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Learning Laotian Cuisine – What to order?

  • r

Laotian Cuisine – just what does that mean?

I moved to an area with about a half dozen Laotian/Thai restaurants. It seems that these restaurants are mainly Isan – the food of Laotians who settled in Northern Thailand.

Supposedly Isan/Lao food is similar. They both use sticky rice as a staple. So that influences the cuisine. Unlike Thai food it doesn’t use coconut milk and curries or more, messy, oily foods. I’ve read the Laotians eat food by breaking off a piece of sticky rice with their fingers, rolling it in a ball, making a depression in the rice and using it to scoop up a bit of food or dipping it in the sauce. So, that’s the reason the food is simpler and lighter.

A chowhound wrote “Lao food isn't nearly as spicy as Thai food. The heat is usually added at table with condiments”. Yet other references dispute that. It seems for every comment about Laotian food, there is an opposing view.

Someone else wrote: “The Lao palate is accustomed to grilled or steamed foods--with relatively simple flavorings, and fresh, uncooked vegetables. Lao cuisine, which is very healthful, uses a relatively small variety of herbs and spices, with a particular and distinctive emphasis on garlic and galanga (not ginger, as has been asserted elsewhere).”

Lao food is more Vietnamese oriented, while Isan is simpler, the food of a poorer people. What dishes scream “I’m Isan” while others are “Laotian Classic”? How would I tell scanning a menu? It seems there is more discussion on the web about the difference between Thai and Laotian food than about the difference between Laotian and Isan. No examples that I can find.

So what does that mean that Lao food itself is Vietnamese oriented? In order to find Lao food rather than Isan am I looking for a Lao/Vietnamese restaurant rather than Lao/Thai?

Given that all we have is Isan in the area, it seems that most of the Lao dishes don’t formally appear on the menus. If you know what you want, you can order anything.

So, my question is what are good Laotian dishes that can be requested?

Even newspaper reviews, if any, usually focus on the Thai dishes or it’s the same old Lao dishes like tam mak hung (papaya salad), Larb (Laap), sticky rice. Which is a funny sentence if you consider my first Lao meal was two days ago.

So here I am with my Lao cookbook, A Taste of Laos, written by a local Thai/Lao restaurant, which two out of three Amazon reviewers trashed and a wikipedia article.

Any other good books / links on Laotian food? Even the guy who trashed the cookbook, recommended buying it because there are only two other books out there.

If all else fails, there's always McThai with the fish McDippers or the McSamuria pork burger.

http://www.mcthai.co.th/menus/index.htm

Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lao_cuisine

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  1. Looking up info on Gai Yang (for lunch today), I found this really cool description of Laos food for someone visiting Vientiane, Laos. Some good pointers to other books on Thai food, especially "Thai Hawker Food" described as "by a couple of students who have an appropriate level of obsession with Thai street food, and it includes color drawings of their wares. It includes maps of the most vendor-laden areas of Bangkok and a list of dishes with Thai script so you can confirm with a vendor that you're really buying what you expect"

    Ok, the book isn't Laotian, but it seemed really a cool resource if ever visiting Thailand. Back to Laos, the link below has a few pictures too.

    Link: http://www.grubshack.com/essays/asia0...

    1. m
      mary shaposhnik

      >What dishes scream “I’m Isan” while others >are “Laotian Classic”? How would I tell
      >scanning a menu? It seems there is more discussion >on the web about the difference between Thai
      >and Laotian food than about the difference
      >between Laotian and Isan.

      I think the reason you are not finding much is because, on the level of generality that is expressed in food, there's not really a difference. Speaking generally (though such territory can be parsed for years on usenet groups), Issan is populated overwhelmingly by people of Lao-descent or cultural identity (some historically, since the borders in these parts have changed over time; and many who came after the Indochina War), with far smaller groups of Khmers, Chinese, central Thai, post-war Americans, etc. About 20 million Lao live in Issan, compared to about 6 million Lao in Laos; spoken Issan and Lao are pretty much the same (although written Issan uses the Thai, not Lao, script, and I've heard that Laos is now trying to move its language further away from Issan). "Isaan" and "Lao" are often used pretty interchangeably to discuss people from this region. So looking for a distinction between "Lao" and "Issan" food won't really work, since you are talking about food of essentially the same "people" (I use that term gingerly).

