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Laos Food: Searching for a Lost Cuisine

Led by a chef-anthropologist in cowboy boots who has devoted himself to reviving Laos's culinary traditions, writer Emily Kaiser explores the miraculously vivid flavors of serene Luang Prabang.
Laos Food: Lao Wetlands
© Petrina Tinslay

Flying halfway around the planet for a meal may seem a little extreme. But one of the only places in the world to try Lao food is Laos itself.

I realized this after a friend returned from the country raving about its dishes, the fresh flavors and mysterious combinations: chicken sandwiches smoldering with a fiery-sweet chile sauce, salads with crunchy leaves and crispy toppings, fish soups fragrant with local herbs. I did a quick search for a Lao restaurant in New York, where I lived at the time. There were none.

Laos has never produced a diaspora like Vietnam's or Thailand's to fill malls around America with Lao carry-out places. Nor has the country inspired a Paula Wolfert or Diana Kennedy to record its culinary traditions for Western cooks. The British food historian Alan Davidson made a valiant attempt in the 1970s, when he catalogued the fish of the Mekong and later transcribed the recipe books of one of the last royal chefs, Phia Sing. But even counting Davidson's two works, there are only a handful of English-language Lao cookbooks in print in the West, and they often disagree about even basic recipes.

I turned to some Asian-food experts I know. "Try an Isan restaurant—northern Thai is close," said one restaurant critic. "Try a Balinese restaurant," a blogger wrote. "Lao food isn't really like northern Thai at all."

Then I heard about a French chef named Sebastien Rubis who has lived in Laos for seven years and now oversees the most ambitious Lao menu in the small city of Luang Prabang, at the 3 Nagas by Alila resort. The hotel's owners recently opened a second property, Alila Luang Prabang, with a restaurant and cooking school. Rubis offered to give me some cooking lessons if I came for a visit.

Laos Food Journey: Child at the Produce Market
© Petrina Tinslay

The only landlocked nation in Southeast Asia, tucked between Vietnam and Thailand, The Lao People's Democratic Republic remains a little-known, secluded place. The Communist regime that came into power at the end of the Vietnam War has not brought prosperity, but it has tolerated Laos's deep-rooted Buddhist traditions and, for better or worse, shielded the country from much development. As a result, parts of Laos feel preserved in time.

Luang Prabang is one of those spots. The airport is so tiny, I spotted Rubis as soon as we landed. For a chef-anthropologist, he looked more like a cross between the Marlboro Man and Kojak. His white linen shirt hung loose over his Levi's, and his cowboy boots kicked up the dust in the parking lot. In the back of the hotel's 1957 Mercedes, Rubis handed me a chilled washcloth wrapped in a lemongrass stalk and explained our itinerary. We would do a little sightseeing and lots of eating, and he'd teach me his favorite dishes. But he hoped most of the lessons would happen Lao style: ad hoc.

We motored past whitewashed wood-beamed buildings that had once housed aides to the king. Nestled at the meeting point of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers, Luang Prabang was Laos's royal capital for centuries. It retains a regal spirit—partly because of those many generations of royals, partly because of its rich Buddhist life and partly because of the French.

Soon before the turn of the last century, Laos became part of the French colony centered in Saigon. A boat ride up the Mekong from Saigon to Luang Prabang took longer than a steamship journey from Saigon to Paris, but the town was a favorite among the French stationed there, earning the apt nickname La Belle Endormie, or Sleeping Beauty. The city retains a colonial feel, safeguarded from skyscrapers since 1995, when UNESCO declared the entire town a world heritage site.

Laos Food Journey: 3 Nagas
3 Nagas by Alila. Photo © Petrina Tinslay

The 3 Nagas by Alila is named for the river spirits, or nagas, that protect the Buddha. It's modest from the outside: three white stucco buildings on the city's main street. My room was housed in what was once a 1930s ice cream factory (Art Nouveau bottles of orange, strawberry and vanilla essences stood behind the bar). A porter escorted me across the airy, teak-lined lobby to my suite. I wanted to spend the rest of the afternoon sprawled on my plush bed under the mosquito netting, listening to the occasional bird call and passing bicycle (this really is a sleepy town). But Rubis called up from the patio, "Are you ready for a snack?".

