Lao cuisine

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A Lao meal in Luang Prabang, Laos 3 Nagas Feast.jpg
A Lao meal in Luang Prabang, Laos

Lao cuisine or Laotian cuisine is the cuisine of Laos, which is distinct from other Southeast Asian cuisines.


The staple food of the Lao is steamed sticky rice. In the Lao language, sticky rice is known as khao niao (Lao:ເຂົ້າໜຽວ): khao means 'rice', and niao means 'sticky'. Lao people eat more sticky rice than any other people in the world. In Laos, a tiny landlocked nation with a population of approximately 6 million, per-capita sticky rice consumption is the highest on earth at 171 kg or 377 pounds per year. [1] [2] Sticky rice is deeply ingrained in the culture, religious tradition and national identity of Laos. It is a common belief within the Lao community that no matter where they are in the world, sticky rice will always be the glue that holds the Lao communities together, connecting them to their culture and to Laos. [3] Affinity for sticky rice is considered the essence of what it means to be Lao. [4] Often the Lao will refer to themselves as luk khao niaow, which can be translated as 'children or descendants of sticky rice'. [5]

The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) has described Laos as a “collector’s paradise”. [3] Laos has the highest degrees of biodiversity of sticky rice in the world. As of 2013, approximately 6,530 glutinous rice varieties were collected from five continents (Asia, South America, North America, Europe and Africa) where glutinous rice are grown for preservation at the International Rice Genebank (IRGC). [4] The IRRI gathered more than 13,500 samples and 3,200 varieties of glutinous rice from Laos. [3]

The trifecta of Laos' national cuisine are sticky rice, larb , and tam mak hoong . The most famous Lao dish is larb (Lao : ລາບ; sometimes also spelled laab or laap), a spicy mixture of marinated meat or fish that is sometimes raw (prepared like ceviche ) with a variable combination of herbs, greens, and spices. Another Lao invention is a spicy green papaya salad dish known as tam mak hoong (Lao : ຕໍາໝາກຫູ່ງ), more famously known to the West as som tam . [6] [7]

Lao cuisine has many regional variations, corresponding in part to the fresh foods local to each region. A French legacy is still evident in the capital city, Vientiane, where baguettes are sold on the street and French restaurants are common and popular, which were first introduced when Laos was a part of French Indochina.

Lao cuisine origins

The Lao originally came from a northern region that is now part of China. As they moved south they brought their traditions with them. [8] Due to historical Lao migrations from Laos into neighboring regions, Lao cuisine has influenced the mainly Lao-populated region of northeastern Thailand (Isan), [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] and Lao foods were also introduced to Cambodia [14] [15] and northern Thailand (Lan Na) [10] [16] where the Lao have migrated.

Like most Southeast Asian nations, Laos has been heavily influenced by Indian and Chinese culture. From time immemorial, Lao people traded directly with ancient China. It was the Indianization of Laos, however, that has had the most impact. The spread of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam into Southeast Asia during this period took with it Indian traditions and culture to what are now Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and Laos where it took roots and continues to flourish to this day. [17] [18] It is also during this time that Buddhist monks introduced traditional Indian spices, curry and coconut milk to Laos. [19] However, unlike most of its neighbours, Lao people’s affinity for glutinous or sticky rice and Lao cuisine's heavy focus on sticky rice meant that coconut milk and noodles never played a significant role in Lao cuisine. Instead, coconut milk, curry and noodles are limited to a few Laotian soups, noodle dishes and sticky rice based desserts. 

With the Columbian exchange, non-native crops—such as tomato, papaya, sweetcorn, pineapple and chili peppers—were introduced to Southeast Asia probably through the various sea ports of modern-day Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam via the Philippines [20] and Malacca. Through trades with the Portuguese and other Europeans, acceptance and cultivation of non-native crops and ingredients quickly spread throughout Southeast Asia.

By the mid-1500s, the Europeans were already exploring and trading with mainland Southeast Asia reaching as far as Vientiane and Luang Prabang, Laos. Some of the more notable Europeans who had travelled as far as Vientiane and Luang Prabang or wrote extensively about their experiences were Fernão Mendes Pinto (1542-1545), [21] Diogo Veloso and Blas Ruiz (1596), Geebard van Wusthof (1641), [22] Giovanni Filippo de Marini (1642-1648), [23] Jean-Baptiste Pallegoix (1830), and Henri Mouhot (1861).

