Sticky Rice (Khao Niao)
Lao people define themselves by their habit of eating sticky rice (khao niao), a grain that most other Southeast Asian cultures relegate to snacks or desserts. Every meal for the Lao is a sticky-rice meal, with this staple served at room temperature in a woven bamboo basket called a thip khao. The Lao eat sticky rice by balling some up in their right hand, using this wad to pick up accompanying meat or vegetable, and pop the lot in their mouths.
A typical Lao family meal includes thip khao full of khao niao, and most of the rest of the traditional Lao dishes listed below served at the same time. Buddhist devotees spend mornings waiting in a line to give monks their day's allowance of sticky rice, in a tradition called Tak Bat.
Laap essentially consists of chopped meat and innards—pork, water-buffalo beef, duck, or chicken will do—mixed with fish sauce, coriander, mint, chili, spring onion, and lime juice, along with dry-fried rice grains that impart a subtle nutty flavor, then cooked. Sticky rice and fresh vegetables accompany a hearty serving of laap, wherever you go in Laos.
The Lao hate wasting excess sticky rice, preferring to cook any surplus into dishes like nam khao. This crisp rice salad consists of sticky-rice balls, deep- fried and mixed with spring onions, peanuts, sliced shallots, peanuts, herbs, and slices of a fermented pork sausage called som moo.
Combined with sticky rice and tam mak houng, this grilled chicken dish completes a classic Lao dining trilogy, served everywhere from Vang Vieng to the Isan regions of northern Thailand. The chicken dish kai yang, also a regular on many Thai restaurants is identical to this Lao roast dish.
To make ping kai, Lao take a whole chicken, halve it, pound it flat, and marinate it in a combination of fish sauce, cilantro, turmeric, garlic, and white pepper before roasting over a low charcoal-fueled flame.
Khao Nom Krok
A serving of khao nom krok makes for a perfect end to your night-market shopping jaunt. As served in Luang Prabang, vendors make a batter of rice flour, sugar, and coconut milk, cook it in a cast-iron custom frying pan, then serve it hot.
The flat rice noodles give the dish its name; soi means “to cut”, and Lao noodle-makers often still cut noodles with scissors. The noodles garnished with tomatoes, chilies, fermented soybean, and ground pork before being drowned in rich, thick pork broth, are served along with fresh watercress leaves, mint, Thai basil, and lime.
The noodles are widely acknowledged to be Luang Prabang's official noodle soup, mostly due to the watercress which grows thickly around the former capital city.