Culture Hit-Or-Miss The Katchup

9 Essential Lao Dishes To Acquaint Yourself In The Rich Cuisine

Editor’s Note: Lao Chef, Saengthong Douangdara was a recent guest on Foodbeast’s ‘The Katchup’ podcast to discuss all things Lao food. Listen to the episode here.


It can be confusing sometimes when you enter a Southeast Asian restaurant because you may have run into some dishes you didn’t know originated from Laos.  This is especially common with Thai restaurants.

This is because when Lao people came to the U.S. as refugees of the Vietnam War starting in 1975, the Lao people that opened restaurants started creating Thai restaurants with Thai food and Lao dishes sprinkled throughout the menu. That’s because Thai food was the easiest way for Lao people to gain leverage in the U.S. since many Westerners loved and knew about Thai cuisine already. As a result, customers of these restaurants started getting these foods confused. But these days, thanks to a growing awareness, a Lao food movement is helping Laotians feel empowered about their food.

Lao food is very spicy, pungent, fermented, fresh, and features an aggressive amount of flavors.  Some important ingredients to make Lao food are: padaek (unfiltered fish sauce), sticky rice, galangal, lime leaves, lemongrass, green onions, cilantro, and mint.  Many foods are fermented with sticky rice like som pak (fermented mustard greens); it is similar to kimchi without the vibrant red colors.

Let’s break down the signature nine essential dishes that make up Lao cuisine so you can feel confident in looking for and trying them!  

Khao Niew

Lao people are called “luuk khao niew” which means “children of sticky rice.”  Sticky rice is a staple in Lao meals and is eaten 24/7, whether it’s for breakfast, lunch or dinner.  It is used as a utensil when eating various minced meat dishes or dipping it into spicy dips.



Laab is the unofficial dish of Laos, and it is made from any minced meat mixed with lots of herbs and padaek (unfiltered fish sauce).  Many Lao dishes are served spicy, and it includes this dish. One of the unique flavors from this dish comes from the roasted sticky rice powder which gives it a toasted, nutty flavor.  


It is not a Lao meal without thummakhoong Lao papaya salad on the table.  With every crunch of the papaya, it comes bursting with funk, spice, and saltiness.  Although it may look dark and smell pungent, it blasts with umami flavors when eaten with sticky rice.  

Khao Piek Sen

Khao piek sen is the upgraded spicy chicken noodle soup.  It’s perfect for a cold evening with the chewy tapioca rice noodles sitting in a garlicky chicken broth.  It is perfectly garnished with fresh cilantro, green onion, and lime.


Gaeng Nor Mai


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This earthy bowl of Lao food called gang naw mai was made with hands from the East, West, and South. We created a bowl of comfort food that many Lao people grew up eating. Our connection to food and culture transcends the generations where we can just sit at a table with strangers and end the dinner becoming family. I had an amazing experience and was honored to travel with @chefseng around Texas for the @laofoodmovement . I was amazed and inspired by all the passionate stories of restaurant owners, food truck entrepreneurs, and Lao food lovers. I’m back in LA and feel more empowered to create my vision in this story. Cheers to more food adventures. 🙏 #laofoodmovement #chef #foodie #vegetarian #nomnom #laos

A post shared by LAO FOOD, CHEF, & RECIPES 🇱🇦🇺🇸 (@iamsaeng) on

Gaeng nor mai is the jungle stew of Laos.  Staring at the stew, it is a murky green with dark shades of veggies. It is filled with earthy flavors from bamboo, yanang leaves, and rice paddy herbs.  Sticky rice paste mixed with fresh bird eye chilies are used to thicken the stew.


Jeaw Mak Len

It may not be an entree, but jeaw mak len is an essential dip made from roasted bird eye chilies, cherry tomatoes, shallots, and padaek.  It shines with the vibrant red color with every dip of sticky rice and is usually eaten with a meat dish.



Any mok dish in Lao cuisine is a form of steaming a bundle of goodness within banana leaves.  The bundle is filled with crushed uncooked sticky rice, bird eye chili peppers, lemongrass, shallots, padaek, lime leaves, and green onions.  It is the perfect dish to eat with sticky rice as the mok is usually thick and filled with bamboo or fish. A popular mok is mok pa catfish, since catfish is highly prized in Southeast Asia.  


Bing Gai

Bing gai can be found all over the streets of Laos.  It is grilled chicken usually marinated in fish sauce and oyster sauce. This common street food pairs perfectly with sticky rice and a spicy dip like the one mentioned above, jeaw mak len.  The chicken is sometimes even grilled with a coating of peppers.


Sai Oua

Sai oua is Lao sausage.  It is filled with fatty pieces of pork surrounded by aromatics like lemongrass, lime leaves, galangal, shallots, and cilantro.  The sausage can be soured for a few days and you can find different variations of Lao sausage in various regions. It is soured when cooked with sticky rice, which acts as the carbohydrates in the fermentation process.

Culture The Katchup

How To Eat Sticky Rice Without Embarrassing Yourself

“Mexicans always love sticky rice,” was a saying my Laotian friend and his older brothers loved to exclaim, as a 12-year-old me learned the parallels between it and tortillas, and grasped the concept with their help.

The glutinous rice is prepared in different ways throughout Asia, but if you find yourself in a Southeast Asian restaurant such as Thai, Lao, or Vietnamese (but primarily in Laotian cuisine), it is meant to be grabbed with your hands and used as an edible utensil.

To this day, I’m thankful that my dear old friend and his family taught me about his culture’s dishes, as I often order sticky rice at Southeast Asian-based restaurants and get a, “Wow, you actually know how to eat sticky rice!” from the servers.

Apparently the way you handle sticky rice can easily expose your familiarity with Southeast Asian cuisine, according to Chef Saeng Douangdara, who spoke on the matter during the Foodbeast Katchup Podcast.

“So when I go to a Lao restaurant and I see non-Lao people come in, I can see if it’s their first time or not by the way they eat the sticky rice,” Chef Saeng said. “With sticky rice, we use that as a spoon.”

Saeng specializes in Lao cuisine, and has been an advocate for exposing the U.S. palate to the often-suppressed Lao flavors.

If you’re not familiar with sticky rice, it’s not unusual to start sticking your fork into it, serving it on the side of your plate and eating it as you would most other types of rice. But if you really want to look like a pro, Saeng laid out the steps plainly:

“You just take like a quarter size… play with it for a bit, clump that up until all the grains of the rice come together and it’s all mushy. Once you have it in that sticky form, you could make it flat if you want or just use it as a ball to just scoop up that extra jalapeno dip or that extra stew or beef. That’s kind of like your spoon, unless you’re eating like a noodle dish, then that’s where you use chopsticks.”

Similarly to how my fellow Mexicans like to rip apart tortillas and use them as scoopers or how pitas are used for Mediterranean food, sticky rice applies the same concept.

While it sounds simple, it could be a little intimidating to see that rice-filled bamboo basket come to your table and not be 100 percent confident with how to eat it.

Alas, it is all part of the beauty of learning about other cultures, respectfully enjoying their traditions, and expanding your palate in ways you never have before.

If you’d like to learn more about Chef Saeng, Laotian cuisine, and its subtle connection to Thai food, listen in to The Foodbeast Katchup, episode #76: Lao Chef Calls Out Foodbeast. If you enjoy the podcast, feel free to subscribe on iTunes, Spotify or even YouTube for more in-depth food conversations that you will not hear anywhere else.