Simon de la Loubère (1642-1729) observed that the cultivation of the papaya was already widespread in Siam around the early-1700s [24] and by the time Jean-Baptiste Pallegoix (1830) arrived as missionary to Bangkok; the papaya and chili peppers was already fully integrated in the Lao territory, dependencies and the Southeast Asian food culture as a whole. [25] [26] [27] [28] [29]

According to Henri Mouhot (1826–1861), French explorer and "discoverer" of Angkor Wat, during his trip to Luang Prabang, noted that the Laotians absolutely adored chili peppers. [30]

Lao and Thai cuisine

In his book, Culture and Customs of Laos, Arne Kislenko noted the following about Lao cuisine:

Any discussion about Lao cuisine cannot be limited to Laos. There are approximately six times more ethnic Lao in the Isan region of northeastern Thailand than in Laos itself, which makes it necessary to go beyond national boundaries in search of definitively Lao food. In fact, with the recent droves of migrants from Isan further south to Bangkok, the Thai capital has in many respects become the epicenter of Lao cuisine. Some estimate that more Lao are there than in any other city in the world, including Vientiane. There are also sizable expatriate communities in places like the United States and France that make for numerous culinary variations abroad. [31]

According to the cultural anthropologist Penny Van Esterik, during the 1950s and 1960s, Lao food was little known by the central Thais and could be found only where there were gatherings of Lao or northeasterners:

In the 1950s and 1960s glutinous rice, roast chicken, laab, somtam (papaya salad), and other Lao favorites were available in Bangkok only around the boxing stadium where northeastern boxers and fans gathered to eat and drink before and after boxing matches. Lao food could also be found outside construction sites in mobile food carts providing construction workers from the northeast with their regional foods and beside gas stations serving long-distance bus drivers. [32]

At the conclusion of the Vietnam War, between 1975 and 1995, it was estimated that approximately 200,000 Lao refugees crossed the Mekong River into Thailand. [33] Most stayed in the refugee camps while other moved to Bangkok looking for work.

With the opening of the Mittraphap Road and the northeastern railway connecting central Thailand to her northern provinces created a gateway for one of Thailand's biggest inter-regional migrations during the economic boom of the 1980s, as demand for labour increased. It was estimated that between 1980–1990 about 1.1 million northeasterners moved from the northeast to central Thailand and Bangkok. [34] This, in turn, helped popularize and create an unprecedented demand for Lao food outside of Laos and the northeast. [31]

Van Esterik also noted that, "[i]n attempting to include northeastern food in a standardized national cuisine, middle-class Bangkok selected and modified the taste of a few dishes—grilled chicken, somtam, laab—by reducing the chili peppers and increasing the sugar, and ignored other dishes such as fermented fish and insects". [32] According to Professor Sirijit Sunanta [35] these dishes were then represented as Thai food when presented to the world. [36]

Although more ethnic Lao live in Thailand than in Laos, and Lao cuisine is key to popularising Thai food abroad, [37] the word "Lao" is hardly mentioned; perhaps due to forced Thaification (1942–present), an official attempt to promote national unity and "Thainess", in which any mention of "Lao" and other non-Thai descriptors were removed and replaced with "northeastern Thai" or "Isan". [38]

Consequently, Thaification has led to social discrimination against northeasterners, and the word "Lao" became a derogatory term. [39] Being "Lao" was stigmatized as being uneducated and backward, thus causing many northeasterners to be ashamed to be known as Lao. [40] More recently, as Lao identity loses its stigma, there is now a real sense of resurgence and pride in Lao identity, particularly among the Isan youth. [41]

In the West, even with sizable expatriate communities, Lao cuisine is still virtually unknown, even though much of what is served in Thai restaurants is likely to be Lao [37] or Lao-owned. In fact, unbeknownst to most people, when they eat their favourite som tam, larb, and sticky rice at their favourite Thai or northeastern Thai (Isan) restaurants they are actually eating the Thai versions of traditional Lao food. [42] [43] [44] [45] [46] [47] [48] This accidental reinforcement of Thaification by the expatriate Lao communities and Lao restaurateurs is well observed by Malaphone Phommasa and Celestine Detvongsa in their article, Lao American Ethnic Economy:

Unlike […] ethnic specific stores, Lao-owned restaurants are doing better in reaching out to the general public. Although there are some restaurants that advertised as singularly "Laotian", many Lao restaurants are established under the guise of Thai restaurants and Thai/Lao restaurants to entice mainstream customers. Because most Americans are unfamiliar with Laotian food, Lao entrepreneurs have aimed to acquire more business by advertising themselves as Thai restaurants: the latter have successfully achieved popularity with the mainstream population. These restaurateurs would then incorporate Lao dishes onto the menu. Although there are many similarities between Lao and northern Thai cuisine, certain foods will distinguish a true Thai restaurant from a Lao-owned restaurant would be the inclusion of "sticky rice" on the menu... [49]

