Laos cuisine definitely has its own identity and especially in Luang Prabang where there are a lot of regional dishes. There are similarities to northern Thai and to other areas of South East Asia, but significant differences too. The river and the jungle sustain the region and aromatics like galangal, lemongrass and chilli are flavour staples. I’ve put together my Luang Prabang food highlights from roadside pop-ups to fine dining establishments.
Bamboo Tree Restaurant
Kingkitsarath Road runs along the edge of the Nam Khan river and seems to be a little hub of great restaurants. We ate at Bamboo Tree on our first night and had a fantastic Laotian dinner. They brought us a lovely welcome drink of local fruit wine with a small snack of crispy vegetables and fresh lemongrass. We ordered some of the local crispy river weed made with chilli, garlic and sesame, and topped with peanuts and lemongrass. For our mains we ordered the Luang Prabang stew made with chilli wood (Or Lam) and river fish steamed in banana leaf. I particularly enjoyed the stew which somehow managed to be comforting without being too heavy and rich for the hot weather. Bamboo Tree is also a cookery school where we spent a morning learning all about Lao cooking which was definitely one of the highlights of our time in Luang Prabang.
Just next door to Bamboo Tree on Kingkitsarath Road, Tamarind is another restaurant with a cooking school. It was very popular so I was glad that we had made a reservation in advance. Tamarind is a great place to go if you haven’t experienced Laos food before, or if you aren’t sure where to start. They have a range of set menus or tasting platters which give you a chance to taste a selection of different Laos dishes. We tried their “Introduction to Laos Cuisine” set menu with a range of specialities. They also offer more adventurous menus if you’re well versed in Lao cuisine, or are looking for something really different. If you book in advance you can even get their “Adventurous Lao Gourmet” menu made with foraged ingredients (even go with them to the market if you pay extra). Maybe next time…
Before we got stuck in, we were given an infused Lao Lao whiskey shooter. I’m glad I went for the honey flavour as I’m not a huge whiskey fan – what a way to start the meal! The dried bamboo chips that they brought for us as an aperitif were delicious – surprisingly sweet and infused with a bit of kaffir lime. I loved the section of snacks and appetisers with Luang Prabang sausage, sien savanh (Laos beef jerky), crispy river weed, and a selection of delicious jeow dipping sauces to have with them. The mains were tasty as well, particularly the stir-fried pumpkin. Mark and I were really impressed with the dessert of warm sticky rice with coconut shavings and a thick, glossy tamarind sauce.
Local eateries and street food
Street food and small “hole-in-the-wall” joints are the beating heart of the food scene in South East Asia, and Luang Prabang is no different. At various points in the day, pop-ups will be set up in the markets or by the roadside serving all sorts of fare. The night market in particular has plenty of options serving local dishes like their local version of khao soi. Khao soi in Laos is different to its Northern Thai cousin in that rather than a thick, creamy curry broth, the noodles are served in a thinner, aromatic broth more similar to phở. We found a great place on Kounxoau Road with a sign that said “Good People, Good Food, Good Price”. Their khao soi was delicious and we tried their yummy laab salad too.
Paste at the Apsara
I’ve definitely saved the best for last here. Just a little bit further up Kingkitsarath Road is the relatively new Lao spinoff of award-winning Chef Bee Satongun’s (Best Female Chef in Asia 2018) Michelin starred Paste Bangkok. Based largely off recipes by Phia Sing, royal chef to the Kings of Laos at the Royal Palace in Luang Prabang in the first half of the 20th Century, and zhuzhed up with a bit of Chef Bee style, the food is modern, intricate, and the flavours are perfectly harmonious.
The meal kicked off with an amuse bouche of crispy river weed topped with crab, jeow bong (the local chilli sauce), betel leaf, dill, and lemongrass. Next up were the appetisers of coconut cream wafers with a prawn relish, and the crunchy rice balls nestled in a colourful jungle of river weed, rose pepper leaf, kaffir lime zest and red curry paste. The standout main was the slow braised pork belly in a coconut cream sauce, with roasted banana chilli, sour plum, pink fish roe and banana stalk. The salad of pork belly, crab, dried squid, river weed, egg floss and mint was also really tasty. Everything was finished off with the tamarind cheesecake which was divine!
I have to say I fell in love with Luang Prabang, and food was a big factor. Our dinner at Paste was the pinnacle and an experience I will remember for a long time.