      That said, there is a significant cultural influence from central Thailand on Issan that you won't find in Laos, so you would expect to see some divergence there, although there is also a cultural identity movement in Issan that seeks to preserve its Lao culutre. And there are ethnic groups in Laos that are not "Lao" in this cultural sense (Hmong, Yao, Chinese, etc.). You also find regional variations in Lao food, with some areas near China being deeply influenced by Chinese food, or Luang Prabang being known for some distinctive dishes.

      But unless you are looking for a specific regional variant of Lao food, you'll find most of it covered by Issan food. Now, many Issan places also serve central Thai food, but there is nothing particularly Issan v. Lao about that, and you just need to order the Issan/Lao dishes. You know most of those already, judging from your research.

      The only difference I can think of is the prevalence of dill in Lao food, and also the character of certain stews. There also are some subtle inflections that have evolved regionally--I'd love to know if someone has explored these--but I suspect these are no different than the different inflections that you'd find within Issan or within Laos.

      I really don't understand the part about Lao food being more like Vietnamese. I don't see many similarities, other than if one is trying to contrast Lao food with Thai food. But if you want to mimic a trip to Laos, you are likely to get far closer to the mark at an Issan rather than a Vietnamese restaurant.

      To be clear, I am talking about exploring these remotely, that is, from a third country. A trip to Issan and Lao might reveal the subtle differences that get lost in the translation here.

      3 Replies
      1. re: mary shaposhnik

        Thank you so much for that thoughtful and informative reply. The Laotian cookbook I bought mentioned that the food of Laos was more Vietnamese influenced than the Thai/Issan food.

        As to the Laotion population, very interesting that there are three times more Laotians living in Issan rather than Laos itself. On the SF board, there was this link to the different ethnic groups in Laos.

        Again, thank you.

        Link: http://www.country-data.com/cgi-bin/q...

        1. re: mary shaposhnik

          Great post! Care to expand on what these distinctive dishes of Luang Prabang are like? (though I'm sure they're too obscure to find stateside.)

          1. re: mary shaposhnik

            Yes! Dill! I forgot all about the prevalence of dill in the curries/stews of Lao. Thanks for the flavor memory.

            And another Lao specialty we had in Luang Prabang was kai pen -- sheets of dried seaweed with shallots and sesame seeds sprinkled over. I brought some home with me and you quickly fry it up in hot oil and serve as a snack with Beer Lao. YUM.

          2. rworange- i can't tell you how surprised i was to see a post about laotian cuisine, as it is unknown to many. i know about it because i am laotian and am taken aback when other non-laotians know of such a thing. in reply to what you wrote, i don't find laotian food to be similar to vietnamese, but closely related to thai food. i have to disagree about the spiciness, as my mom and many of my relatives add many many peppers when cooking. it's all a matter of preference. and yes sticky rice is a staple. i highly recommend you buy, if you don't already have, a rice steamer and sticky rice and rice basket to complete the meals you make from your laotian cookbook. sticky rice is sometimes offered in thai restaurants, but i never order because it usually comes in a small rice basket and wrapped in saran wrap, which completely destroys the texture. by trapping in the steam from the saran wrap, the rice becomes too sticky, to the point where you're literally eating it off your fingers. it is called sticky rice, but when it's sticking to your fingers that's a bad thing. your description on how to eat with sticky rice is somewhat accurate. sticky rice is stored in a rice basket and eating is very communal, where everything is shared. so i was taught that the polite/proper way of eating was to take a small fistful of rice from the basket at a time and from the ball of rice break off a small portion (not rolled into a ball) to eat with other food/sauces. laotian cooking is simple, with fresh herbs and spices and little fat/oil, which is why it is overall a healthy meal. recently as i was browsing throught the cookbook section at b&n i discovered a laotian cookbook and w/o browsing through bought it because i was so surprised and happy. happy because my mom is an amazing cook but all of her recipes are in her head and her pinches and my pinches are never the same, so i have not been successful in replicating any of my childhood favorite meals. so i bought this cookbook called "simple laotian cooking" by penn hongthong (isbn 0781809630) that i highly recommend. i recently bought it and haven't tried out many of the recipes, but the two hot sauce recipes i recently made came so very close to my mom's sauces and i was quite impressed with myself. well rworange, i don't know why but it makes me happy that laotian cuisine is not completely lost in a world of many cuisines. you may know more about it than me, through your research in this new interest, but i'm writing from my own personal experience and i hope it was somewhat helpful in your inquiry.