We got onto his scooter to check out what Rubis called the "ping places," using the Lao word for barbecue. "This is where you find real Lao food," he said, as we turned onto the road bordering the river. The city has a half-dozen of these spots, open only in the afternoons and identified only by the ingredients they prepare—duck, snake, rabbit, pork belly, goat. This was the goat ping place.

More a glorified porch than a restaurant, it had an oilcloth awning, hand-carved benches and plastic chairs; had this been Texas, Conway Twitty would've been playing on the radio, and we'd have ordered ribs. As we watched slender boats called pirogues float down the Mekong, Rubis ordered a cold Beerlao for us to share, along with grilled goat and papaya salad. "You have to be careful when you drink in Laos," he said as he poured. "They love to drink 'bottoms up,' so you can get drunk fast."

Born in the Paris suburbs to a French mother and a French-Moroccan father, Rubis was sent away to cook at 16. "I liked cooking because I like to play with my food," he said. He apprenticed at L'Esturgeon in Poissy, the sort of classic place that serves Escoffier classics without irony, so old it was frequented by the Impressionists in the 19th century. It's likely where he acquired his taste for culinary tradition.

Laos Food Journey: Locals Climbing a Path
© Petrina Tinslay

When the goat arrived, I looked around for chopsticks, but Rubis said Lao use their fingers, or sometimes a spoon. The goat was sweet, salty, tangy—and tough as shoe leather. Though richly flavored, the meat had been cooked for so long over a low charcoal fire that the outside was dry to the point of dusty. The meat moistened nicely when I dipped it in the sauce of crushed peanuts and chiles, but still required chewing. "For the Lao," Rubis said, "the best part of the animal is the intestine, then the foot, the bone, the cartilage. The meat comes last. They eat weird things here—buffalo intestine, raw-duck-blood soup, iguana—because they make use of everything. They love what Westerners throw away."

Beef and lamb are scarce in Laos, Rubis explained, but water buffalo, chicken, pork, goat and duck are easy to find (families often raise their own). The fish are all freshwater, taken from the two rivers that flow past the city; perch and tilapia are both popular choices. Oil is expensive, so almost nothing gets sautéed. Pork and fish are often finely chopped or pounded together and blended with an egg, seasoned and steamed in banana leaves into a savory custard. Whole fish and larger cuts of meat like chicken breasts are often grilled whole, suspended between two halves of a split bamboo stalk over a low coal fire, in a burner called a taolo, with an herb-rich marinade or a simple baste of oyster sauce to boost flavor. Though Rubis says some households cook with gas, at night the streets of Luang Prabang have the faint sweet scent of charcoal.

At the Luang Prabang markets (there are three: two day produce markets and a night craft market), women sell the sandwiches my friend told me about. Similar to Vietnam's banh mi, they're made with chicken, grated carrots and watercress stuffed inside a baguette. Where banh mi get much of their richness from pork, the Lao version gets most of its flavor from the condiment jaew bong, a fiery-sweet blend of chiles, ginger, fish sauce, fried shallots and garlic—the more jaew bong, the better. At 3 Nagas, Rubis prepares a sandwich with his house-made jaew (pronounced "jaw"). I had one a day. "The Lao love that éclat," Rubis said, using the French word for thunderclap. "Lao food should go boom!"

Laos Food: 3 Nagas by Alila
3 Nagas by Alila. Photo © Petrina Tinslay

Even Lao herbs pack a wallop. Rubis made sure I sampled the platter of fresh greens that came with the goat; though they looked like raw ingredients assembled for a salad, Rubis explained they're meant to be eaten like crudités, a palate refresher to cool the spice in the meat. "The Lao prefer to eat herbs fresh, for the best flavor," he said. Laos has a reputation for exotic wild greens (and over the next few days I sampled a few, like the large-leafed toon, which has a bitterness that reminded me of late summer dandelions), but I was familiar with most of the produce presented to me at the ping restaurant. The three most popular vegetables appeared to be cabbage, lettuce and watercress. The herbs I saw the most were a trinity of mint, cilantro and dill, often used in combination, along with lemongrass, scallions, garlic, shallots and chiles.

