For an intrepid traveler looking to discover and connect with the locals, one need not look further than the streets. Eating by the sidewalk may raise some eyebrows and pop in hygienic concerns. Yes, there are risks but having gastronomical ailments in truth is as rare as hitting the 5 numbers of a 6-digit lottery lotto. So going beyond the risks, eating along with the locals is a great immersion in their culinary culture. And in Laos, it’s not such a bad thing as most eating establishments are along the sidewalks.
I was feeling adventurous when I was in Laos, so when I met with my local guide and he asked me where we want to eat I told him, “we’ll eat where you guys eat”.
My first foray into Lao Food was their local breakfast rice noodle, Beef Foe. My guide led me to a market stall beside the bus station one morning in Pakse where some of the locals were also eating. We got a big bowl of noodles with beef in it. My Lao guide showed me how he put all the condiments – from sugar, soy sauce, to chili and pepper – in his soup. He then tossed in some vegetables like lettuce, mint, coriander from a plate, mixed it up then started eating with his chopsticks. I did the same. It was delicious. I liked the kick of the spice and the beefy flavor of the soup. The noodles had the right consistency and the meat was really tender. It was my first meal and I loved it already. It’s the perfect way to start the day.
Along with the foe noodle meal, we also had a small bowl of chili peppers and a cup of Kapi, a type of shrimp paste. Basically, you dip the pepper on the paste and eat them. It’s pretty good and tasty, actually reminding me of Filipino food because the kapi taste is similar to our bagoong. I couldn’t eat more than five pieces though.
Talk about Lao Food and the word “Sticky Rice” would literally stick out of the conversation. I got introduced to this local delicacy when I joined my Lao guide with his friends for lunch in Paksong in an eatery along the highway.
For lunch, we had one of the popular dishes, the Laap. It is basically a salad with minced meat, garlic, lime juice, roasted sticky rice, garlic mints and chilies. They showed me how to eat sticky rice properly. Basically, you use your hand to get less than a handful of rice, roll that piece on your palm until it turns into a ball, then you stick the Laap to the rice and eat. It’s really a fun way to eat though I need to get used to the Laap which has a semi-bitter but spicy flavor.
I spent one afternoon trying out their famous Lao Paksong Coffee. I may not be the best critic for coffee since I rarely drink it but I did try one at Sinouk Cafe along the streets of Pakse and found it has a strong, round taste. I actually emptied a cup. Not bad for a non-coffee drinker.
In the busy streets of Vientiane, there are a lot of hole-in-the wall eateries along the main street of Th Samsenthai. These eateries are usually fronted by fruit shake stands and have a few tables and chairs inside, offering bagguettes and stir fried rice meals. I was able to try their beef and chicken but my favorite has to be their Prawn Stir-fried Rice. Really flavorful with a good balance between the viand and the rice. I love the fruit shakes here because they are very cheap. I got to try different ones with every meal.
By evening, the Riverfront rows of restos come alive along Th Fa Ngum street. It’s a popular place to view the sunset. I tried one of the restaurants and saw the fresh ingredients by the entrance ranging from live fish to even frogs. I wasn’t that daring and just tried their Ping Gai (Grilled Chicken) with a serving of sticky rice. I tried Ping Gai before but they have a better presentation here as the chicken was placed on vegetable leaves. It tasted better, too. Again I had a mixed fruit shake to go with this.
In Luang Prabang, the first dish I tried for breakfast is the Kao Pick Sen, another famous breakfast noodles made of rounded rice noodles served in either chicken or beef broth. I had chicken broth on a riverside restaurant. It is tasty but a lot tamer than the foe noodles. The taste of ginger is more evident along with garlic. I had to add a bit more pepper here to adjust the spiciness to my liking. The rice noodle was very good.
While not really original Lao, the French Baguettes is a staple food here. They’re good and cheap. I actually was surprised when I first ordered one here since I got a whole large baguette sandwich. It’s one of my favorite buys so much so that vendors in Luang Prabang already knew me by face.
I definitely enjoyed the foodscapes of Laos. I find they strike a perfect balance between the strong spicy flavors of Thai Cuisine and the subtleness of Vietnamese food. I guess being located right smack in the middle of these two influences gave Lao food this balance while still retaining the simplicity of using fresh vegetable as ingredients, of having hints of lime and lemongrass flavors along with the spiciness of the food. What’s more, eating in Laos is a social ritual. Most of the times, people here eat together which makes it as fun as rolling that sticky rice on the palm of your hand.