Yesterday and today
Many cultures have influenced Thai and Lao cuisine over the
centuries. The Chinese had a major impact, for example, popularising
methods of cooking such as stir and deep-frying over the more
conventional stewing and grilling. Arguably the most dramatic
change, however, occurred with the Portuguese introduction
of the South American chili to South-East Asia in the
late 17th century. The Thais in particular have never looked
Thai cuisine today is a taste sensation, favouring delicate
and fragrant ingredients such as lime, sweet basil, coconut
and coriander, combined with the ubiquitous chili.
It is advisable for most Westerners to ask for their food
"mai pet," or "not spicy" (which
is still pretty spicy!) - unless of course you dare to compete
with the natives!
Traditional Lao food lacks the variety of ingredients found
in Thai food today, but simplicity does not detract from the
flavour of their few specialities. Curries tend to have drier
consistencies than they do in Thailand, where copious use
of coconut milk almost turns them into soups. Lao people
also adhere more strictly to the Buddhist tradition of not
eating large lumps of meat than do their Thai neighbours.
Meat, when eaten, is usually minced or chopped up finely.
When dining out in Thailand it is customary to order several
menu items at once, combining dishes such as gaeng khiawangai
(a sweet green coconut-flavoured curry with chicken),
tom yam goon (a very hot and sour prawn soup) and tord
man plaa (spicy fried fish cakes), along with rice and
stir-fried vegetables. The aim is to create a balance both
of tastes and textures.
Most restaurants in Thailand serve excellent local food at
very reasonable prices. However, for those on a tight budget,
it is possible to eat substantially for around 30 baht (70
cents) at the street food stalls. Phad thai is a popular
food stall meal, typically consisting of rice noodles, bean
sprouts, peanuts or cashew nuts, egg, tofu (vegetarian soya),
shrimp, soy sauce, sugar and a squeeze of lemon or lime. This
is fried in front of you, so you can see in advance whether
or not the ingredients are fresh and the cooking equipment
In Vientiane, most 'top of the range' restaurants
are Western-oriented, frequented by tourists and wealthy hotel
owners. French cuisine features widely, introduced to Laos
during the Indochina years, while Italian comes a close second.
To sample traditional Lao food you should visit the smaller
local eating places, or the street food stalls.
Here you can try laap, a deliciously spicy dish made
from finely chopped duck or chicken, mixed with stock, spices
and crushed dry-fried rice grains that are uncooked, and served
with sticky rice and stir-fried vegetables. Tam mak houng
(spicy papaya salad) is another speciality, a version of which
can also be found in Thailand (som tam). Made from
raw papaya, chilis, garlic, sugar, peanuts, lime juice and
fermented fish sauce, this is pure refreshment with a kick!
For a midday snack, a bowl of foe (noodle soup) is
tasty and surprisingly substantial. It is also a good way
of keeping yourself hydrated in the tropical heat.
Many Thai locals have noticed foreign visitors falling in
love with their cuisine, and several cookery schools have
sprouted up throughout the country, offering crash courses
of one to five day's duration. One that deserves particular
mention is the small home cookery course offered by Kanjana,
the owner of a restaurant (named for her) based on Ratchadamnoen
Road in Chiang Mai. The course attracts only a small
number of people and the restaurant is small, but the food
is absolutely delicious and the owner a genuinely sweet and
Lao people have not yet tapped into this demand of tourism,
but the natives are so incredibly accommodating that you only
have to ask and you will be swamped with details on how dishes
are prepared, and what should accompany them (lao-lao,
the local rice whiskey, is a popular suggestion!).