            18 Replies
            1. re: lotsanivanh
              m
              mary shaposhnik

              Hey Lotsanivanh! Thanks for the great insights. I'd love it if you posted on the Home Cooking board the names of the two sauces you made out of that cookbook, so we could track down the book and try them. Saying they taste like your mother's is a great recommendation. Thanks!

              1. re: mary shaposhnik

                hi mary. i posted the recipes today. look on home cooking "niki rothman- recipes w/fish sauce". the recipes are both simple and tasty. enjoy.

                1. re: lotsanivanh

                  Thanks so much for those recipes. I'm adding the direct link here so they don't get lost.

                  Link: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

              2. re: lotsanivanh

                Thank you very much. There are four restuarants in the area I live that identified themselves as Lao/Thai. A newish restuarant was reviewed by one of the local papers and it got me interested to find out exactly what was Laotian Cuisine.

                These restaurants don't list a lot of Laotian dishes, but two will take requests and make any dish you would like.

                In the restaurant linked below, the sticky rice was excellent in a basket, no saran wrap. Thanks for the tip on how to eat the rice.

                That cookbook sounds great. I'll keep an eye out for it.

                Link: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

                1. re: rworange

                  i read the link. it was a good review. i kept thinking to myself why do they have sweet and sour sauce until i read the explanation a little further down. unfortunately, cuisines are sometimes altered to suit the customers palate, which takes away from the true experience. but at least the waitress was honest with you. it's great finding family owned restaurants. the sauce for spring rolls is on the sweet side, but i never cared for that and would eat mine w/o the sauce. other than that, sauces offered are generally spicy to very spicy. by the way, the recipes i posted i referred to as hot sauce (since my mom makes it hot), but those recipes are pretty mild so the amount of peppers are to your discretion, something i should've mentioned along with the recipe. reading your previous post makes me long for mom's cooking now, especially since i just got home from work and don't feel like cooking. she makes unbelievable homemade sausage among many other great things. did you try the "kao poon" (vermicelli noodle soup) that was on the menu? that was one of my favorites growing up. my mom also makes pho and my absolute favorite was the one with turkey broth, but i think that was her own touch because you can't get that anywhere, but if that restaurant makes meals upon request you should definitely ask if that is something they could make for you. it's quite a request, but if they will it is so very good. larp/laab/lob is also another favorite of mine and you'll find that on just about any thai/laotian menu because it is a common/popular dish. the lettuce on the side adds a great texture, plus it takes away from the heat from other dishes that you're eating, as there is usually at least one killer hot dish or sauce as part of the meal. another dish i ate often growing up, something i haven't had in many years, is "thom kim", which literally means boil (thom) sweet (kim)... it's been so long that i don't think i could give an accurate description, but the way i remember it was brown eggs and beef boiled in a brown sauce, sort of like a stew. i never understood the name of the dish, as i don't remember it as being a sweet dish at all. perhaps because it's not a spicy dish? i'd be surprised if they'd cook this for you, but if it sounds ok from my vague description maybe give it a shot. and if you're tired of "som tum" ask if you can have "thom mak thang"- a cucumber salad. it's very similar to papaya salad except w/ cucumbers and tastes best when eaten spicy. shrimp paste is commonly added to both of these dishes, but i omit them, as i find shrimp paste to be overpowering. anyway, happy eating and definitely think about getting that cookbook "simple laotian cooking". i think it's wonderful. one more thing i wanted to comment on was that perhaps the reason you didn't like thai food was because the restaurants were not thai but imposters (no intention of questioning your knowledge). some places, at least here in nyc, can be misleading and claim thai when in fact they are not. one very good example is joya here in brooklyn. it's a disgrace they call it thai...

                  1. re: lotsanivanh

                    Have you visited Zabb yet? Id be curious what you thought of it.

                    1. re: jen kalb

                      sorry jen, i have not been there. what are your thoughts on zabb? i am guilty of dining mostly in brooklyn and manhattan, sometimes riverdale. i rarely make it to queens. however, i did check out their menu online, not sure if it's up to date or not but it looks good. one thing that surprised me was no spring rolls on the menu, not crucial, just surprised not to see such a popular appetizer as an option. well, i definitely want to try this place and since we have a car and my bf drives like a race car driver we should make it to queens and back in no time. and if i do go, i will try to remember to report on my meal at zabb.

