While there are some similarities with other Southeast Asian countries, Lao cuisine definitely has its own unique qualities. To best share them with you, here are some of my favorite meals we found while exploring Luang Prabang.
Dried Mekong River Weed with Sesame
This local specialty is made from a type of algae found along the nearby Mekong River. The plant is harvested, dried and in Luang Prabang it is served with sesame. It was pretty common to find around town and this particular portion was delivered to us unprompted as an appetizer. River weed is definitely not the type of thing I normally eat, but I had to try to once. It actually didn’t taste that bad, the sesame influenced the taste more than anything. But the more I ate of it, the more chewy it became at which point I’d reached my limit. Still, where else are you going to eat something called river weed?
Night Market Fare
If you can’t decide what to eat for dinner, there’s a virtual buffet available every night in a side street off of the main night market. Here you can choose from a variety of vendors selling snacks, homemade desserts and yes grilled meats. This man may look grumpy, but he was actually very patient with me as I tried to identify the meats and then decide what I wanted to eat. Fish was a popular choice given the city’s proximity to two rivers, but I opted for something simply called “grilled pig.” How can you go wrong with a name like that? There are also vendors that offer an all-you-can-eat Laotian style buffet with a variety of dishes. This was especially popular amongst backpackers given how cheap the meals were.
Sticky or glutinous rice is a staple of Laotian cuisine and is found at every meal. The rice is cooked by soaking it for several hours and then steaming in a bamboo pot. The rice is then rolled out with a wooden paddle to release the steam resulting in sticky rice balls. The rice is common with meals, but I also saw it as a popular dessert when added to fruit, especially mango.
I’m sure there’s probably a better term for this, but most of the traditional meals I ate were served in large bowls. That’s because much of the cuisine in Laos is a combination of meat, noodles, lemongrass, vegetables or fruits and broth. These are all examples of the typical meals you can find in Luang Prabang and while they may look similar, each was a completely different experience. The most common Lao dish is laap, a spicy mixture of marinated meat and/or fish with a variable combination of herbs, greens, and spices. While laap was ok, my favorite dish was a sweet and sour chicken served with rice noodles.
Who doesn’t love dessert? Ok, there are probably a few heathens among us, but thanks in great part to the French influence dessert is alive and well in Luang Prabang. Most of what we saw was for tourist consumption, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t good. The overwhelming favorite item was the shake, made fresh in front of your eyes from any one of a number of street vendors. You can choose from a myriad of fruit combinations, or you can opt for a coffee or even Oreo cookie shake. I had at least one every day in Luang Prabang and it quickly became a favorite treat. A large shake for $1.25 after all is a great deal. The fruit shakes were good but since no ice cream or sugar is added, it doesn’t have the sweet taste one necessarily expects. The Oreo shake though was my personal favorite featuring whole cookies thrown into the blender.
There’s more to Luang Prabang than street vendors though; there are a number of quality restaurants if you know where to look. Fortunately one such restaurant was at our hotel, La Residence Phou Vao, who prepared this sweet treat for me. Featured is a banana and chocolate spring roll with caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream. And yes, it was as good as it looks.