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.
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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.