One of the earliest Thai restaurants to open in North America was by Keo Sananikone, a Lao refugee and early pioneer of Thai food in the US. In 1977, Keo opened a series of Thai restaurants starting with Mekong, Keo’s, and Mekong II in Hawaii, which became a hot spot for the Hollywood crowd. [50] Keo later wrote an internationally best-selling Thai cook book called, Keo’s Thai Cuisine in 1985. Keo explains the reason for opening Thai as opposed to Lao restaurants, “I felt that Laotian food would not have been successful in America at that time. Laotian food is very basic and simple, and Thai food is very exotic and colourful.” [51]


Rice and noodles

Vegetables, herbs and spices

Chili peppers in Vientiane Peppers in Vientiane.jpg
Chili peppers in Vientiane
Stir-fried water spinach at a Lao restaurant Stir fried morning glory at Kualao Restaurant.jpg
Stir-fried water spinach at a Lao restaurant

Pastes and sauces


Dried water buffalo skin Dried buffalo skin 2.jpg
Dried water buffalo skin


Fruits in Laos may consist of watermelon, pineapple, sugar apple, (custard apple or sweetsop), longan, litchi, Asian pear, mango, rose apple (water apple), banana, jackfruit, rambutan, young coconut, orange, sweet tamarind, papaya, durian, sugarcane, pomelo, sapodilla, guava, star apple, mangosteen, melon, santol, langsat, grapes, corossolier (soursop), mak yom, and mak num nom.

Melon carving is also a popular tradition in Laos, where artists may carve beautiful flowers and other designs into fruits such as watermelon. Fruit arrangements are also common, and these are done during special occasions such as weddings and other ceremonies.

Kitchen utensils

A Lao-style mortar and pestle Lao cuisine khok.jpg
A Lao-style mortar and pestle

The typical Lao stove, or brazier, is called a tao-lo and is fueled by charcoal. It is shaped like a bucket, with room for a single pot or pan to sit on top. The wok, maw khang in Lao, is used for frying and stir frying. Sticky rice is steamed inside of a bamboo basket, a huad, which sits on top of a pot, which is called the maw nung.

A large, deep mortar called a khok is used for pounding tam mak hoong and other foods. It is indispensable in the Lao kitchen.

Cooking methods

Grilling, boiling, stewing, steaming, searing and mixing (as in salads) are all traditional cooking methods. Stir-frying is now common, but considered to be a Chinese influence. Stews are often green in color, because of the large proportion of vegetables used as well as ya nang leaf. Soups/stews are categorized as follows, tom,tom jeud,kaeng, and kaeng soua.

Ping means grilled. It is a favorite cooking method. Ping gai is grilled chicken, ping sin is grilled meat, and ping pa is grilled fish. Before grilling, the meat is typically seasoned with minced garlic, minced coriander root, minced galangal, salt, soy sauce, and fish sauce, each in varying quantities, if at all, according to preference. The Lao seem to prefer a longer grilling at lower heat.

The result is grilled meat that is typically drier than what Westerners are accustomed to. The Lao probably prefer their food this way, because they wish to keep their hands dry and clean for handling sticky rice. They also typically eat the grilled food with a hot sauce (chaew) of some sort, which takes away the dryness.

Lao food differs from neighboring cuisines in multiple respects. One is that the Lao meal almost always includes a large quantity of fresh raw greens, vegetables and herbs served undressed on the side. Another is that savory dishes are never sweet. "Sweet and sour" is generally considered bizarre and foreign in Laos. Yet another is that some dishes are bitter. There is a saying in Lao cuisine, "van pen lom; khom pen ya," which can be translated as, "sweet brings you down; bitter is medicine."

A couple of the green herbs favored in Lao cuisine but generally ignored by their neighbors are mint and dill, both of paramount importance. Galangal is a cooking herb that is heavily favored in Laos, unlike in neighboring countries. It appears in probably the majority of Lao dishes, along with the conventional herbs: garlic, shallots, lemongrass, etc. Another distinctive characteristic of Lao food or more properly, Lao eating habits, is that food is frequently eaten at room temperature. This may be attributable to the fact that Lao food served with sticky rice is traditionally handled by hand.

Eating customs

A ka toke, a platform for arranging and presenting a Lao meal. Lao cuisine katoke.jpg
A ka toke, a platform for arranging and presenting a Lao meal.

