Crowd Favorites: 5 Dishes You'll See at a Laotian Get Together This Memorial Day Weekend

I’ve thought a lot about what makes Lao cuisine unique from other Southeast Asian cuisines. How is it different from Thai, Vietnamese or Cambodian food? We use many of the same ingredients as other cuisines but a couple of things really stand out. Lao people eat a lot of sticky rice, we love the funky padaek sauce (unfiltered and fermented fish sauce) and we love to combine textures and contrasting flavors within a dish.

Like many Asian cuisines, most of Lao food is meant to be shared. Lao people love to gather over food and drink. As people fire up the grill this Memorial Day and celebrate the start of summer, I want to tell you about 5 delicious dishes that are favorites at any Lao gathering.

1.      Khao Niaw (Sticky Rice) –  also known as glutinous rice, is Laos’ main staple food. We eat it with almost every meal; breakfast, lunch and dinner. It's the primary vehicle to deliver food straight to your mouth. A lot of Lao food is meant to be eaten with your hands and sticky rice easily serves as a utensil to scoop up food or many of the delicious side dips that perfectly pair with marinated, grilled meats.

2.      Tam Mak Hoong (Green Papaya Salad) is spicy, sour and funky with a hint of sweetness. This dish is prepared with a traditional kohk and sahk (mortar and pestle) where the ingredients are pounded and tossed together. Lao-style papaya salad is different from Thai-style in that we use paedak. The unfiltered and fermented fish sauce gives the salad a deeper depth of flavor. When you go to a Laotian get together, chances are you will see someone making tam mak hoong fresh and with lots of chili peppers, as Laotians take pride in eating the spiciest food imaginable.

3.      Khao Poon (Coconut Curry Noodle Soup) can also be found at a Laotian party or gathering. It has a creamy silky broth that comes from the coconut milk. The flavor is a complex blend of kaffir lime leaves, fish sauce, red curry, and galangal root. Vermicelli rice noodles are the best compliment to this addicting broth.

4.      Larb or Laab (Minced Meat Salad) is a quintessential Lao dish. Toasted rice powder, herbs, fish sauce and lime are wonderfully married with a marinated protein (usually chicken, beef or pork). Larb is typically eaten with sticky rice and fresh vegetables; it is a shared dish that goes perfect with a cold beer on a hot humid Laotian afternoon.

5.      Nam Khao (Crispy Coconut Rice Salad) – I must confess that nam khao is my all-time favorite Lao dish. I could honestly eat this every day. First, the rice is mixed with red curry and coconut shavings then balled up and fried. After the rice balls are perfectly brown and crispy, they are crumbled up and tossed with cured pork, shallots, peanuts and cilantro. Freshly squeezed lime is added to give the dish acidity which contrasts with the tangy-ness of the pork and the umami of the fish sauce. It is usually eaten as a lettuce wrap that makes it a refreshingly light meal for the summer.

It was hard to limit this blog to just 5 dishes, but hopefully you now have an understanding of the flavors and textures that make Lao cuisine so unique.

Happy Memorial Day, and thanks to all of those who have sacrificed for this beautifully diverse country.

-Cliff Douangdara