What is Lao Food….
Tamarind’s philosophy is to use only the freshest, local ingredients and to provide a place where visitors can sample and learn about the special flavours and foods that comprise Lao cuisine. Started by Joy, a Lao national and his Australian partner, Caroline, it is a family business that aims to give back to the community by supporting local producers and suppliers.
If you are a first-time visitor to South-East Asia (or even if you have spent time here) you may not have discovered the distinguishing features of Lao cuisine. That’s because many Lao flavours and foods are not at all well known.
Landlocked Laos, with no trading port to the outside world and until recently, with a relatively small emigrant population, hasn’t spread its culture globally like Thailand and Vietnam, and the nature of the food and eating style has remained undiscovered.
The balance of flavours in dishes is different from that of the West and even neighbouring Thailand, and to some visitors it appears strange and difficult to investigate. As a result, many people never get the opportunity to experience this intriguing cuisine.
Historically, Lao food has often been regarded as essentially the same as Thai food. Some guidebooks and internet sites still describe it this way. One reason for this misconception is the popularity and spread of Isaan cuisine in Thailand.
This region of north-east Thailand was once Lao territory, and its food has retained many characteristics and dishes of Lao cuisine, for instance grilled chicken, papaya salad, sticky rice.
Some establishments offer menus that continue the confusion and misinformation. Dishes such as ‘Lao Green Curry’, ‘Sweet and Sour Chicken’ and ‘Fried Rice’ are presented under the heading of ‘Lao Food’, which they are not.
And there’s a practical reason Lao cuisine differs from Thai: sticky rice! It’s the staple here and is eaten with the fingers – most traditional Lao dishes were designed to accompany it. To keep fingers clean, and rice from dropping into communal food, dishes do not have a liquid consistency. Much Thai food is more soup-like, often incorporating coconut milk, or even stir fried in oil, so steamed rice is a more suitable accompaniment.
For many, particularly in poor country areas, a meal consists of sticky rice with a jeow (spicy dipping sauce) to add flavour. More substantial meals are eaten communally and typically consist of a soup, sticky rice, a meat, fish or poultry dish and a vegetable dish… and of course jeow.
Unlike the soup/entrée/main/dessert sequence of Western meals, dishes are served simultaneously and shared by all, with everyone dipping in with spoons or fingers. Chopsticks are reserved for noodle dishes. Generally, drinks are not served at the same time as food. Water may be offered at the conclusion of a meal.
Dishes may be set out on low rattan tables or a woven mat, and a convivial feast takes place. Food serves as a central focus for social interaction. (As does alcohol: no one enjoys a party more than the Lao, and drinking potent lao-lao whisky and famed Beer Lao serves as the inevitable catalyst for enjoyment, music and good humour.)
The major sources of protein are chicken, fish, duck, pork, buffalo and goat. Dried and fermented meats are popular. In Luang Prabang the most common fish now come from pond farms, as river-fish are becoming less available.
Apart from the delicious dishes you will eat as part of your exploration of Lao food, there are a host of less accessible foods to learn about. As with most poor countries, every edible food source is consumed, including many parts of the animal that you would not encounter at home. A tour of the market often reveals, in addition to the offal selection, congealed blood squares, pig and buffalo uterus, animal foetuses, bitter bile for meat tenderizing and a wide range of uses for buffalo skin. Wildcaught animals, rodents and farmed frogs, birds, bugs and insects are all eaten. (For those interested to try more unusual Lao foods, both animal and vegetable, check out Tamarind’s “Adventurous Lao Gourmet” experience.)
Strong flavours (bitter, salty, spicy, sour) balance the blandness of sticky rice, which is eaten in large quantities at each meal (and at every opportunity in between). Chilli provides heat, measured by the number of chillies in a dish. The important bitter element is provided by a variety of plants: small pea eggplants (aubergines) and many bitter greens and herbs, often served on the side. Dill and mint feature heavily as herbal accents, and are not to be found in neighbouring Thai and Vietnamese cuisine.
One of the most distinctive ingredients in Lao food is padaek, strongly flavoured fermented fish ‘sauce’ that provides saltiness and is used as a flavour enhancer to many dishes. Other ingredients that are popularly used as flavour enhancers include Thai refined fish sauce, monosodium glutamate and stock powder.
Fresh vegetables and a large variety of greens are integral, as are many fragrant herbs. Depending on the timing of your visit, extensive cultivation of vegetables in the rich riverbank soil can be seen. Visiting the food markets will reveal the large assortment of green leafy vegetables. A wide range of plant foods, seeds and leaves are used, some all year round, others seasonally. Fruits are collected wild or cultivated.
In the right season, you will see young boys scaling the tamarind trees around town, collecting the delicious sour sweet pods. Seasonal fruits appear spontaneously at roadside locations: a truck heaped with melons, or piles of jicama for those who enjoy their sweet crunch, stalls of hops, popular for chewing. When oranges are in season, huge mounds of the fruit are displayed beneath canopies along the Mekong, where orchardists remain day and night till all the fruit is sold.
Sweet dishes are eaten in between meals as snack foods. Snacks of all kinds are popular, and a range of sweet confections made from coconut, sticky rice, tapioca and banana are for sale at stalls around town.
Laos has been influenced and colonized over the centuries by other cultures, so deciding what is “authentic” depends a great deal on how far back you wish to place the starting line.
From the use of a mayonnaise-style sauce in a Luang Prabang salad through baguettes and coffee, the colonial French influence is clear to see. But the creamy and complex sauces, hallmarks of French cuisine, are not integrated into Lao cuisine. Noodle soup, fer (pho), popular as breakfast or snack, clearly comes from Vietnam and even carries the same name.
The use of MSG and the introduction of stir-frying techniques have come from China, while chillies, dill and tomatoes were all introduced from other countries in the seventeenth century. Lao cuisine varies from region to region. Some areas favour certain flavours more than others.
In the south, padaek features heavily in almost every dish, while in the north it is popular but not used so intensely. Steamed rice is more popular in the north, and among the Hill Tribes, where dishes bear some of the hallmarks of Chinese cuisine, being more liquid in nature. Otherwise, country people generally eat exclusively sticky rice.
Over the past ten years, with the growth of tourism and the opening up of Laos to the outside world, Lao food has taken on different emphases. Greater use of noodles and the introduction of sugar into the diet are noticeable features. Stirfrying is more popular and this and the greater use of coconut milk means that in towns, people eat both sticky and white rice to accompany their food.
Cooking is traditionally performed over a clay and tin brazier, with charcoal as fuel. Ovens have never been a part of the traditional Lao kitchen.
Consequently many foods are grilled or barbecued, and have a pleasant smoky flavour. Steaming foods is also common, and the use of banana leaves as wrapping in both cooking methods ensures the food’s moisture content is retained.
The wok is now a common kitchen implement, following the introduction of Chinese cooking techniques. A deep mortar and pestle of fired clay (shaped without the flat base) is an essential item in the Lao kitchen.
While food processors and blenders are common in the West, the pounding motion of the Lao utensil releases flavours in a way the processor cannot match. Wooden versions, or mortars with flat bases are better suited to grinding and can’t achieve the same effect.
Now that you have an understanding of and experience in the cuisine of Laos, we hope you will enjoy recreating your food experiences in your home. The following list of ingredients and recipes will allow you to introduce this fascinating fresh cuisine to family and friends. Bon Appetit!