Fiery and fragrant, with a touch of sour, Lao food owes its distinctive taste to fermented fish sauce, lemongrass, coriander leaves, chillies and lime juice. Eaten with the hands along with the staple, sticky rice, much of Lao cuisine is roasted over an open fire and served with fresh herbs and vegetables. Pork, chicken, duck and water buffalo all end up in the kitchen, but freshwater fish is the main source of protein in the Lao diet. Many in rural Laos, especially in the more remote mountainous regions, prefer animals of a wilder sort – mouse deer, wild pigs, rats, birds or whatever else can be caught. Though you may not encounter them on menus, you’re likely to see them being sold by the side of the road when travelling in these parts.
Closely related to Thai cuisine, Lao food is, in fact, more widely consumed than you might think: in addition to the more than two million ethnic Lao in Laos, Lao cuisine is the daily sustenance for roughly a third of the Thai population, while more than a few Lao dishes are commonplace on the menus of Thai restaurants in the West. Although Lao cuisine isn’t strongly influenced by that of its other neighbours, Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants have made their mark on the culinary landscape by opening restaurants and noodle stalls throughout the country, while the French introduced bread, pâté and pastries.
Vientiane and Luang Prabang are the country’s culinary centres, boasting excellent Lao food and international cuisine. Towns with a well-developed tourist infrastructure will usually have a number of restaurants serving a mix of Lao, Thai, Chinese and Western dishes, usually of varying standards, but once you’re off the well-beaten tourist trail it can be hard to find much variety beyond fried rice and noodle soup.