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    This landlocked country mixes the cultures of the Indian sub-continent with the high Himalayas. Explore Nepal!

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    Japan: Traditional foods. Go Now!

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    Bahrain: Desert. Go Now!

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    This tiny country has overcome the desert and has found a way to thrive, like this tree on al Jazair Beach. Explore Bahrain!

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    The simplicity and natural beauty of the countryside make Laos a hidden gem in Southeast Asia overlooked by most travelers. Begin Your Journey!

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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Laos

Historic Diet

Lao Food - Tom yam soup
Tom yam soup

As a landlocked country, Laos's historic diet is primarily based on plants, but surprisingly fish made up a needed source of protein for most of the historic people. Some of these foods are still popular today and have spread from the region to other parts of the world, including the orange. However most of the foods arrived with settlers, winds, and later with traders.

Despite the importance of sea food, the historic diet of the people was plant-based. Among the plants that were in the region or arrived to the region in early history are bananas, breadfruit, mangos, guavas, kampot peppers, durian, mangosteen, taro, cassava, wheat, rice, spinach, garlic, shallots, and beans. The animal life was also diverse, but animals were rarely consumed by the historic people. Of the animals that made up food sources, fish was perhaps the most popular, including freshwater trey dang dau, carp, catfish, and others that live in the rivers and lakes.

Culinary Influences

Lao Food - Meat soup
Meat soup

Laos's cuisine is the result of dozens of influences; however their foods are more loyal to their roots than many countries in the region due to their isolation and no ocean border. Even today fresh green vegetables are common. Foods are rarely sweet, which in stark contrast to some neighbors; once sugarcane made its way through the region from what is today Indonesia most countries adopted the food, but Laos rarely adds sweetness to their dishes.

The first, the greatest, and still the most obvious introduction to the diet of Laos came with the arrival of ethnic Chinese people thousands of years ago. The Lao today are distantly related to these people and the two countries still share a similar diet. The Chinese, brought numerous dishes and foods to the region, including rice, noodles, and soy sauce, all of which are common ingredients in the food of Laos today.

Over thousands of years the people also regularly interacted with the neighboring people and these people introduced new ingredients and dishes to Laos. The greatest of these influences continued to arrive from the north and China as well as from the south in Thailand. Thailand gave Laos new spices and ingredients, which arrived from both Thailand itself as well as from numerous foreign countries, with whom the Thais traded. Vietnam also gave the country some substantial changes to their diet over the years including the introduction of foe, which is a noodle soup from Vietnam.

In the 1500s the Europeans arrived to the region, however generally bypassed Laos in favor of the southern water routes. This changed dramatically in the late 1800s when France colonized Laos. The French and other, earlier Europeans brought new foods to Laos, usually via Thailand or Vietnam. Among these new foods were, few of which greatly changed the cuisine, include maize (corn), potatoes, chili peppers, peanuts, tomatoes, and sweet peppers from the Americas and breads, pastries, cakes, and some dairy products, including butter and cheese from Europe.

In more recent times, Laos has added new foods and food services to their culture, but these recent additions haven't altered the cuisine, but rather have only added to it. Frozen foods, fast foods, and "ethnic" restaurants are growing in popularity, but these additions are still primarily limited to the large cities.

Staple Foods

Noodles: noodles are a common base in numerous dishes
Rice: rice is usually cooked and served as sticky rice and accompanies most meals

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Foe: similar to Vietnam's Pho, this dish is rice noodles, vegetables, and a meat served in a broth
Laap: the national dish is beef or fish ground with herbs, spices, and lime juice
Tam Maak Hung: green papaya mixed with crab or prawns, garlic, lime, fish sauce, and spicy peppers

Dining Etiquette

Dining in Laos is similar to the rest of Southeast Asia, but in many ways is truly a combination of its neighbors as there are aspects of all these dining techniques rolled into one in Laos.

If you are lucky enough to be invited to eat at a local's house be sure to bring a small gift to show your appreciation; fruit or pastries are good choices. When meeting locals, try to arrive on time and remove your shoes before entering the house or restaurant if others have done so before you. Greet everyone upon arrival, beginning with the elders. Also wait to be shown a seat as elders are generally seated first and your host may show you to a pre-assigned seat.

As you sit down you may encounter a few different settings. Many people, especially when serving sticky rice, eat with their right hand and only their right hand as you may be expected to dine in the same manner. In other situations, you may find chopsticks to be the dining utensil of choose and when noodles are involved you will almost always receive chopsticks. In some places, and among some people, forks and spoons are common and this is a growing trend throughout the country. In this case use the spoon in the right hand to eat from and hold the fork in the left hand to push food onto the spoon, but don't eat from the fork. Only in high end restaurants will you find a knife on the table.

When the meal arrives, the dishes are placed in the middle of the table. Serving and eating begin in order of age and honor (and men are served first, then women) so don't begin until you're directed to do so by your host. If serving yourself, be sure to never touch the serving spoon to your plate or if no serving spoon is present, take foods from the communal bowls with the back end of your chopsticks. Among the dishes will probably be soup and a starch, typically rice. The rice is the main course and must be treated as such, while the soup, starch, and any other food in a bowl should be eaten by bringing the bowl up to your mouth. In order to accomplish this you are expected to have both hands on the table at all times, even having your elbows on the table is acceptable in most situations.

When you are finished eating, be sure to finish all the food on your plate and in your bowl, as leaving any food behind is considered wasteful and rude. Once the food is done, place your chopsticks together on top of your rice bowl or on the chopstick rest next to your plate if you have one. If you have a spoon and fork, place then face down together on your plate.

If you are dining in a restaurant you will have to go to the register to get and pay for your bill as the Lao find it odd and somewhat rude to bring a bill to your table. In restaurants catered to tourists check to see if a service charge has been added. If no service charge is included tipping is at your discretion; in most nice restaurants tips of 5-10% are expected, but in local restaurants and in towns or villages tips are not expected or required.

Celebrations & Events

Although Laos has numerous celebratory events, few have close ties to particular foods served at each. All of these events, including weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, etc., usually serve authentic Lao dishes and personal favorites for those who are being celebrated.

Drinks

Laos has all the international favorites available when it comes to drinks, but the local juices, including sugar cane juice and coconut milk are among the more authentic locals. Tea is also very popular in Laos and it is generally served with sweetened condensed milk over ice. Coffee, milk, and soft drinks are also readily available in Laos.

If you want some alcohol in Laos try the local beers, starting with "Beerlao," which is highly regarding by locals and foreigners alike. For a more authentic local taste, try the lao hai, which is similar to sake or lao lao, which is similar to whiskey. Other whiskeys also exist as whiskey is oddly popular in Laos, but still takes a back seat to beer.

The tap water in Laos should not be consumed. Be sure to also avoid anything with ice as it may have been made from the tap water. Salads and fruits could have also been washed in the tap water so be careful with those foods as well.

This page was last updated: March, 2013