New Tastes in Sticky Rice: Luang Prabang, Laos

One of my favorite things in Laos is that when you order tea at a cafe, you receive a whole pot. To me, that’s representative of what the city of Luang Prabang has been saying to me all along- hey, why don’t you stay a while?

A pot of Lao green tea, one of my favorite teas in the entire world

Luang Prabang has been the spiritual and cultural center of this area for hundreds of years. The many layers to this city- traditional Buddhist influences, colonial French architecture, today’s (rapidly growing) tourist market, add up to an overwhelming charm. The city is based around a peninsula at the confluence of two rivers, the Mekong and the Nam Khan.

A panoramic view from just north of the Mekong, looking back at Luang Prabang

I had no idea what to expect from Laotian culture or cuisine before I arrived. With a smaller diaspora network and landlocked borders, Laotian cuisine hasn’t been as widely exported as neighboring Thai or Vietnamese. I don’t believe that I had ever eaten a Lao dish, and was even informed that “it’s just basically Thai.”

But I was soon to discover how much I had been missing!

After navigating confusing “authentic” tourist menus for a few days, I took a cooking class from a Laotian restaurant, Tamarind. Run by Laotian chefs who are truly passionate about their country’s traditions, the course offered insight into a complex culinary history, of which I had only scratched the surface.
The base of most Laotian cuisine is “sticky rice”, also known as glutinous rice. Sticky rice is a completely different breed from the more commonly known steamed rice. It is prepared in a bamboo basket, “huat khao”, over charcoal. To keep its texture and quality, it is served in a “tip khao”, bamboo container, allowing the heat to be evenly distributed. Sticky rice has a dry but chewy consistency. It is eaten with the hands, in contrast to steamed rice found in Thailand and Vietnam. The rice is balled up into bite-sized pieces and then used to dip into sauce or as a vehicle for scooping up meat or vegetables.

Sticky rice cooked in bamboo baskets. The rice on the right is “purple rice”, which is often used for desserts. It must be covered while cooking or it will dry out.

The prevalence of sticky rice in Laotian cuisine provides a general guideline of authenticity for different dishes. If the dish can easily be eaten with the hands, it is probably Laotian. If the dish has a liquid consistency, like many curries and coconut milk dishes, it was more likely imported from Thailand and should be eaten with steamed rice.
Laotian cuisine also features very strong, bitter, and spicy flavors (one possible explanation, offered by a chef- bitter foods make your blood less tasty to mosquitoes). Strong smoky flavors from charcoal grills add depth. Bitter agents like bile add flavor to a quintessential national dish, laap, and the acquired taste of the wonderfully pungent padaek, fermented fish sauce, provides real saltiness.

A sampling of different “jeow”, or dipping sauces, many with a smoky and spicy flavor, that will be eaten with sticky rice. In the lefthand corner, there are some fried cakes made out of river weed, sundried tomatoes, and sesame seeds.

As I haven’t had any of these Laotian dishes before, I am quite content to explore this city for a few weeks. I am in no rush. Many restaurants and cafes are located on the river, offering beautiful views of the mountains and forests that surround this city. I think I’ll stay a while.

Drinking Lao coffee (more bitter than Vietnamese coffee, but of course just as strong) while looking over the Mekong in the morning

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