Jan 17, 2020
It is barely past sunrise at Luang Prabang’s morning market, but my guide, Phouvy, is in the mood to get down. “This is padek,” he says, gesturing to a vat of potent-smelling mud-brown liquid percolating at an old woman’s feet. “It adds funk to our food.” Made from fermented or pickled river fish cured with rice bran or husk, the dank brew looks like agricultural run-off after the monsoon season, and it smells like rotting French cheese.
As the lady spoons portions into a clear plastic bag, I recoil from the aroma and the sight of bobbing fish chunks. This umami-laden elixir, though, is a key to Lao cuisine’s singular groove. “You know a dish is Lao if it has padek in it,” Phouvy says. “It looks disgusting, but no kitchen is complete without it.”
With its roaming monks, chiming temple bells, mountain scenery and somnolent river vibes, Luang Prabang would seem an unlikely place to get funky. As it turns out, investigating the culinary culture in Laos inevitably uncovers a huge portion of soul. Passing the Mekong River by tuk-tuk on the way here, for example, I watched a lone fisherman sway to the melodies blaring from a transistor radio on his rickety boat. The traditional country music with caterwauling vocals cut through the dawn mist as he dragged his line through the water in search of a bite.
Flavor bombs and lovelorn laments make an impactful start to my food odyssey—introductory items on a tasting menu that veers across the spectrum, from locavore and nose-to-tail traditions to French-colonial influence and recipes fit for fussy monarchs. And that’s why I’m in Luang Prabang: to get ahead of the burgeoning trend of Lao cuisine on the international stage. The former royal capital remains the nation’s gastronomic capital, as well as— funky fish notwithstanding—the perfect mellow, bougainvillea-lined town in which to escape Southeast Asia’s cities and come up for air.
In Bangkok, where I started this journey, the on-brand named Funky Lam Kitchen—run by cousins Sanya Souvanna Phouma and Saya Na Champassak, both descended from Lao royalty—has real-deal, bold flavors in a hip setting. A transpacific detour could have brought me to chef Soulayphet Schwader’s Manhattan hotspot Khe-Yo, to the Dallas region where upwards of 10 Lao restaurants have opened in the past couple of years, or to the Bay Area for a chat with Michelin-starred chef James Syhabout, author of Hawker Fare: Stories & Recipes from a Refugee Chef’s Isan Thai & Lao Roots.
But I want to head to the source, to the home of Phia Sing, the former royal chef credited with being the first in the country to write down his culinary know-how, which was later curated by British diplomat Alan Davidson into Traditional Recipes of Laos. His dishes are now being adapted alongside less pedigreed ones at new fine-dining ventures such as The Great House at Rosewood Luang Prabang, and the Luang Prabang outpost of Paste, the Laotian evolution of the Michelin-starred Bangkok restaurant. The buzz for this underrated fare is welcome. Squeezed among culinary powerhouses China, Thailand and Vietnam, Laos has tended to shrink into the shadows.
Chances are you’ve experienced Laotian food if you’ve ever had more than a passing taste of Thai. Laos and the northeastern Thai region of Isan overlapped and were jostled over for centuries until the late 1800s, when Thailand and the French drew a hard border along the Mekong River. But the shared food culture endures. Both neighbors like to mop up their grilled chicken, pork neck or river fish and sides of tam mak hoong (spicy papaya salad) and laap (minced-meat salad mixed with sticky-rice powder) with balls of khao nieow (sticky rice). Syhabout calls Thai the “gateway drug” to Lao food. I want to learn exactly what makes the taste profile different.
“Lao food tends to be saltier than Thai food and less spicy,” explains Rosewood’s culinary director, Sebastien Rubis. “There is virtually no stir-frying and the main cooking methods are steaming and grilling. Another difference is the terroir here and the lack of large-scale farming. Herbs are more fragrant, vegetables are tastier and the meat actually tastes like it is supposed to taste.”
Sebastien delivers this primer on a foraging mission across the paradisiacal resort. Multi-hued butterflies accompany us along the river that spears through the property. “This is my favorite thing about being a chef in Luang Prabang,” he says, stooping slightly to get at some bamboo blossom that he’ll combine with other foraged ingredients in sup phak, an earthy Lao salad. “We are only five minutes from the resort, but I’ve already spotted about 35 delicious things I could cook. In a couple of months, those things will be gone, but there will be another 35 things growing in their place.” Later, I’m blown away by Sebastien’s version of or lam, a mildly spicy stew-like Luang Prabang specialty given woodiness from sakhan, a bitter root herb.
Another morning, I tag along to Phousi Market with Kanchanh “John” Boupphaphan, the sparkle-eyed head chef at Sofitel Luang Prabang. It is refreshing to see the mounds of misshapen vegetables and roots. Puny carrots veer off at crooked angles, purple eggplants are scarred with mysterious white marks and knobbly chunks of galangal bear dirt-flecked lumps.
Chef John is delighted by his morning haul, which he’ll use later in dishes such as another one of those fresh-but-funky Lao salads made with Luang Prabang–style sai oua (spicy sausage), greens and a ginger vinaigrette at the Sofitel’s Governor’s Grill. “Because people don’t have the resources, they are not using pesticides so you end up, almost inadvertently, with organic produce,” he says. “It’s great for chefs.” Here, the farm- (and jungle-and river-) to-table philosophy isn’t part of some trendy culinary movement, it’s just a way of life, and has been for centuries.
