Lao cooking is based on the consumption of sticky rice as a staple. Deftly rolled into a neat, small ball, sticky rice is served with almost every meal, and is eaten with the hand. Other essential ingredients include kha, or galagal – a ginger-like rhizome with a peppery flavor, also found in northern-Thailand curries, as well as nam paa, or fish sauce. Dishes are generally cooked with fresh ingredients that include vegetables, poultry, pork, beef and water buffalo. Eating is communal and an important social occasion, and all dishes are eaten at the same time, with food made in quantities sufficient for having twice the number of diners.
Popular Lao dishes include tam som – a spicy salad made of sliced green papaya mixed with chili peppers, garlic, tomatoes, ground peanuts, crab, lime juice and fish sauce. Other popular items include laap, a spicy dish of minced meat, as well as tom khaa kai – chicken soup with galangal and coconut milk, and khao laat kaen, or curry, served on a bed of long-grain rice.
Laos is an excellent place for breakfast, chiefly because of the French colonial legacy. French bread is freshly baked each day, and good coffee, grown in the hills of southern Laos, is also available. A day started with croissants and omelets is a good day, indeed.
We were lucky to stay in a hotel, 3 Nagas, that houses one of the best restaurants in Luang Prabang. 3 Nagas Restaurant highlights what is local and fresh that day, from water buffalo meat to Mekong River fish, to mushrooms grown along the riverbanks. The food, service and setting at 3 Nagas Restaurant is exquisite.
We started with the Signature Cocktail – Tom Yum Luang Prabang – which was spicy, sweet, refreshing and perfect. This was followed by Khaiphaen Jeund – Mekong riverweed which is evocative of a tasty sesame-dusted dried seaweed, and quite possibly the best replacement for potato chips, along with delicate and light fresh summer rolls filled with a heaping amount of vegetables. One of the best bites of the evening was the Mee Gouy Phan – eggplant purée wrapped with fresh rice noodles & vegetables.
The communal style of Lao dining was evident when we were served four different dishes: Tom Sompaa – fish soup with lemongrass and galangal; Phanaeng Kai – minced chicken cooked in coconut milk & curry; Khoua Pak – stir-fried vegetables and mushrooms with oyster sauce; and and most delectable steamed mushrooms in banana leaf with lemongrass and Lao herbs, also known as Mhok Het.
We completed our meal with not one but two fantastic desserts: tapioca in coconut milk with seasonal fruit, and an incredibly refreshing rosella sorbet, made in-house.
3 Nagas also houses the former Royal Family’s official ice cream parlor, which has been reimagined and continues to beckon hotel guests and passers-by to enjoy incredible homemade ice cream. I recommend coconut.
For fantastic baguettes, salads, sandwiches and croissants, stop in at the lovely Le Banneton, a French bakery located just steps from 3 Nagas Hotel. We shared a delicious smoked salmon tartine, served on a freshly baked baguette, and a Mediterranean salad. Luckily, I also grabbed an almond croissant to go, which served as the perfect breakfast treat the following day.
Finally, the real treat to look out for is the excellent and cheap local product, Beer Lao, which we enjoyed during our cruise along the Mekong River.
While the food in Laos is similar to its Thai and Vietnamese neighbors, Lao cooking still exhibits its own unique characteristics, and reflects French influences, making all Lao dishes flavorful, local, seasonal, healthy and delicious.