Explore our favourite dishes from the Southeast Asian country of Laos. Don't leave without trying these aromatic salads, perfectly spiced noodles and much more.
Sweet, salty, sour, bitter – as long as the taste is strong, Laotians like it. Get ready to eat lots of sticky rice (with your hands) and sample as many of our favourite dishes as you can on your next visit.
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As the sun sets, a bowl of dried river weed from the Mekong river is easy to devour alongside a local beer or two. Lightly salty, satisfyingly crunchy and a little oily from a final dip in the fryer, kaipen is dried directly on the banks of the river before being cooked and garnished with sesame seeds for some texture, tamarind water for a hint of sourness and thin tomato slices, mostly for decoration. You’ll find this treat widely available in and around Luang Prabang and occasionally further afield.
2. Khao soi Luang Prabang
There's some gentle competition with northern Thailand as to the birthplace of this much-loved dish of fermented flat rice noodles, minced pork, fermented soy beans and a whole lot of herbs and spices. Northern Laos’ version differs by being quite thick, almost like a Bolognese sauce. Locals usually enjoy this for breakfast, but it’s more than acceptable to eat khao soi at any time of day.
3. Khao ji pâté
Vietnam has banh mi, Laos has khao ji pâté. Laos’ breakfast baguette (also eaten as a late night snack) features its hallmark ingredient, pickled papaya, along with three types of pork – minced with soy beans and tomatoes, steamed pâté and ‘fluffy’ dried pork. Fried eggs and coriander complete the dish.
4. Laos dips with sticky rice
Eat like a Laotian by scooping up sticky rice with your hands, making a ball and dipping away at delicious local sauces. While there are many variations of dip, the three most commonly served are smoky aubergine (djeo mak kua), medium-spiced tomato (tomato len) and the thick chilli paste (djeo mak bet) that should be approached with caution due to its formidable power. There are many different varieties of sticky rice, and in northern Laos they are usually steamed. In the morning markets you’ll find white, purple and dark brown sticky rice – each used for both sweet and savoury dishes and accompaniments. White rice is believed to be the purer variety, and this is the only one that be can be presented to monks at the morning almsgiving.
5. Kua pak bong
Found in abundance across Southeast Asia, pak bong is a classic dish made from water spinach (also known as morning glory). You’ll be hard pressed to find a menu that omits this, cooked as a simple yet flavour-packed stir-fry with oyster sauce, garlic and just a touch of chilli.
6. Hua moo Luang Prabang
A true classic in the former royal capital, this large sausage is made of minced pork, lemongrass, ginger, chilli, shallots, garlic, kaffir lime leaves and a measure of sticky rice that adds texture and makes the mix go further. The quantities can vary depending on what the locals have to hand. It's cooked on the barbecue, seasoned with fish sauce and sugar, then sliced to serve with dips and sticky rice (see above).
7. Nem luang
You’re unlikely to find this in a restaurant, so pull up a chair at one of the many stalls along the roadside or in the markets. There’s no great mystery to finding a decent place to eat – pick somewhere that's doing a steady trade. The batter for this breakfast or snack favourite is simply beaten egg, heated and swirled expertly to coat the inside of a wok. It’s topped with beansprouts and a mix of chopped morning glory, lettuce, watercress and coriander, then folded, flipped and topped with a little fish sauce and simple syrup (water and sugar). It’s up to you to add soy sauce and dried chilli to your liking.
8. Tam mak hoong
This traditional Laotian recipe consists primarily of green papaya, aubergine, the skin of mak kawk (Laos olives) and cherry tomatoes with a sauce of lime juice, fish sauce, garlic, chilli and a pinch of Mekong shrimp paste – the perfect balance of spice, salt, sweet and sour. It's served with sticky rice and raw cabbage, which you can use as both handy cup and cooling agent if needed. Beware of asking for too much spice – if you’re eating in a local eatery, the mortar in which your dish will be made is likely to have the remnants of every portion already served. If you can’t take the heat, ask for your salad ‘nit noi spicy’ (not too spicy).
9. Koi pa
This salad consists of finely chopped raw fish, marinated with lime and rice vinegar, served with fish sauce, banana flower, spring onions, coriander and a little sugar. In restaurants, it’s often made with steamed fish, but our favourite version comes with the marinated slivers pulled straight from the Mekong, served ceviche-style, and is most likely to be found in a small roadside restaurant or stall along the river itself.
10. Tum khao poon
Found in the countryside around Luang Prabang and bought in bags either to eat at the market or to take home, this ‘dry soup’ is the Laos equivalent of instant noodles. Consisting of vermicelli rice noodles, steamed pork, beansprouts, long beans, watercress, chopped morning glory, banana flowers, chilli sauce and peanuts, you just add water and condiments provided – chicken stock, fish sauce, lime juice and maybe some chilli.
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