The traditional manner of eating was communal, with diners sitting on a reed mat on the wooden floor around a raised platform woven out of rattan called a ka toke . Dishes are arranged on the ka toke, which is of a standard size. Where there are many diners, multiple ka tokes will be prepared. Each ka toke will have one or more baskets of sticky rice, which is shared by all the diners at the ka toke.

In recent times, eating at a ka toke is the exception rather than the rule. The custom is maintained, however, at temples, where each monk is served his meal on a ka toke. Once food is placed on the ka toke it becomes a pha kao. In modern homes, the term for preparing the table for a meal is still taeng pha kao, or prepare the phah kao.

Traditionally, spoons were used only for soups and white rice, and chopsticks (ໄມ້ທູ່,mai thu) were used only for noodles. Most food was handled by hand. The reason this custom evolved is probably due to the fact that sticky rice can only be easily handled by hand.

Lao meals typically consist of a soup dish, a grilled dish, a sauce, greens, and a stew or mixed dish (koy or laap). The greens are usually fresh raw greens, herbs and other vegetables, though depending on the dish they accompany, they could also be steamed or more typically, parboiled. Dishes are not eaten in sequence; the soup is sipped throughout the meal. Beverages, including water, are not typically a part of the meal. When guests are present, the meal is always a feast, with food made in quantities sufficient for twice the number of diners. For a host, not having enough food for guests would be humiliating.

The custom is to close the rice basket, [52] when one is finished eating.



Jaew (Lao : ແຈ່ວ), a popular type of dipping sauce in Laos.


Kap kaem (Lao : ກັບແກ້ມ), are dishes served as snacks, before the main dish, or with beer.


Sarad (Lao : ສະຫຼັດ), is a general name to describe a dish with mixed vegetables, herbs, and spices. Meat salads in Laos are known as larb or laap.

Soups and stews

Kaeng (Lao : ແກງ; lit. 'soup')

Grilled dishes

Ahan ping (Lao : ອາຫານປີ້ງ; lit. 'grilled food')

Steamed dishes

Ahan neung (Lao : ອາຫານຫນື້ງ; lit. 'steamed food')

Rice dishes

Sticky rice served in a basket at a restaurant in Vientiane Sticky rice at Kualao Restaurant.jpg
Sticky rice served in a basket at a restaurant in Vientiane

Ahan kap khao (Lao : ອາຫານກັບເຂົ້າ; lit. 'food with rice'), are dishes made with rice as the main ingredient. In most Lao meals, glutinous rice known as khao niao, is a staple to the Laotian diet.


Feu (Lao : ເຝີ) or Mee (Lao : ໝີ່). Noodles are popular dishes in northern and central Laos. These can vary from "wet noodles", served with broth, or "dry noodles" which are typically stir-fried.


Khong van (Lao : ຂອງຫວານ; lit. 'sweet things'). Lao desserts are generally made with the combination of tropical fruits and glutinous rice products. These can vary from types of cakes, to jelly, to drinks, and custards.


Lao coffee is often called Pakxong coffee (cafe pakxong in Lao), which is grown on the Bolovens Plateau around the town of Pakxong. This area is sometimes said to be the best place in Southeast Asia for coffee cultivation. Both Robusta and Arabica are grown in Laos, and if you ask for Arabica, there is a very good chance the proprietor will know what you are talking about. Most of the Arabica in Laos is consumed locally and most of the Robusta is exported to Thailand, where it goes into Nescafé. The custom in Laos is to drink coffee in glasses, with condensed milk in the bottom, followed by a chaser of green tea. The highly regarded tea is also grown on the Bolovens Plateau.

There are two general types of traditional alcoholic beverages, both produced from rice: lao hai and lao lao . Lao hai means jar alcohol and is served from an earthen jar. [53] It is communally and competitively drunk through straws at festive occasions. It can be likened to sake in appearance and flavor. Lao lao or Lao alcohol is more like a whiskey. It is also called lao khao or, in English, white alcohol. However, there is also a popular variant of lao lao made from purple rice, which has a pinkish hue.

In more recent times, the Lao state-owned brewery's Beerlao has become ubiquitous in Laos and is highly regarded by expatriates and residents alike. The Bangkok Post has described it as the Dom Perignon of Asian beers. In 2004, Time magazine described it as Asia's best beer. In June 2005, it beat 40 other brews to take the silver prize at Russia's Osiris Beer Festival, which it had entered for the first time.



See also

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Further reading