Authentic Lao food can be difficult to find in well-touristed areas like Luang Prabang where Thai curries are often cloaked as local fare. Fortunately for us, we stumbled upon Tamarind Café early in our stay. Its unique menu made a point of introducing and promoting Luang Prabang cuisine.
Tamarind Café’s sampler dish, with dips made from roasted eggplant, sweet tomatoes, and cilantro, makes for a delightful afternoon snack. The dark mixture in the white spoon is jaew bawng, a thick sauce made from roasted chilies that does a nice job of balancing sweet and spicy. The dark triangles are khai paen, pressed river weed (think of it as an inland version of nori) fried with sesame seeds. Roll it with sticky rice, dip and you are on your way.
Luang Prabang Market Tour
After chatting with Caroline Gaylard, Tamarind Café’s co-owner, and witnessing her passion for and knowledge of Lao food, we signed up with two other visiting American foodies for a tour of Luang Prabang’s Phousy Market.
Our morning tour offered us a unique window into Lao culture, its people, and their food. Friendly vendors smiled at us and got a charge out of our genuine interest in their bags of dried buffalo skins and pots of fragrant padek (heavily fermented fish paste). If we had a question to which Caroline didn’t know the answer off-hand, she’d employ her Lao language skills and elicit giggles from vendors with questions like, “So how exactly do you cook that skinned pig’s face?” or “How do you eat a full pig’s uterus?”
At first glance, Lao markets resemble their counterparts throughout Southeast Asia – freshness and bright colors feature prominently in the early morning market buzz. New items do appear, though, like sak khan, a special wood that imparts a spicy numbness in the mouth, featured in Or Lam (a Lao stew). A true taste sensation, the likes of which we’d never felt before.
Lao Food Specialties
Thanks to Caroline and this tour, we had a greater understanding of Lao food and were motivated to carve out an authentic Lao food experience during the remainder of our stay. The assumption is that most tourists aren’t interested in Lao food, but we found its tastes unique and refreshing. Each time we would request a traditional Lao dish at a restaurant, the staff would perk up, often making it for us even if it wasn’t on the menu. And like any non-threatening curiosity that you express as a traveler, this one is rewarded with smiles and the occasional free plate of food!
Or Lam is a spicy stew with mushrooms, eggplant, meat, lemongrass, chilies, dill and spicy wood. When you chew the wood, it delivers a peppery, numbing, and oddly satisfying sting. A truly bizarre sensation for those of us used to the limitations of the usual taste dimensions of sweet, sour, salty, and bitter.
Laap is a traditional Lao salad made from minced meat, crushed herbs (lemongrass and mint), galangal and lime juice. Its light and zesty flavor makes it a perfect complement to a warm day.
Sticky (or glutinous) rice is a staple of the Lao table and is a critical element of the Lao identity. Varieties of Lao rice are not in short supply. We were easily hooked on Lao sticky rice, especially the darker kernels (purple, brown) whose nutty flavors can be found nowhere else in the high-volume production rices of Southeast Asia.
We welcomed late afternoons in Luang Prabang as an excuse for a snack of khai paen, jaew bawng, and sticky rice washed down with a cold Beer Lao to accompany the close of another day along the Mekong.
Authentic Lao cuisine is definitely worth a try. Like anything simple and accessible, it has a leveling, democratic quality about it. The irony is this: if it’s not showing up in the highest of high class Asian restaurants in world culinary capitals such as New York and San Francisco (now, or in the very near future) with a 10x price tag, we’d be very surprised.
Video of the Phousy Market – Luang Prabang
Tamarind Café: Located across from Wat Nong in Luang Prabang. Open from 12:00 – 6:00, with special dinners planned several nights a week. Market tours to Phousy market with Caroline cost around $8.
Fruit Shake Restaurant:We became fans of the hole-in-the-wall restaurant creatively named Fruit Shake Restaurant for authentic Lao dishes like Or Lam or Laap. Across from Wat Sene a few doors down from Morning Glory Cafe.
Restaurants along the Mekong River have tasty Thai, Lao and quasi-western dishes for $2-$3.
Phousy market: Luang Prabang’s main market is a short tuk-tuk ride or bicycle ride outside of town. Go early in the day, as vendors start to pack up around noon.