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When travelling in Laos, I was disappointed at how similar the food seemed to Thailand. Obviously, there's bound to be some overlap (b/c both proximity (like any neighbours) and the relevant history - eg, Lao 'migration' into Isan), but I don't think I found anything that wasn't just as common in Thailand.

Are there foods that are 'typical' of the Lao diet - day-to-day or traditional, that are not also typical of modern Thailand?

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"Just as common" == eg, Som Tam is plentiful in both places, and basically the same (not like comparing two very different versions of, say, curry) // @hippietrail What say you? –  hunter2 Sep 11 '13 at 5:03
    
(To be fair - this was spurred by another discussion. I didn't do much research, and I do see how it might a candidate for migration to cooking.SE) –  hunter2 Sep 11 '13 at 5:10
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I asked a question recently on cooking.SE about the origin of another dish and it got very little attention, the same number of up and down votes I think, so I guess their not into origin questions. But they seem OK with questions about authentic ingredients and methods for ethnic cuisines. Personally I think there's a missed opportunity to pursue crossover questions between travel.SE and cooking.SE –  hippietrail Sep 11 '13 at 12:33
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@hippietrail gets it by a nose, for the excellent (and, I assume, original) pictures. Strictly speaking, Mark's is probably better/more informative, but if I was going to do my research I wouldn't be on SE! (Umm, I mean ..) // Some careful study of the WP page might give me my answer. I see stuff there that I recognize and stuff that I don't; I imagine that, at the very least, there are some sauces that are as different as a Vietnamese dipping sauce (or curry) would be from a typical Thai one. Would be interested to hear another answer, or what HT finds with his new friend. –  hunter2 Sep 13 '13 at 9:13
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2 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I think you were disappointed because the most famous Lao dishes have become popular in Thailand and a lot of the food you find in Laos without a local to help isn't really Lao food but Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, and French food.

The most famous Lao dishes have to be larb and green papaya salad. I never saw these on offer in non-touristy Surat Thani in Thailand, but they were everywhere in Khao San in Bangkok and of course in Isan, which has a Lao ethnic majority.

It turns out that all the stir fries you see in Laos are not Laotian. They're all originally Chinese though some have come through Thailand's cultural filter such as pad thai. The same for curries. The ones you see in Laos are due to Thai influence. The same word "gaeng", which means "curry" in Thailand usually means "soup" in Laos.

I don't think French food has influenced Lao food greatly, it's mainly stayed separate. But when I finally found where to buy local baguettes around the bus station, I barely recognized any of the ingredients.

Laotian baguette stall Laotian baguette

Apparently the main staple Laos regard as Lao food is the sticky rice (khao niao). I thought I'd had sticky rice before because some rice is stickier than other rice. But the sticky rice here comes in little woven pot/baskets, is super duper sticky almost like play doh. Here the staff in my guest house have it every day with a spicy salad, some raw leaf vegetable I can't identify, and some meat or fish. I'm sure this is also in Thailand but again it's a Lao ethnic food that you can get in Thailand - not a Thai food.

sticky rice lunch in guesthouse lobby

But I'm just a traveller sussing out the food here. I'm no expert. Did you wander through the night market in Vientiane and see all this:

Vientiane night market Vientiane night market Vientiane night market Vientiane night market

One thing I found is a local dish similar to laksa of Malaysia/Singapore/Indonesia. I don't know if it's related or just a coincidence. It's called khao poon:

khao poon

As an unexpected bonus a Lao who grew up here but lives in Thailand and has pretty good English has checked in to my hostel so we're gonna wander around and I'm gonna ask him about Lao food (-:

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Excellent! Please keep us updated (I guess here if relevant, else in chat or something). // My experience is mostly in 'Lanna country' & Chiang Mai area (the N region, where Isaan = NE). Maybe that accounts for the difference w/ Surat; Som Tam and sticky rice meals like what you describe are very common here, even in very rural, non-touristy areas - Larb almost as much so (certainly in the CM valley), many kinds are available including the local/traditional 'Saa Jin'. Sticky rice containers like in the photo are common (or just in bags); the long pieces of bamboo with sweetened sticky rice .. –  hunter2 Sep 11 '13 at 8:28
    
.. (not pictured) less so. // Some of those things look familiar, some a bit less so. // Fair point on French food. I guess it is separate, if more available. Still, as you say, probably some mixing - eg, baguettes with Lao ingredients (mostly looked like VN ingredients, that I saw). –  hunter2 Sep 11 '13 at 8:33
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Gaeng is the same. It means soup in Thai; curries are generally thought of as soups, unless you specifically order otherwise (at least, outside of tourist areas). // AFAIK, the languages were the same ~150 years ago. Since then, things diverged a little bit (French influence on Lao-language, modernization and non-French cultures in Thai ...). –  hunter2 Sep 11 '13 at 8:39
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Food words have a habit of moving around and diverging must faster than regular vocabulary. One classic example is that "pasta", "paste", "pastie/pasty", and "pâté" all diverged from a single Latin word. –  hippietrail Sep 11 '13 at 12:45
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Given the proximity to Thailand, and the migration between the two populaces, as well as cultural migration, there's always going to be some crossover.

Wikipedia actually has a page on Lao cuisine. It notes the most famous Lao dish would be Larb (ລາບ) - "a spicy mixture of marinated meat and/or fish that is sometimes raw (prepared like ceviche) with a variable combination of herbs, greens, and spices".

It also notes there are some French influences remaining as a result of the colonial times, especially in Vientiane.

There is also a subsection on Cooking Methods and one on Eating Customs.

If you're feeling adventurous, Food.com has Lao recipes you can try yourself (or try to find while you're there).

Pinterest also has some videos guaranteed you make you hungry...

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Good points, although Larb goes right next to Som Tam in my 'got plenty in Thailand' list. French and Vietnamese - both colonised Lao, to some extent, within the last hundred years. (Someone really knowledgable might be able to tease out some examples of French-through-Vietnamese; eg, "Vietnamese-style coffee" is fairly common in Vientiane). –  hunter2 Sep 11 '13 at 5:13
    
Larb and Som Tam are Lao dishes which are plentiful in Thailand in much the same way many Chinese dishes are plentiful in the west. –  hippietrail Sep 11 '13 at 7:04
    
I should mention that a lot of my nascent knowledge of Lao food came from that very uneven Wikipedia article. I've even done some minor edits on it as I learn. –  hippietrail Sep 11 '13 at 12:46
    
There is apparently at least one very good French+Laos fusion restaurant, but I assume it's beyond my budget. Of course that means modern chef's creations rather than dishes which have become new local traditions since the French colonial days. –  hippietrail Sep 11 '13 at 12:48
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