TUCKED between China, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar, landlocked Laos shows its rich blend of neighboring influences in its diversity and uniqueness of food and drink.
The only pity is that Lao food hasn’t achieved the commercial success of its more famous neighbors, partly because it has no sea port and must ship by land.
Luang Prabang, the crown jewel in the mountains of north-central Laos at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers, is known as the gateway to the Plain of Jars and for its spiritual nourishment, saffron-clad monks, and French colonial architecture.
What I didn’t explect during my short visit was the diversity of gastronomic offerings from its street food culture to some more refined plates with a balanced range of flavors and textures.
Like the food of neighboring Thailand, fresh ingredients are crucial: Laos make everything from scratch.
Herbs and spices flavor every meal and many dished are eaten with stickt rice. In a country of mostly farmers, locals say sticky rice gives them the strength and energy to work hard.
There’s no better way to understand the local food culture and flavors than by taking a stroll through Luang Prabang’s main street, Sisavangvong Road, where the night market starts daily at sunset.
At the crossroads where the newly built hotel Azerai is located, stalls sell grilled food, delicious noodle soups, Lao coconut cakes as backpackers and tourists join loals filling up the outdoor tables.
Beyond the night market, the beautiful town has an impressive number of restaurants set in beautiful colonial houses with patios and lush tropical greenery and where Laocuisine is sometimes fused with international flavors.
Although Luang Prabang is compact, knowing where to eat for the best experience the true taste of Laos can be tricky. We have listed a few places worth checking out:
Tamarind is probably the best-known Laot restaurant, boasting an expansive menu of everything Lao. Facing the Nam Khan River on Kingkitsarath Road, Tamarind is celebrates Laot culture and food by offering intriguing, tasty dishes and running a cooking school.
Housed in a normal building, the environment is nothing special. But it’s the diverse, exotic Laoti plates that attract many tourists day after day.
First-time customers are advised to try the taster plates as an introduction to the flavors of Laos.
Start with its unique cold drinks using local fruits and herbs, such as the refreshing sour-sweet tamarind cooler, iced jujube drink with creamy coconut milk or ginger and lemongrass refresher.
For food, I tried the Dipping Sampler, which includes Luang Prabang spicy sweet chili paste, mild tomato salsa, smoky eggplant dip, a blend of coriander, chili and garlic accompanied by dried river vegetable sheets with tomato, garlic and sesame.
This is the best way to taste some famous local dips and if you like the vegetable sheets, they are easy to find in the market and bring back home.
Other interesting and distinct dishes include Stuffed Lemongrass — fragrant lemongrass stuffed with chicken mince, kaffir lime and coriander with a lime-peanut dipping sauce.
Manda de Laos
Away from the tourist areas, this is is one of Luang Prabang’s top destinations for fabulous Lao food with great views of a leafy garden and lotus pond.
On my recent visit, my palate was awakened to a fusion of new flavors based on traditional Lao touches. Choose to sit outdoors, in sophisticated comfort, and enjoy the captivating view of the beautiful pond surrounded by the lush gardens and the romantic glow of candles and lanterns.
The setting is spectacular and the food is, too.
Try the banana flower salad peppered with a medley of fresh herbs and minced meat and the Laot sausage flavored with kaffir lime, lemongrass and other herbs. The sausage makes a pleasant appetizer or snack for any meal in the city. Lao cooking also involves wild boar, buffalo meat, and river fish.
The newly opened hotel Azerai Luang Prabang has a contemporary bistro not only meeting the gastronomic needs of hotel guests but providing a new atmospheric venue and creative dishes for outside patrons.
The dining experience was the best I’ve had in Luang Prabang. Although the menu is not genuinely Lao, head chef Ben Faker worked his magic creating interesting plates marrying locally sourced ingredients with an international touch.
The cuisine is seasonal local produce infused with global tastes.
“The support of local producers is central to our approach in giving an authentic dining experience of fresh market food,” he says.
“The local way of eating is a social occasion where friends and family share a selection of small dishes.”
Almost all ingredients are grown on local farms and the practice of grilling and marinating coupled with the freshness of the ingredients traditional.
The bistro also has a well-balanced wine list mixing Old and New World wines. Order a signature in-house cocktail on the upper floor before indulging in the food.
The balcony provides an ideal yet exclusive spot to view the sunset and the busy night market scene.
At the end of dinner, dessert is strongly recommended. Try the ultra creative dark honey ice cream, sapodilla, honeycomb and tamarind. Dark honey is collected from hives north of Luang Prabang and is used for its color and flavor in this dessert.
The honeycomb is made by caramelizing the honey to give the dish texture, while tamarind provides sourness to balance the intense sweetness given by both the honey and the sapodilla; a fruit found throughout Southeast Asia that has a caramel flavor.
Authentic local flavors
Make sure head to Mae Tim papaya salad restaurant close to the riverside, renowned for Lao papaya salad made from shredded unripe papaya.
Although eaten throughout Southeast Asia, it is different from the better-known Thai papaya salad.
The small road-side eatery only serves papaya salad made on site, plain rice noodles and crackers and only one choice of soft drink — Pepsi. Papaya shavings are pounded in a huge mortar-and-pestle, along with chilies, cherry tomatoes, mini aubergines. Citrus juice, salt, sugar and shrimp paste are added to create a precise balance of flavors. This is Lao food for Laos, with no concessions to the Western palate.
The city also has many street-side noodle shops, open from morning until the noodles run out.