Words & Photos Simone Spilka

Will Travel to Eat: 6 Laotian Dishes worth the Flight

Dec 19, 2016

At 21 years old, I lived for ten months with my home saddled on my back—an intrepid, youthful traveler guided by a rampant curiosity to unearth the unknown and an unsatisfiable hunger to grow rich with knowledge. I moved across continents and through Southeast Asia, digesting worldly insights and eating mainly for sustenance over culinary interest. When I think of Thailand, I return to that first taste of pad thai layered in fresh chili and fish sauce; Cambodia takes me to a beachside shop, shoveling spoonfuls of amok; the taste of Vietnam lingers as fresh shrimp and cilantro spring rolls dipped feverishly in peanut sauce.

But in coming home and sharing stories, I found myself always traveling back to Luang Prabang, Laos. It’s a place charmingly melded together by spirituality, cuisine, and colonial architecture; a place that is so uniquely sacred it makes you want to whisper instead of shout, walk instead of run, sit along the Mekong River and think about nothing instead of everything.

With eating—like all of the great pleasures of travel—the trick is to venture down the alluring and unassuming side streets.

With eating—like all of the great pleasures of travel—the trick is to venture down the alluring and unassuming side streets.

Four years after my solo sojourn, I returned to this tranquil environment, whose natural beauty had long remained with me. While Luang Prabang draws over four million people each year for its Buddhist temples, sleepy-village comforts, and entrancing fog-crusted mountaintops, its culinary identity—appreciated as street food, unbounded riverside restaurants, and no-frill cafés—has developed in recent years.

Fresh off the plane, I breathed in the musky near-dusk air over the Mekong and walked along familiar roads. Immediately, I could sense that while the city—a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995—remained impressively unchanged, I had returned as a very different person. The first time around, I viewed travel through the lens of independence and escapism, and this time, I came with fresh eyes and a newly-discovered appreciation for foreign flavors.

And what I returned to find—and taste—delighted me. My favorite bites were the ones where the sounds in the streets were of locals slurping noodles and cheers-ing cans of Beerlao. With eating—like all the great pleasures of travel—the trick is to venture down the alluring and unassuming side streets. Below is a shortlist of regional staples, taste-tested and approved:

01.

Mekong Fish-On-A-Stick

What to expect: Whole river fish, served on skewers and BBQ’d to order. Each fish comes with a wedge of lime for a fresh finish and a side of Laotian sticky rice served in small bamboo baskets and designed to be eaten by hand.

Where to get it: The city’s souvenir market, selling colorful trinkets and textiles, is open nightly and takes over the city’s downtown strip. When the market comes alive, so too do a line of food vendors tucked into the smoky alleyway just steps away. A number of stalls sell the same dishes, so it’s best to make a lap, appraise the options, and settle on the one with the friendliest chef.

Price: $3.50 USD

02.

Spicy Papaya Salad

What to expect: Green papaya shaved wide or thinly sliced with the texture of a diced carrot or cucumber, and elevated with globes of eggplant, garlic, peanut, lime juice, sugar, and fermented fish sauce. The ingredients are pounded together in a mortar and pestle to make a tangy, spicy side dish to Mekong Fish-On-A-Stick.

Where to get it: Tuck into the food market between the fish grilling vendors and vegetarian buffet and look for a woman who sells papaya salad and nothing else. Like most professionals, if a chef only offers three variations of the same thing (mild, medium, spicy), you can expect to come back for seconds.

Price: $1.50 USD

03.

Fresh Fruit Juice

What to expect: In-season selections of fruit shakes are readily available from early morning to dusk, with the option to custom build your own smoothie. Southeast Asia is notorious for its colorful and healthy display of tropical fruits, including dragonfruit, papaya, mango, and coconut. Vendors use fresh ginger or mint to add extra flavor, though it’s best to order raw with only ice and water.

Where to find it: Colorful, smiling women take their places beneath their food stall tents from 4AM onwards. While each one offers a variation of the same thing, every visitor developed loyalty to one. Mine were two sisters stationed near the city’s main roundabout where bicycles, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, and pedestrians intersect. I always felt deeply inclined to visit them in the early mornings, watching city life wake up with a cup in hand.

Price: $1.00 USD/per juice

04.

Kanon Krok (Coconut Cake)

What to expect: Truly authentic sweet and bite-sized treats with a rich and dense consistency served in packets of five. These miniature pancake-like desserts are crafted from a mixture of coconut milk, sugar, rice flour, and shredded coconut. A specific Kanon Krok pan is used to give it shape, not unlike a cupcake.

Where to find it: Stationed outside of the night market, street carts make the dish over charcoal braziers and serve them hot out of a banana leaf, making it a perfect dish for sharing after dinner.

Price: $1.00 USD/per order of five

05.

Khao Ji Baguettes

What to expect: While Vietnam is famed for its humble Bahn Mi sandwich, Laos has its own regional staple. Named Khao Ji, the delight of this French-inspired sandwich is in its simplicity: thin slices of cold-cut meat layered with lettuce, tomato, and avocado enveloped between mayo and a freshly warm baguette.

Where to find it: Similar to the fruit juice, everyone has their favorite spot. Alternatively, see any unassuming typical Laotian restaurant.

Price: $1.50/sandwich

06.

Lemongrass Stuffed With Chicken & Herbs

What to expect: An interesting appetizer impressive for its intricacy and presentation: using the tip of a razor sharp knife, the head of stalks of lemongrass are sliced to take the shape of a sloping globe and filled with a minced chicken and herb stuffing. This basket-like container is fried in egg and oil, adding another element of texture.

Where to find it: Make it yourself. Nestled in a lakeside pavilion, Tamarind is a Luang Prabang cooking school that gives you hands-on knowledge of Laotian cuisine. During a half-day tour, students travel to the Phousi market for supplies, then shuttled to a garden oasis to learn regional recipes.

Price: $35.00 USD/half-day class