                    2. re: lotsanivanh

                      On my first (so far) foray into Laotian food (in Lowell, MA) the most distinctive touch was the bitterness in the dipping sauce served with grilled meat. It was descriped as "spicy and bitter" and it seems like a typical fish sauce/lime mix but with sharp bitterness from lime peel. I'm not a great bitter fan but it grew on me. In your experience is bitterness a predominant Lao flavor element? (This restaurant is a small one with the owner's mother in the kitchen and a short menu. Now I *must* try the sausage!)

                      1. re: Aromatherapy

                        Lao sausage is great! What's the place in Lowell?

                        1. re: yumyum

                          Probably meant Phien's Kitchen at:
                          586 Westford St
                          Lowell, MA
                          (978) 441-0014

                          Link below to past thread on NE board. Also note that SouthEast Asian restaurant is Lao owned/cook, although they have an expansive menu (as does Phien's).

                          Link: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

                          1. re: applehome

                            It's on the short list.

                            Thanks!

                        2. re: Aromatherapy
                          m
                          mary shaposhnik

                          I'm curious what others say, but I definitely have noticed more bitterness or herbal (as opposed to acidic) astringency in Lao food.

                          1. re: mary shaposhnik

                            i was a picky eater growing up, as many kids can be, and i do remember bitter dishes here and there and of course would stay away. my mom recently made a soup for me that i despised as a little girl because it was bitter and sour (one of the ingredients is tamarind), but now that i've developed a greater appreciation for food i devoured the very same soup i hated as a kid. this is just one example of a dish that i remember tasting bitter. but overall i don't think i would choose bitter as a description for laotian cuisine, as i don't think it's a predominant taste.

                        3. re: lotsanivanh

                          Here's a photo of a stewed pork and egg dish from the Thai Temple just outside of San Francisco. The star anise seasoning made it seem "sweet", though there probably wasn't any sugar in it. Might this be similar to the beef-egg dish you're remembering?

                          Link: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

                          Image: http://www.chowhound.com/misc/mel/tha...

                          1. re: Melanie Wong

                            i'm feeling quite nostalgic right now... that looks very close to "thom kim", except i think my mom's sauce was thicker and darker in color, whereas the photo shows a sauce that appears oily and thin. otherwise, it appears to be the same. the photo brings back good memories. thanks for sharing.

                            1. re: lotsanivanh

                              I've had something similar at Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas too that had a thicker sauce. LoS has several Issan dishes on the menu, though this wasn't one of them. I think it might have been part of the staff meal. The owner brought it out for me on the house after he learned that I was Chinese. He said it was a Thai-Chinese style dish.

                              1. re: Melanie Wong

                                They most likely served you muu pa-lo. The pork (oftentimes hock) is braised with what are oftentimes referred to as "Chinese spices." Hard-boiled eggs and cubes of fried tofu are common additions to the braising liquid (and they are included for service).

                                Pet pa-lo, the duck variant, is equally popular in Thailand:

                                http://www.users.bigpond.com/catch22i...

                                http://www.mcdang.com/Eng/Nation/N52.asp

                                Here's a pig ear "snack" with similar treatment:

                                http://www.khiewchanta.com/archives/2...

                                A very good recipe for muu pa-lo can be found on pp. 526-7 of David Thompson's book, THAI FOOD. With Thompson's recipe, cassia bark, coriander roots, white peppercorns, and star anise give the dish a very deeply nuanced flavour.

                                E.M.

                                Link: http://lthforum.com/bb/viewtopic.php?...

                                1. re: Erik M.

                                  Thanks for the explanation. Add a bit of Sichuan peppercorn and you would have the makings of "five spice".

                                  Here's a link to the old report of my own visit to Sanamluang, the branch in North Hollywood.

                                  Link: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

                    3. I just wanted to say how much I'm enjoying this thread. I traveled to Laos a couple of years ago and had amazing, delicious, complex, fabulous food. We were in Luang Prabang for Thanksgiving and enjoyed one of the best meals I can remember at a little restaurant called Malee. It should be in the dictionary next to "Hole in the Wall". I'm going to dig through my journals to jog my memory of exactly which dishes we had and I'll post any standouts for you to try.