Everything just tasted so much better than what I eat back home. The ping restaurant's cabbage was so juicy and crunchy, it reminded me more of a green apple than a cabbage leaf. The tiny, sturdy cilantro plants made Western supermarket bunches seem frowsy and limp. Rubis explained that Lao greens are so fresh because they're often harvested moments before they're consumed. "Luang Prabang is 100 percent local," Rubis said. "There's so little transport, everything comes from nearby. From where I'm sitting, I can see four plants this place is probably using." He pointed to the river bank. "That chile plant has only four peppers on it, so you can bet the rest were harvested. It's mostly organic, too, because they can't afford pesticides."

The ping spot's papaya salad did contain one key inorganic ingredient. The salad had the same shredded papaya and sweet ripe cherry tomatoes found in the classic northern-Thai version (which may have actually originated in Laos). It also had tiny, crunchy eggplants and Paadek, the cloudier, punchier Lao version of fish sauce. But as the dressing pooled in my plate, Rubis pointed out the metallic sheen of MSG, the food additive monosodium glutamate.

"The Lao started using MSG about 10 years ago," Rubis said. "Restaurants like it because they think it's modern. Lao people say I make traditional Lao food because I take the MSG away." Rubis seasons papaya salad with tiny river crabs that he gently pounds with fish sauce. "They have a natural form of glutamate," he said. "We serve the salad with the crabs on top to show it's authentic."

Laos Food Journey: Boats
© Petrina Tinslay

"Seven years ago there were almost no cars here, the electricity came on only a few days a week, and there were maybe 100 motorbikes," he recalled. "The average salary has more than doubled in the last 10 years, which is great, but now the Lao are shy to be poor. To them, making traditional food means having no money. Using herbs from the woods is something they're embarrassed about."

Rubis forages shamelessly, even in the streets of Luang Prabang. We took a walk near the hotel and he pointed out edible snacks planted in clay pots next to the houses. "This is hibiscus," he said, snapping off a red flower and chewing on the peppery blossom. "And this one's Lao basil," he said as he snipped off a purplish pointed leaf that tasted a little like Thai basil, only more licoricey.

He also pointed to the many miniature houses, all perched on pillars, found in virtually every front yard on the street. I had mistaken them for bird houses, but Rubis pointed out they hold incense and small food offerings, some even tiny furniture. "It's more an animist tradition than a Buddhist one—the Lao think spirits are everywhere," Rubis said. "To keep them out of their own homes, they build these little spirit houses." Even 3 Nagas by Alila has one.

That night, Rubis offered to serve me a traditional Lao dinner, with one caveat. "In a real family meal, everything would come at once, but because of our Western clientele, I've trained the staff to prepare courses sequentially." The night was hot, but the hotel had set out vintage fans on the patio; I was happy to linger.

Laos Food Journey: Fresh Herbs
© Petrina Tinslay

The basket of warm sticky rice arrived first. In Laos, sticky rice comes at every meal, usually white, but Rubis prefers black—technically a glorious purple—because of its richer flavor. He showed me how to form a small handful to dip in one of the small bowls of jaews. "Kids have this as a snack after school," Rubis said. "Jaews are the foundation foods of Laos, like butter in France, or—how do you call it?—Velveeta in the US."

I ignored his teasing because the jaews were so incredibly vibrant: jaew mak len, a creamy mix of chopped tomatoes and cilantro; and jaew bong, like the kind I'd had in Rubis's chicken baguette sandwiches—chiles stirred into a paste with fried garlic and shallots. This was some kind of kid's food. The sauces were an ingenious way to stretch flavor: A tiny dab seasoned a fistful of grains.

