Staples: Rice, noodles and flavoured with chili, lime, coconut, basil & coriander
Top Dishes: Phad Thai street food, spicy papaya salad, green coconut curry
Tastes: Hot & bombastically spicy Thai, but Laos is drier, soupy with minced meat
Serving Suggestion: Swig down with lao-lao, rice whiskey
Yesterday and Today
Many cultures have influenced Thai and Lao cuisine over the centuries. The Chinese had a major impact, for example, popularising methods of cooking such as stir and deep-frying over the more conventional stewing and grilling. Arguably the most dramatic change, however, occurred with the Portuguese introduction of the South American chili to South-East Asia in the late 17th century. The Thais in particular have never looked back.
Thai cuisine today is a taste sensation, favouring delicate and fragrant ingredients such as lime, sweet basil, coconut and coriander, combined with the ubiquitous chili. It is advisable for most Westerners to ask for their food “mai pet,” or “not spicy” (which is still pretty spicy!) – unless of course you dare to compete with the natives!
Traditional Lao food lacks the variety of ingredients found in Thai food today, but simplicity does not detract from the flavour of their few specialities. Curries tend to have drier consistencies than they do in Thailand, where copious use of coconut milk almost turns them into soups. Lao people also adhere more strictly to the Buddhist tradition of not eating large lumps of meat than do their Thai neighbours. Meat, when eaten, is usually minced or chopped up finely.
When dining out in Thailand it is customary to order several menu items at once, combining dishes such as gaeng khiawangai (a sweet green coconut-flavoured curry with chicken), tom yam goon (a very hot and sour prawn soup) and tord man plaa (spicy fried fish cakes), along with rice and stir-fried vegetables. The aim is to create a balance both of tastes and textures.
Most restaurants in Thailand serve excellent local food at very reasonable prices. However, you can sample the most exquisite foods by eating at the street food stalls for very little. Phad thai is a popular food stall meal, typically consisting of rice noodles, bean sprouts, peanuts or cashew nuts, egg, tofu (vegetarian soya), shrimp, soy sauce, sugar and a squeeze of lemon or lime. This is fried in front of you, so you canpick and choose if there are any ingredients you wish more to try more of.
Snacks to try are raw papaya sliced up and served with a dipping bag of sugar, salt and chilli, or soak up your late night whiskey with fried chicken, Thai sausages are tasty treat, really the opportunities are endless!
In Vientiane, most ‘top of the range’ restaurants are Western-oriented, frequented by tourists and wealthy hotel owners. French cuisine features widely, introduced to Laos during the Indochina years, while Italian comes a close second. To sample traditional Lao food you should visit the smaller local eating places, or the street food stalls.
Here you can try laap, a deliciously spicy dish made from finely chopped duck or chicken, mixed with stock, spices and crushed dry-fried rice grains that are uncooked, and served with sticky rice and stir-fried vegetables. Tam mak houng (spicy papaya salad) is another speciality, a version of which can also be found in Thailand (som tam). Made from raw papaya, chillis, garlic, sugar, peanuts, lime juice, dried shrimp and fermented fish sauce, this is pure refreshment with a kick! For a midday snack, a bowl of pho (noodle soup) is tasty and surprisingly substantial. It is also a good way of keeping yourself hydrated in the tropical heat.
Many Thai locals have noticed foreign visitors falling in love with their cuisine, and there are several cookery schools throughout the country, offering crash courses of one to five day’s duration. One that deserves particular mention is the small home cookery course offered by Kanjana, the owner of a restaurant (named for her) based on Ratchadamnoen Road in Chiang Mai. The course attracts only a small number of people and the restaurant is small, whilst the food is absolutely delicious and the owner a genuinely sweet and serene lady.
Lao people have not yet tapped into this demand of tourism, but the locals can be incredibly accommodating that you only have to ask and you will be swamped with details on how dishes are prepared, and what should accompany them (lao-lao, the local rice whiskey, is a popular suggestion!).
This site gives an introduction to various countries throughout South-East Asia, including both Thailand and Laos, whilst also offering a wealth of tasty traditional recipes and information on the basic ingredients used.
Cooking Schools – Cooking Classes & School Search
Cooking School search engine for cooking schools and cooking classes. Le Cordon Bleu certification.
By Rowena Forbes