Justine Tyerman fell in love with the cuisine and beer in Laos.
Laos cuisine is absolutely superb… and so is the beer!
I fell in love with the chilli, garlic, lime juice, mint, lemongrass and spring onion flavours, not to mention the locally-brewed BeerLao served ice-cold.
When we arrived in Vientiane, we were treated to an evening of traditional Lao dancing and music at Kualao Restaurant. A four-piece orchestra played a variety of delightful Lao tunes which were recognised immediately by the mainly local diners of all ages who enjoyed themselves immensely on the dance floor.
A pair of highly professional entertainers performed beautiful dance sequences while we feasted on delicious local cuisine – I had the Lao signature dish, larb moo (pork salad with lime, lemongrass and shallots). Aromatic and so flavoursome.
Drinking BeerLao at Moon the Night Restaurant in Vientiane as the sun set over the Mekong is an enduring memory.
Fishermen up to their necks in the red-brown water were hauling in their nets, scooters were buzzing by driven by young men with girls riding side-saddle behind them, the lights of Thailand twinkled just across the river . . . it was magic.
Time Magazine called BeerLao “Asia’s best local beer” and I can see why. I developed a strong taste for it – especially refreshing at lunchtimes on hot, humid days.
Doi Ka Noi Restaurant in Vientiane is an excellent spot for lunch. We were the only non-Laotians there, apart from the owner Mick, chef Noi’s English husband, who is a photographer and writer.
The food was outstanding with fabulous fresh ingredients, many from their own garden – yummy fish soup, crispy sun-dried pork with grilled aubergine and chili dip, salad of foraged fiddlehead fern topped with pork, stir fried chicken with black pepper, spicy salad with confit duck leg and organic Lao wholegrain black rice and white sticky rice.
I loved the chilli dipping sauce and managed to get the recipe.
Make sure you sample Lao street food too. Meander your way through the local markets like Ban Anou in Vientiane, an area of street-eats popular among locals. It’s the Lao version of takeaways, fresh off the barbecue coals.
The range of food is astonishing and the flavours and aromas intoxicating. Colourful fruit and vegetables, fish, duck, chicken, pork meatball wraps or “nem nuong”, sausages of every description, noodles and mountains of sticky rice or “klao niaw”, the staple food eaten at every meal.
There are also sweet treats galore from Lao-style donuts to icecream and gelato.
Roadtrip from Xieng Khouang to Luang Prabang
On the seven-hour road trip between Xieng Khouang to Luang Prabang we stopped for lunch at Xayphavong Restaurant at Phou Khoun, a village on the busy crossroads of route 13 and 7 between Vientiane and Luang Prabang.
The hard-working husband and wife team served us tasty noodles, rice and vegetables with a choice of chicken or beef. Others tried fried crickets with lemongrass, a great source of protein. The Beerlao was only 23000 kip or $NZ4 (~3 US$). I grew to love that beer.
Over the road, an open market was selling a wide range of fruit and vegetables including mushrooms, ochre, taro, galangal, cucumbers, peaches and the sweetest fried bananas in batter I’ve ever tasted. They only cost a few cents.
At a stall further down the road, a rat and a bat were on sale as food items. With the mist rolling in, the scene was quite surreal.
The restaurant overlooking the beautiful lily pond at Parasol Blanc, our hotel in Luang Prabang, served excellent Lao cuisine. My favourite dish was vegetarian spring rolls in rice paper with chilli and garlic dipping sauces. It’s so yummy, I even had it for breakfast.
We also dined at the 3 Nagas, Luang Prabang where I sampled Khaiphaen Jeund or Mekong riverweed for the first time – similar to flatbread or lavosh, it’s delicious with spicy chilli jam.
The Blue Lagoon in Luang Prabang is an elegant eatery tucked down an alleyway off the main street where the night markets are held.
The menu features an interesting fusion of Asian and Western dishes but I stuck with the Lao cuisine. I just couldn’t get enough of the lemongrass, shallot, chilli, garlic, mint, coriander, ginger, lime, tamarind and galangal flavours.
I had an aromatic fish soup and a black rice and vegetable dish outside in the lantern-lit courtyard served by a team of extremely attentive waiters. They even had two young men just opening and closing the doors to the restaurant.
Surrounded by heavy-weights in the Asian culinary world – China, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia – Laos cuisine is making a name for its unique and distinctive style and flavours.
Justine Tyerman travelled with Innovative Travel, a Christchurch-based boutique tour operator with 27 years’ experience offering travellers the opportunity to explore historically and culturally unique destinations worldwide that provide a challenge but with the security of a peace-of-mind 24/7 wrap-around service.
Travel Companions’ Club creating new horizons for social travellers: www.travelcompanions.club
Singapore Airlines flies from Auckland to Singapore daily, from Wellington four times weekly, and from Christchurch daily. Singapore Airlines has a code-share agreement with Swiss International Airlines (SWISS).
SilkAir flies from Singapore to Vientiane and Luang Prabang three times weekly.
Lao Airlines flies from Vientiane to Xieng Khuang.
Crowne Plaza, Vientiane.
Parasol Blanc, Luang Prabang: www.parasol-blanc.com