Food in Laos
Sticky rice is the staple dish of Laos, with more being consumed here than anywhere else in the world. Lao people will even refer to themselves as luk khao niaow, which can be translated as "children of sticky rice".
Lao meals typically consist of a variety of dishes served all at once, usually including a soup dish, a grilled dish, a sauce, vegetables and a stew or mixed dish. Lao food is also frequently served at room temperature and is often quite dry by nature - probably because most of it is intended to be eaten by hand.
Larb (laap) is to Laos what pho is to Vietnam: the country's signature dish. This traditional, widely found meal consists of spicy meat and/or fish, minced and flavoured with fish sauce, topped with toasted rice and herbs, and served (of course) with sticky rice.
Eating customs in Laos
Communal dining is traditional in Laos, with shared dishes served on a ka toke - a raised, rattan platform - with diners seated on reed mats on the floor. Traditionally, spoons are used for soups and white rice and chopsticks for noodles, whilst the rest of the food is eaten by hand. Dining in this sense is now less prevalent in Laos than it once was, though the custom is preserved at temples.
It is considered a matter of great humiliation in Laos for a host not to have enough food for his or her guests, so it is common to produce twice the necessary amount of food when entertaining guests. At the end of a meal, it is customary to close your rice basket as a signal that you have finished eating - rather like the custom of placing your knife and fork together in the West.
Geography and its influence on cuisine
Laos is Southeast Asia's only landlocked country, so freshwater fish, pork, water buffalo, lots of leafy greens, bamboo shoots, long beans and aubergines are the key ingredients to be found in Lao cuisine. In particular, Lao food differs from either Vietnamese or Cambodian cuisine in that meals will often be accompanied by a great mound of undressed green vegetables and herbs.
International influence on the food of Laos
The Lao people originally made their way to modern-day Laos from China, bringing with them their culinary traditions and culture, and today there are about six times more Lao people in Northeastern region of Isan in Thailand than in the whole of Laos itself.
Because of this, many dishes that are now thought of as typical Thai cuisine actually have their roots in Lao cooking - which itself is almost completely unknown on the international stage. Official attempts in Thailand to promote national unity and "Thainess" over the past century have helped to eclipse the role of the Lao community in the development of the country's cuisine - and guidebooks will still often (erroneously) dismiss Lao cuisine as "the same" as Thai.
Though Lao food shares some commonalities with neighbouring countries, particularly Thailand, there are many points on which it differs. Mint, dill, and galangal, for example, feature regularly in Lao cuisine - yet are almost completely ignored by other countries in the region. The combination of "sweet and sour" that is popular in many Asian countries, meanwhile, is a concept that has never taken off in Laos - and in fact many Lao meals are deliberately bitter.
As with the rest of the countries that used to belong to French Indochina, French cuisine is also widely available in Laos - especially baguettes, which can be found on street stalls filled with pâté, meat, fresh vegetables, herbs and occasionally cream cheese!