing and photographing some of the great food Lao has to offer. They sometimes get lost in the mix in between Thai and Vietnamese food, but they have tons to offer.

    1. Thanks Adam. I’m glad you enjoyed. I’m back in Thailand now and finding myself missing those great steamed springrolls and spicy eggplant dip. Going to have to find some Lao food here in Chiang Mai :)

  10. Going old media on you, I had no idea we probably grew up eating only one kind of banana: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/01/10/we-have-no-bananas I think you’d have to buy access to the whole article, but there is mention of pink bananas, fuzzy bananas, tiny bananas, bananas you have to cook for them to taste good and so on…made me want to find all those bananas and EAT them. Your post has also made me want to EAT something spicy and/or fresh that has been impaled and/or wrapped up.

    1. Thanks Casey. Bananas are highly underrated, and plantains too. I’m a big fan of the cooked versions and here in Thailand they grill the tiny bananas on the BBQ and they are a perfect afternoon snack. If my post made you want to eat something, my work here is done ;)

  11. This food looks incredibly delicious! I love all the options and surprisingly, everything here looks yummy (even the vomit dish!) :) The one thing I would pass on is probably the peppers. I am a wimp when it comes to hot stuff!

    1. I didn’t eat the peppers either, fear not. While I like the taste of spices, I’m fairly terrible at actually processing them (see: tears, above) ;) I thought I would get accustomed to it after so long in Asia but it’s not happening. The other day I ordered somtam and asked for it not spicy; the woman held up 3 chilis and said ‘ok so not spicy?’ as though they qualified. Ha! Maybe one day…

    1. Very cheap, my friend. The springrolls were a dollar for 6, on average. Meat was 75 cents for a stick, sticky rice 30 cents, etc. The exception was the Makphet restaurant but as it went to a good cause I had no problem spending a little more. And by ‘a little more’ I mean $3.

  12. Hi Jodi,

    We live in Germany near Munich. We did a trip to Wien in Austria last week. I saw you in a newspaper in the our hotelroom. Our Respect to you. Have a good time.

    Greatings from Germany. H.-W.

      1. Hi Jodi, thank you for your fast answer. Sorry for my small english. I cannot remeber the name of the newspaper. Think it was a high glace prospekt in all rooms from the hotel. But i have a photo on my Iphon. As i come home from wien i saw the information from you on it. Where can i send it? Now, is it real that you have nothing as a notbook and a phone an no analog thinks? Where do you stay now?
        Greatings from Germany, HW

  13. I just did exactly what I told you I wouldn’t do: read this on an empty stomach! Holy crap your photos are awesome. And that little girl is too adorable!

    1. Thanks Kim! Eating figures prominently for most, but remains a bit of an obsession for me. I thought I’d start sharing a bit more of the food since 80% of my camera is filled of food photos from my travels. Thanks for reading.

  14. I just ate, however I think I could eat a plate full of each one of those delicious looking dishes right now. One of the best parts of travel is the local foods. I really would like to be Anthony Bourdain for a year… what a life!

    Bon appétit Jodi!

    1. You and me both Ken! Plenty of Asian deliciousness in Montreal, especially Vietnamese. I’m a big fan of Pho Bac – have you been? I’ll take you there this summer if not. It’s terrific!

  15. Thanks for this post. So made me miss Laos and the food of Laos. I’ve been to Luang Prabang twice and my mouth still waters for chicken grilled on a lemongrass stick with some kind of amazing twangy chili dip. And the Lao version of Shabu Shabu in a packed with locals outdoor restaurant along the Mekong (chairs around a bbq pit with a metal dish over the coals with water in the base – they give you meat or fish to grill on the top of the dish while you add vegetables and the juices slide down into the water) – probably one of the best meals I’ve ever had.

    1. Glad that this post brought you back. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I hadn’t been to Laos prior, but left my weeks in the country really excited about the food. Thanks for the comment!

  16. Great post. Glad I’m not the only one that takes photos of the foods I eat on my travels. Your description of each dish is great. I love the fact that the eggplant dip is one of your favorites. It’s my favorite too and I love it when my mom makes it. I’m lucky my mom knows how to cook traditional Lao and Thai dishes including yummy desserts! I need to start learning how to cook more dishes from her.

    When you return home and have cravings for homemade Lao or Thai food, you’re welcome to visit me. I’ll have my mom cook a feast for us! :-D

    1. Thank you Alyssa – I”m envious of your kitchen education in the comfort of your home. It has been terrific to learn about the foods in Asia but of course it would be even better if I could speak the language to get the backstory to why people cook the way they do. Thanks for the offer and enjoy all that great food your mum cooks up!

  17. These photos are incredible…I am officially SO hungry now

    Did you do a cooking course in Laos? I did a fantastic one day-er in Luang Probang…it’s a great way to not only eat some more awesome food but we got a recipe book and the (perhaps false) impression that we could actually recreate such delights when at home…

    1. I didn’t get to do a cooking course in Laos, though I wanted to do one at Tamarind (everyone spoke highly of them, including Eating Asia, who know their stuff!). Tamarind was closed on the one day I had free, so instead I just ate everything in sight. Next time, I hope! Thanks for the comment and I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  18. wow, i surely envy you. travel around the world and taste the food. i enjoying your stories and photos. wonder how i ask you to come back to Indonesia but now wish you wan t to travel in North Sumatra or Aceh. a lot of beautiful place to visit.

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