From Jungle to Oven: A Guide To Luang Prabang Food
Luang Prabang is known for two types of cuisine – Lao and French.
Lao cuisine shares many similarities with the neighboring Isaan of Northeast Thailand – think of cured meats, freshwater fishes and a basket of crunchy and zesty greens. The French influence comes from the days when Laos was a French colony and the legacy of café and pain lives on till today. Together, both create an exciting sensation to our taste buds where earthy flavors are complemented by the finest of texture.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of food we ate in Luang Prabang but it should help you anticipate the taste and texture of these delectable dishes that makes them stand out from other Southeast Asian fares.
1. Khao Niao – Tamnak Lao
As with any other Asian city, everything here starts with rice.
Khao Niao, or sticky rice, is a Laos staple found in your humble street side stall while never looking out of place in a swanky restaurant. This type of rice is prominent in Luang Prabang due to its proximity to the northern highlands where it is widely cultivated by the Tai and Kmhmu people.
My first encounter with Khao Niao was during dinner at Tamnak Lao. It was our very first meal in Luang Prabang and my taste buds were ready to be excited. The glutinous rice is traditionally served in a decorated bamboo basket (as I will learn throughout my four days here) and mine is the same. I opened the lid and my eyes were fascinatingly staring at a basket full of black and purple rice all clumped together.
This sticky rice is unmilled meaning the bran and husk are not removed, preserving the vitamins and minerals contained in it. Khao Niao lives up to its name of being very adhesive and this “rough” version has a grainier texture compared to the white sticky rice. Laos’ Khao Niao is totally different than the white rice us Malaysians eat back home as it tends not to absorb any stew or curry (which can be tough on some of my countrymen) but it gives me a new outlook on the wide variety of rice cultivated throughout the region.
Sakkaline Rd., Ban Vatsene
Tel: +85671252525 |Google Maps
Opening Hours: 8:30 am – 10:00 pm, Daily
2. Or Lam – Tamnak Lao
At first glance, Or Lam looks like your typical Southeast Asian vegetable stew of greens and spices thrown into a pot and left to simmer until it is ready to eat.
Little did I know that underneath the heap of leafy veggies, wood ear mushroom, eggplant, long beans and lemongrass lies mai sakhaan – the Lao pepper wood. Laotians in this region harvest both the peppercorn and woody vine to be used in their cooking. While the pepper berries are applied as a spice, the trunk of Piper ribesioides plays an important role in the distinctive flavor of Or Lam.
I was happily munching my stew before I picked up a piece of mai sakhaan, mistaking it for an uncooked eggplant because both looked similar. I took a big bite at the piece of wood and a rush of sensations flooded my mouth – first it was the strong taste of pepper followed by the spicytingle of chili and then my tongue began to feel numb. It took me a few minutes to recover from that sensory shock, much to the puzzlement of my wife!
Prior to chomping on the pepper wood, I was wondering about the “heat” component of Or Lam as the stew tastes very hearty and devoid of some “kick.” Mai sakhaan answered this lingering thought all within 15 seconds and I now learn to appreciate a non-chili kind of spiciness.
Sakkaline Rd., Ban Vatsene
Tel: +85671252525 |Google Maps
Opening Hours: 8:30 am – 10:00 pm, Daily
3. Salad Trio – Tamarind
Tamarind is another restaurant proudly serving Lao cuisine in shared plates. I really like this “platter” concept so I could sample as many dishes in a sitting since we, like most travelers would only be visiting for a few days and are hard-pressed to try as many local dishes within a short amount of time.
Aside the banana-leaf wrapped steam fish, I ordered the Salad Trio of Tofu Laap and Tam Mak Hoong and Koy Pa.
Laap, the national dish of Laos, is simply a salad added with any kind of meat or tofu, if you’re vegetarian. The laap we had uses tofu as its base and mixed with spring onions, chillies, beansprouts, shallots, coriander and mint leaves before being dashed with lime juice, pungent padaek (fish sauce) and some roasted ground rice.
Thai food fans would instantly recognize Tam Mak Hoong as Som Tam, the spicy green papaya salad. The main ingredient is sliced green unripe papaya fruit tossed with a concoction of tomatoes, shallots, chili and fish sauce followed by a seasoning of salt and sugar finally topped with some ground nuts.
