So that a variety of tastes can be enjoyed during the course of a meal, Lao meals are eaten communally, with each dish being served at once, rather than in courses. The dishes – typically a fish or meat dish and soup, with a plate of fresh vegetables such as string beans, lettuce, basil and mint served on the side – are placed in the centre of the table, and each person helps him- or herself to only a little at a time. When ordering a meal, if there are two of you it’s common to order two or three dishes, plus your own individual servings of rice, while three diners would order three or four different dishes.
The staple of Laos meals is rice, with noodles a common choice for breakfast or as a snack. Most meals are enjoyed with sticky rice (khào niaw), which is served in a lidded wicker basket (típ khào) and eaten with the hands. Although it can be tricky at first, it’s fairly easy to pick up the proper technique if you watch the Lao around you. Grab a small chunk of rice from the basket, press it into a firm wad with your fingers and then dip the rice ball into one of the dishes. Replace the lid of the típ khào when you are finished eating or you will be offered more rice.
Plain steamed white rice (khào jâo) is eaten with a fork and spoon – the spoon and not the fork is used to deliver the food to your mouth. If you’re eating a meal with steamed white rice, it’s polite to only put a small helping of each dish onto your rice at a time. Chopsticks (mâi thu) are reserved for noodles, the main exception being Chinese-style rice served in bowls.
If you are dining with a Lao family as a guest, wait until you are invited to eat by your host before taking your first mouthful. While dipping a wad of sticky rice into the main dish, try not to let grains of rice fall into it, and dip with your right hand only. Resist the temptation to continue eating after the others at the table have finished. Custom dictates that a little food should be left on your plate at the end of the meal.