Just got back a couple of days ago from yet another trip to Vientiane (and Naxaithong) — work-related — and it just feels so wrong not to feature these gustatory treats — one of the reasons why I’ve been visiting for the last nine years. So let’s take a break from the recipe sharing for a while and let’s have a look at Lao PDR’s mix of Lao and French food offerings.
Vientiane is my favorite quick getaway from the hustle and bustle of Bangkok. Though things have changed a lot in the last nine years that I’ve visited (more cars and traffic bottlenecks), I still get a glimpse of the old Vientiane (and nearby areas) every now and then. It’s pretty much a laidback culture, especially during weekends. It’s a good place to whip out your favorite book and read for as long as you like in an outdoor cafe, enjoying a good brew and its famed Khao Ji Pâté sandwich, and no one will mind. It’s a walking and biking city (though I’ve seen a smattering of yellow taxis in my last visit). Songtaews, of course, are still popular.
Definitely, a classic Laotian meal is its Larb Moo (see photo above), consisting of minced pork with shallots, coriander and chilies made flavorful with fish sauce and lime, among others) that goes so well with Khao Niao (steamed sticky rice). They have a chicken variation too and, from what I’ve heard but never tried, raw meat marinated like ceviche. Only a few restaurants (in Vientiane, at least) serve black sticky rice but it’s worth a try. Sticky rice is quite heavy on the tummy and Lao restaurants serve big portions of this per order.
My other favorite meal while in Laos is its Khao Ji Pâté sandwich, inspired by the popular French bread and given a Lao twist. It’s French baguette filled with any or a combination of these delicious goodies — pork liver pâté, several kinds of sausage, coriander leaves, radish, carrots, cucumbers, pork floss, and a choice of dressing, including mayonnaise, chili sauce and, sometimes, a brown sweet and spicy sauce that I have yet to discover the recipe of. I could eat this sandwich every day, no kidding! I once had this sandwich in Vang Vieng and I still could remember how good it was — freshly baked, crunchy and flaky baguette straight from the oven and overflowing on the sides with filling, including lettuce and tomatoes.
There’s a variation of this baguette sandwich that you will like if you’ve had an overload of the rich fillings. It’s simply warm baguette drizzled with condensed milk.
It’s not difficult to find a western style cafe in Vientiane. Three of these are my favorites: Joma, Le Banneton, and Parisien Cafe. Joma is famous among young Laoatians, while Le Banneton has gotten good reviews from travelers. Parisien Cafe, I’ve just discovered a few days ago and has a variety of pastries and bread products. Of these three, I like the simplicity and coziness of Le Banneton. Located in a less busy street, they offer the typical western breakfast that has a charm on its own. Dark wood, a well-lighted counter filled with freshly baked bread, a selection of pates (look Ma, crocodile meat pate!), and feel-good food.
One of the great things about my work is that I get to meet local folks in and around Lao PDR. In my recent trip, we met with local residents of a village in rural areas and this allows me to get to know real Lao food. Last Monday, I had the pleasure of dining with locals in a rural market and it was great. You could see how eating is a shared community activity. Since we were visitors, I think they ordered more than the usual noodle soup. What we had was a feast — plates of sticky rice, Soop Pak (a thick, herby vegetable soup mix), grilled chicken, grilled fish, bami noodles (sauteed egg noodles), steamed blocks of chicken blood, pickled green onions, and platefuls of fresh mint, lettuce, basil, cabbages and long beans.
As I love all kinds of noodles, I wouldn’t miss Lao noodle soups for the world. For only 40 baht or so, you’ll get the best Khao Piak Sen (Lao-style flat noodle soup with beef and chicken balls in clear broth, topped with spring onions, fresh tomato slices, raw bean sprouts, basil leaves and flavored with chili oil/paste, lime, fish sauce, freshly grated ginger, and other condiments you can find on the table) or the Feu Moo (rice noodles with crispy pork in clear broth flavored with the condiments mentioned above). The best places to get these tasty comfort food? Along the roadside (if it’s crowded with locals, you’ll know it’s good). Mind you, these noodles come in huge bowls, and I mean huge.
There’s so many other dishes and snacks that you can try in Lao PDR, including their version of Khanom Krok (sweet coconut pudding in crispy cups), which is larger than the ones found in Thailand; the Lao version of Khao Phat Moo Kai Dao (spicy minced pork with fried rice and fried egg); papaya salad, which is not as spicy and is actually a sweeter version of its Thai counterpart; and cucumber salad, using a distinctly-flavored Padek (fermented fish sauce). All the more reason to visit again… and again.