The laap phet arrived next, minced duck meat briefly cooked in poultry stock, then tossed with chopped lemongrass, shallots, scallions, chiles, cilantro, mint, fish sauce and lime juice. I marveled at all the ingredients contained in my small spoon. For Lao cooks, more is definitely more: In the laaps and the jaews, I'd have thought so many aromatics would clash like plaid on polka dots with stripes. But the mixtures tasted delicious.

Laos Food Journey: Gold Door
© Petrina Tinslay

The laaps recipe came from Rubis's sous chef, Chan Peng (in Lao, "Full Moon"). Rubis's obsession with authentic Lao flavors not only makes him a regular at the city's markets and ping spots, but also at his staff's homes. Rubis (who speaks fluent Lao) began exploring the countryside shortly after arriving in Luang Prabang. "I'd spend a few days outside the city and taste real Lao food, la cuisine familiale. I'd come back and feel my menu wasn't very Lao." He started working with his staff to get their family recipes.

Only 28, Peng has cooked under Rubis for three years, ever since the two met at a party where Peng boasted about his laaps. Rubis invited him down to the 3 Nagas to demonstrate the dish, then asked Peng to join his team. The two disagree over whether the laaps should be served raw or cooked; Rubis insists on cooked. "It's safer for the guests," he says. But Rubis prizes the give and take.

"In France the chef is God, but I ran away from that," he says. "I'm more like a big brother here. If you act like a big boss in Laos, they don't understand why you're screaming. You lose face." The Lao strain of Theravada Buddhism emphasizes a cool mind; Rubis recalled an instance early on when he did scream, only to be asked, "Why do you have such a hot heart?"

Indeed, the Lao calm seems to act as a kind of tranquilizer to Rubis's naturally wired temperament. Throughout the meal he jumped up a dozen times to talk to his staff; at one point he winced as a new waiter struggled with a corkscrew but took a deep breath before going off to coach him.

Laos Food Journey: Saffron-Clad Monks
© Petrina Tinslay

The next day at breakfast, I took the same seat and enjoyed the same view: the periodic passing of a tuk tuk, the occasional cluster of saffron-clad monks walking past. Up the street, a woman unloaded market staples from her scooter. She handled her purchases with such care I had time to count them: two heads of cabbage, a green papaya, two fistfuls of lemongrass stalks, 20 tiny limes and 10 sheets of sesame-coated Mekong River weed, a popular snack. She walked into her house, and for a moment I contemplated following her to find out what she was cooking. But I had already ordered breakfast. For a while, nothing happened. And then my fruit plate arrived. The papaya was so sweet, the dragon fruit so tart, even the lime was so citrusy it was almost peppery.

Later that day, Rubis and Peng would walk me through their favorite recipes. In a few weeks, I'd re-create them back in the States. I'd rejoice at how closely the flavors approximated the Lao originals, even with Western ingredients harvested days before I cooked them. But no tuk tuks coasted past as I shared an herb-packed Lao omelet with a friend. Not a single ghost house was in view as I enjoyed my first baguette sandwich, and no breeze floated in from the Mekong. If the world is just, franchises will one day sell Luang Prabang's sandwiches across the US. But even when that day comes, I'll still insist that the only place to try Lao food is Laos.

Emily Kaiser, a former F&W editor, is a writer, editor and recipe tester based in San Francisco. She is the co-author of The Harney & Sons Guide to Tea.

Laos Food & Lodging: Where to Eat and Stay in Luang Prabang

Laos Food Journey: 3 Nagas
3 Nagas by Alila. Photo© Petrina Tinslay

Where to Stay

3 Nagas by Alila A former residence for royal aides, this 15-room hotel has terra-cotta floors, traditional fabrics and a restaurant serving chef Sebastien Rubis's Lao specialties.

Alila Luang Prabang The sleek new sister resort to 3 Nagas, in a French colonial building, has a Lao cooking school run by Rubis.

Where to Eat

Ping Bae Tatlay Chai For charcoal-grilled goat and Mekong River views.

L'Eléphant Run by a French expat and a French Lao, it serves food like kranab pa, river fish stuffed with herbed pork.

Published February 2011
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