Old ways are ripe for new culinary experimentation, a prime example of which is Laos Buffalo Dairy, a social enterprise that helps boost the productivity of farm animals by making righteous dairy items like mozzarella, blue cheese and feta. The wafer cone of caramel ice cream made with buffalo milk I have is the perfect locavore sweet. I’m ready to embark on an eating raid to test the rest of my newfound culinary knowledge.
First up is Café Toui, a little gem I remember from one of my previous visits. A mok pa (fresh river fish, herbs and coconut-milk custard steamed in banana leaf) doesn’t let me down, the fluffy, mousse-like filling enlivened by the flavor of slightly lemony dill. From there I take a short walk to Xieng Thong Phonsavahn, to the peninsular confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, where I wash down balls of sticky rice laced with jaew kee pa (a chili dip with fish eggs) with frigid bottles of Beer Lao. “I love the rawness of our cuisine,” says Joy Ngeuamboupha, owner and chef at Tamarind, one of the best-regarded Lao restaurants in town, who has joined me for a sundowner. “The uninhibitedness, the nose-to-tail eating, the variety. You can go for something that is delicate and refined like mok pa. Or you can try something like or lam, which pretty much tastes like the jungle… Or you can be wiping up a dip made from fish shit with your sticky rice like you are now.”
Who could resist the invitation for more of that?
Certainly not me when Phouvy and his girlfriend Andrea have agreed to whisk me around in their souped-up Soviet-made army jeep. The evening starts civilized with Lao-inspired cocktails at the edge of UNESCO-listed lotus ponds at Manda de Lao. Proceedings, though, quickly take a turn for the bawdy. At a nameless riverside venue, I’m presented with a plate of crunchy deep-fried crickets dug up fresh that morning from a Mekong beach.
Next is another no-name restaurant away from the tourist action. At the entrance, a teenage cook tends lovingly to ducks turning on a charcoal grill. Inside, crowds of rowdy diners dig into hunks of meat and plates of paeng pet (raw duck-blood salad) while adding to an Olympian collection of beer empties.
I’m presented with a portion of the dark-hued delicacy. I hold up the dish to my mouth and drink. The rich, salty duck blood slips down with surprising ease. Peanuts, mint, lime and chili give it a fiery but refreshing bite. A live band is playing Thai pop in an adjoining bar, but it’s another musical genre that flashes into my mind. When eating with the locals in Luang Prabang, you can’t help but think of funk.
Rosewood Luang Prabang
A little way out of the town center and built around the hillsides of a verdant river valley, this sumptuous resort makes the most of its spectacular surroundings. The interior design, by Bill Bensley, makes bold references to Luang Prabang’s heady cultural mélange. The Great House—the resort’s main lobby and restaurant area—was inspired by the mansion of the former French governor of Luang Prabang, while riverside villas and suites abound with bold colors and colonial touches. The pick of the accommodations, though, are hilltop tents, inspired by the ethnic tribes of the area. rosewoodhotels.com; from US$850.
Sofitel Luang Prabang
Many of the best hotels in Luang Prabang fuse Lao influences with French-colonial charm and the Sofitel nails this vibe effortlessly. Spacious suites feature giant four-poster beds and indoor and outdoor tubs. The centerpiece of the property—also once a French governor’s residence—is its lush grounds featuring local flora and fauna, a rice plantation and a beautiful 25-meter pool. sofitel-luangprabang.com; from US$350.
Café Toui In this unassuming gem presided over by beaming chef Toui, a run-of-the-mill interior doesn’t do justice to the cooking talent of its proprietor. From his basic two-hob burner in the alley next to the restaurant, Toui performs flavor alchemy on dishes like ping gai sai kalee (curry chicken grilled on lemongrass skewers and served with peanut sauce). 72/6 Kingkitsarath Rd.; 856-71/255- 123; meal for two from US$15.
Laos Buffalo Dairy A social enterprise, family tourist draw and gastronomic destination all in one. Helps local farmers get more from their animals by turning their milk into delicious products like ice cream and cheeses. laosbuffalodairy.com.
Manda De Laos With the main restaurant area overlooking three lotus ponds—a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995—there are few more atmospheric spots for fine dining in Luang Prabang. Its predominantly well-heeled tourist audience means a slight toning down of the more robust edges of Lao cuisine. Still, potent cocktails and crowd-pleasers such as ping dook moo (pork ribs cooked sous-vide and spiked with galangal, lemongrass and honey) befit the ambience. mandadelaos.com; meal for two from US$50.
Paste Luang Prabang The affinity between Thai and Lao culinary traditions is celebrated at the Luang Prabang outpost of the Michelin-garlanded Bangkok venture. This restaurant takes inspiration from legendary Lao royal chef Phia Sing with updated court recipes like a yum yai salad made with pork belly, dried squid, river weed, fish sauce, egg floss and mint catching the eye. pastelaos.com; meal for two from US$100.
Tamarind A standard-bearer for local cuisine since 2005. Their tasting platters—including the signature Luang Prabang Set— may well be the best way for newbies to get acquainted with indigenous flavors and exotic staples such as khai paen (deep- fried river weed) and jaew bong (a jam-like dip made with chili and buffalo skin). tamarindlaos.com; meal for two from US$20.
Xieng Thong Phonsavahn At the very end of the peninsula, it’s a highlight for anyone seeking hard-hitting, authentic Lao flavors in a convivial riverside setting. Pull up a pew, order a Beer Lao and be sure to try the jaew kee pa, a blend of fish eggs and lots of dried chilis and chili oil. 856-71/252-835; meal for two from US$25. — D.F.