Tucked up right under China, west of Viet Nam, north of Cambodia and Thailand, east of Burma and lying along the Mekong River, Laos is a land-locked country with some 6½ million inhabitants.
With little land available for agriculture, rice dominates the diet. Sticky rice (khào niaw), eaten in the hand, is the basis of every meal, served in the baskets in which it is steamed. Much food arises from the natural surroundings. Freshwater fish of all shapes and sizes from the Mekong and its many tributaries are to be found in markets. I visited the street market in Luang Prabang and, apart from the odd banana or pineapple, there was practically nothing I recognised in the vast acreage of stalls. Women sat beside a cloth on the floor or had a small cart on which they displayed a selection of jungle fruits, herbs and greens, insects, small mammals like paddy rats, fish or fowl. These were alongside some surprising imports, like Nile tilapia, now happily bred in the Mekong, and tuna. Identifying some of these foods has proved a challenge, but has been truly fascinating. Where protein is difficult to come by, without the great herds of cattle and flocks of sheep available to us in the West, then the struggle to obtain protein leads to consumption of creatures the western traveller might not immediately find attractive. These are simply cultural differences and the food is no less delicious.
Laos was part of French Indo-Chine and this has had an influence on the cuisine. Lao cuisine is reputed to be less spicy than Thai or other neighbouring countries, though I felt a little challenged by one or two things I ate! I felt that there was more 'sourness' in the food than elsewhere. Lemon grass and galangal, rather than ginger, add to the lightness of many Lao dishes and fish sauce provides the intense savoury flavour. Dill is a commonly used herb in Lao stews, unlike neighbouring countries. Alternatively, we were astonished on Christmas Day to dine in a French restaurant which offered foie gras, and fillet of buffalo steak which my partner said was as good and tender as any he had eaten. So the range of foods available is astonishing and should suit every traveller.
Classics of the Lao cuisine are dishes such as laab, or spiced papaya salad (tam màk hung).