Lao Food: The Beaten Track, and Off

As you all should know by now, Chinese food was, is, and shall always be amazing. Except for in the deepest mountain non-villages, every restaurant had a fridge stocked with tons of veggies, my choice of which could be fried up in an instant into something filling and delicious. And cheap. Not to mention awesome street food, tons of pancakes and dumplings, and plenty of peanuts sold in bulk. Whether I was camping in the middle of nowhere or couchsurfing in a megalopolis, I was always incredibly well-fed. I have a feeling it will be hard for any country in the world to compare, though I do hope I’m wrong. Let’s see what Laos has to offer:

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Standard noodle soup dish. I never really enjoy these but I found that, much like in Vietnam, in the countryside it’s not easy to get much else. It tasted fine – a nice savory (surely meat) broth with some additional lime and black pepper. Just terribly boring to chew on, and not particularly good for you or even filling. The first time I ordered this, the waiter/cook type 10,000 Kip ($1.25) into his calculator, then let loose a “whoops,” took it back, and typed in 15,000 ($1.90). Ahh, price gouging. Welcome back to southeast Asia.

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Market scene: the national dish, Larp, a sald of herbs and minced meat. Also, plates of liver.

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Donuts! Now we’re talking!

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Take this

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add this

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Do this

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Get this: $0.75 papaya salad! Dressed with lime juice, sugar, roasted peanuts, and a little soy sauce (hold the fish sauce). Also works with cucumbers – do it at home!

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Shaved ice with sugar syrup and condensed milk (which is 80% sugar. “Liquid Frosting” would be a more accurate name.)

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I was very much looking foward to these two rice wraps. Portable snacks, all natural ingredients, eco-friendly wrapping. The lady that sold them to me said, I thought, that they were meat free. When I opened them, though, there was something in the middle. Taro? Undercooked chicken? I couldn’t tell, so tossed them out. I ought to study harder.

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Indian food in my first tourist town, Nong Khiaw. Oh, sweet, sweet veg pakora with mint chutney.

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And chana masala. Please oh please, can I make it to India soon?

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My favorite restaurant in the whole country – real Lao food, reasonable prices, English menu, super cute old couple (with gorgeous daughter) cooking everything up fresh. I nearly stayed in Nong Khiaw for an extra couple of days.

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Veg fried noodles. Most of the time, if you’re lucky, you get a soupy mess with eggs and a few greens. Not so at “FAMILY RESTAURANT.”

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“Laos salad:” sauteed cabbage and greens with peanuts and hardboiled eggs.

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The ultimate beaten-track food: Banana pancakes.

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Lao food triple whammy from the street market in front of my hostel: shredded bamboo, spicy eggplant paste (submerged there at 10 o’clock), and greens. Less than $2 to fill up my whole camping bowl.

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Street noodles, exhibit A. $0.75/plate.

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Street Noodles Exhibit B.

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Night market fast food – 20 or so totally unidentifiable dishes, most of them meaty, really freaky looking, or both. A better man than me might have tried some.

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Instead, I joined the horde of other foreigners heading to the 10,000 kip ($1.25) veggie buffet. Noodles, sautees, spring rolls, fresh pineapples, deep fried toast…total dream come true.

The following are from L’Elephant Vert, a fancy-schmancy organic raw vegan place in Luang Prabang, to which I went on a platonic man-date with a fellow vegetarian from my hostel. When was the last time I shelled out $12 for a meal? In this case, it worked out to $2 per course. We spent about ten minutes eating each plate, savoring every bite. Most definitely worth the expenditure.

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Cookies of mysterious composition

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Tofu in ginger miso broth.

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“Seasonal vegetable tower with pepper leaves and peanut dressing”

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“Garden of Eden Salad with Tomato Sambar”

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“Carrot and Cashew Kheer” (milky rice pudding)

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A dollar’s worth of rambutans, mangosteens, and mystery fruits that turned out to be totally terrible.

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Noodle soup, double veg, extra hot sauce.

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$2.50 worth of “Stir-fried vegetables.”

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Dwarf ‘nanas.

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$2.50 for ramen, greens, and an egg.

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The much-spoken of, rarely seen sticky rice with coconut. Awesome combonation of starchy, fatty, and sweet. I asked to buy 10,000 kip worth, but the lady only gave me five, presumably to present all the Lao customers from rioting.

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When in Vientiane staying at a Korean guesthouse, do as the others do: head to a Swedish bakery for some pizza. Garlic, eggplant, and pineapple. Who’d’ve thunk it?

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Vientiane day 2: search out the veg buffet! $3 for as many plates as you can stuff down. Something in those spring rolls tasted like vegan bacon…wow.

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Vientiane day 3: ride around under the blazing sun for an hour looking for a certain veg place, which turns out to be closed for relocation. Eat instead at another veg place: red Thai curry with pumpkins and fake chicken meat. Gotta love the combo of rich, fatty coconut milk with sharp spices and aromatic leaves.

Still, in the end, my food verdict for Lao is a pretty unenthusiastic “meh, ” for which I blame myself. I have the feeling that, much like in Vietnam, if I were a little more capable with the language, I might have been able to find some better local stuff. As it was, I mostly subsisted on noodle soup, fresh fruit, and battered, deep-fried bananas (which I always ate too quickly to take pictures of) for most of the in-between spaces, and then made up for missed meals by stuffing myself at restaurants filled with foreigners when I got to the big cities. Luang Prabang did have have both the fanciest and crudest meals I’ve had in a while, and Vientiane did have a stunning number of veg buffets which themselves had a stunning number of Lao customers, but a pair of awesome cities doesn’t make up for all the food desolation in between. For a backpacker hopping between the biggest cities, I can see the appeal of English menus and the wide variety of international foods. But, from my phsyco cyclist perpsective, China is still king.

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2 Responses to Lao Food: The Beaten Track, and Off

  1. Jeff says:

    Psycho cyclist…