Laos for beginners
The country in a nutshell
Laap, the national dish of Laos
Many of the standard dishes served around Laos are adaptations from Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese food. One dish that is 100 percent traditional Lao though is laap, arguably the national dish of Laos; we would argue that a visit to the country simply isn’t complete without trying it.
Laap (also spelled as lahp, larb and several other phonetic variations) is essentially a salad with a meat base, flavoured with lime, garlic, fish sauce, mint leaves, spring onion and ground toasted rice, which adds a subtle nutty flavour. The meat might be chicken, pork, beef, buffalo, duck or fish, and some restaurants have vegetarian versions made with mushroom or tofu. Dried chillies, banana flower and raw vegetables may be placed as accompaniment on the side, and regardless of the meat (or non-meat) of choice, you’d be hard pressed to come across a bland plate of laap. Flavourful and filling, yet also refreshing, this is the perfect dish to have on a typical hot Lao day.
There are cooked and raw versions of laap and some versions include various organ meat, like tripe, liver and intestine. For the sake of your stomach, we’d suggest not eating the raw versions, except at more upscale restaurants like Mak Pet, where the kitchen hygiene is kept to a high standard. Places with a menu in English likely won’t include organ meat unless specified on the menu. Cheaper places will often add a dose of MSG, so say ‘bor sai peng ngua’ if you’d rather pass on this.
Laap is available at just about any restaurant in Laos, although they usually won’t have the full spectrum of available meats. Expect the price of a dish of laap to range from 15,000 kip in cheaper restaurants to 45,000 kip for a large plate in some of the better restaurants. The quality does vary, but even a budget laap is a satisfying choice.
Among Vientiane restaurants, Lao Kitchen is one of the best places to try laap. Their duck laap is particularly delicious, while they also have an excellent tofu laap for vegetarians. Ban Lao Beer Garden has good prices and a nice spot for sitting outside. If you want to splash out on a full on Lao experience, head to Kua Lao and enjoy some traditional music and dance along with the food.
The Lao have a saying that you aren’t truly full unless you’ve had sticky rice, and a plate of laap would not be complete without it. If you want to eat laap like the Lao do, order it plus any other dishes and sticky rice family style and try eating it with your hands: grab enough sticky rice to fit inside a closed hand and use it to scoop of a bit of laap. Make sure you firmly shape the rice as it’s considered impolite to leave grains of rice in the communal food plates, although there is no taboo against mashing the rice in the palm of your hand for a bit before dipping into the food. Wash it all down with a cold Beer Lao and you may struggle to find a more perfect dish to complete each day for the remainder of your trip.
If laap doesn’t do it for you — or perhaps especially if it does — don’t forget to try tam mak hoong as well.
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