                      Your post and interest have brought back really great memories. Thanks.

                      6 Replies
                      1. re: yumyum

                        It's true there are more Laotians outside of Laos then within.
                        Due mainly to the Vietman war.
                        Many don't know that Laos was greatly effected by it - Including me. I'm laotian.
                        Lao and Isan are the same thing.
                        Isan was once apart of Laos and the Thai went to war with Laos to gain more land.
                        Forcing the Isan to write with Thai lettering and to call themselves Thai.
                        So it's not the Lao trying to distance themselves from Isan, it's the Thai trying to keep Lao away from Isan.
                        I am very happy to see an interest in Lao food. So many don't know what we have to offer and it would be my pleasure to share the love..
                        Lao food vs Vietnamese. There are similarities - salad rolls, pho noodle soups, ban ceo crepes are really the only three I can think of. There's not much after that.
                        As for curry - each country in the area has there own delicious variations, so I'll get on to the more important stuff.
                        Dishes you should try to ask for are:
                        Moke (mixtures wrapped in banana leaf steamed or roasted)
                        Geang noh mie ( bamboo shoot stew)
                        Lao sausages (any decent lao restaurant must have these)
                        Pad Ka paow (sweet basil stirfry)
                        Kie look Kuy (son-in-law eggs)
                        Nem Kao (coconut rice with lao ham)
                        Kao pune (Vermicilli noodle soup)
                        Kao peak sen (Tapioca noodle soup)
                        These are basic dishes that every Lao household cook. Good luck.

                        1. re: lao lao

                          Thanks so much Hope you will share any recipes you might have on the home cooking board.
                          http://www.chowhound.com/boards/31

                          1. re: rworange

                            The best Thai Restaurant in MSP offers a Lao Menu, which I was soo excited to see. I totally dig Isaan food (have a friend from Khon Kaen, it's her fault!).. but alas, the restaurant is closed due to some wiring issue in their kitchen.

                            That being said, I would LOVE to see some of lao lao's recipes, too.. esp. Kao pune/ Kao Peak sen.. at least the ratios.. any moke (this is SO amazing).. Please share =)

                            1. re: reannd

                              Unfortunately my mother's recipes I've been sworn to secrecy, but I'll post what I can.
                              Many lao dishes are difficult to make, especially since they never measure anything - never. It's all by the eye.
                              Let me whip up a few dishes this weekend and measure them out. I'll get back to you with some recipes you can follow.

                              1. re: lao lao

                                My best friend is Thai and she taught me to taste everything while eating. I'd have to say watching her was the start of my food obsession, as she proved *anything* is possible (you should see her rendition(s) of carrot cake -- nearly everything in her fridge ends up inside.. but it always tastes good).

                                I'd be interested in pretty much a list of what types of ingredients are in there so I don't miss any (esp those that may be different than Thai).. don't really expect specific qtys =) Thanks for being willing to share, though.. I'm excited!!

                                1. re: reannd

                                  I am totally loving this thread, too! I have had an absolute fascination with Laos since childhood for some reason but have never sought out the cuisine. Since I don't have time to cook as a medical student, any suggestions besides Zabb of where to eat in NYC?

                      2. I can/need add little given the replies by lotsanivanh, mary shaposhnik, and lao lao. Lao food prepared by farmers, villagers, markets, and small eateries in Vientianne Province, Savannakhet, Oudomxay, and Luang Prabang over several years (but a number of years ago) supplied many of my fondest food, taste, and companionship memories. Isaan and Lao to me are essentially the same; and Vietnamese and Lao foods are not really similar.

                        1. Issan cuisine is essentially Lao cuisine but within the Thai border. There's an overlap between Lao cuisine and Thai cuisine because all Thai restaurants serve Lao dishes aka "Issan" food from Northeast Thailand. However, there are some Lao dishes that don't exist in Thai-Issan cuisine. Therefore, if you want truly authentic Lao food, then you should go to a Lao restaurant rather than the many Thai restaurants that serve Lao/Issan dishes but under the Thai moniker. Some common Lao dishes served at Thai restaurants are "Larb" / "Laab", Sticky Rice with Grilled Chicken, Papaya Salad, Waterfall Beef Salad "NamTok", Lao Sausages (made with pork and lemongrass), etc...