Koy Pa is made up of raw fish, typically Mekong River catfish, that is added lime, minced and tossed with (you guessed it) fish sauce, shallots, long beans, spring onion, coriander and mint leaves. This salad is somewhat similar to ceviche or hinava but it has a stronger fishy flavor and is not as “wet” as its Peruvian and Sabahan cousins.
All three salads have a similar profile of zest and crunch greens with a strong hint of salt and spice from the fish sauce and chili, respectively. It is definitely one of the healthiest and most refreshing plate of greens I had in Laos.
Kingkitsarath Rd., Luang Prabang
Tel: +85671213128 | Google Maps
Opening Hours: 11:00 am – 4:15 pm, 5:30 pm – 9:30 pm, Daily except Sundays
4. Crispy Fried Fish With Garlic – Joy’s Restaurant
Joy’s Restaurant is one those mom-and-pop shops that keeps popping up with glowing reviews when I was dredging the internet for the best places to eat in Luang Prabang.
The unassuming restaurant is situated along a quiet residential street just off Khem Khong Road and when we arrived there for lunch, the place was empty save for one table. I had to peek at the back to get the server, a teenager who was happily watching TV, to take our order. He quickly scuttled back and we could hear a loud discussion going on at the kitchen between him and an older woman (presumably Joy herself) before the sound of spatula hitting the wok began.
A good 15 minutes passed us by and everything came out at once. We went with the crispy fried tilapia with garlic, stir-fried morning glory and deep-fried eggplant with rice all around. After a few bites of each dish, I felt like rushing back home to my laptop and say thank you to all the travel blogs that recommended this place.
The fish was fried to perfection – crispy skin on the outside and sweet flesh on the inside. We furiously deconstructed the fish from head to tail including the best parts which are the shoulder and cheeks. You know it’s a home-cooked meal when the taste reminds you of your mother’s cooking where every ingredient used is measured arbitrarily (“agak-agak“) and the recipe comes from wisdom and experience, not through a cook book.
Joy’s Restaurant, for a lack of a better, was such a joy.
Nam Pho Rd, off Khem Khong Rd
Tel: +85671260320 | Google Maps
11:00 am – 8:00 pm, Daily
5. Buffalo Milk Ice-Cream – Laos Buffalo Dairy
If there’s a wooden stall painted in bright purple by the roadside selling ice-cream churned out of buffalo milk, you have no reason not to stop.
Laos Buffalo Dairy is a social enterprise that produces milk and milk-based products from buffaloes rented from locals. It is a win-win arrangement where the owners get a monthly stipend while the buffaloes and their calves are given the best of care. We stopped by on our way back from Kuang Si Falls and had a quick chat with the volunteer, a friendly Belgian, manning the stall about the whole set-up.
The ice-cream flavors available on that was a mix of the typical – chocolate, vanilla and caramel – and the traditional – tamarind, lemongrass and basil. Our kid unequivocally chose chocolate while I wanted to try something more grounded so I got a cup of tamarind ice-cream. One scoop and I could tell that the ice-cream is freshly made based on the tanginess of the tamarind and full-bodied flavor of the buffalo milk.
To be honest, I did not feel any difference having an ice-cream made from buffalo milk other than the texture being a bit hard and lumpy than an ice-cream made from cow’s milk. You and I might see ice-cream as normal supermarket item but it is a luxury to many Laotians because the amount of milk produced by buffaloes is much lower than cows and cows cannot survive in the searing heat of Laos’ dry season.
If you are interested to learn more about Laos Buffalo Dairy’s noble efforts and planning on a visit, you can start by going to their website here.
Ban Muang Khay, Luang Prabang
Tel: +856309690487 | Google Maps
9:30 am – 4:30 pm, Daily except Sundays
6. French Pastries – Le Banneton
Beaux art architecture was not the only piece of culture the colonial French left Luang Prabang with. This town is also known for its bakeries churning out, dare I say, the most awesome breads and pastries in Southeast Asia. We did go to a few bakeries in between attractions but I have to single out Le Banneton for swooning our senses.
Le Banneton is a rustic wooden cafe on Sakkaline Road recognizable by a simple blink-and-you’ll-miss-it signboard saying “Le Banneton Cafe French Bakery.” They serve made-to-order sandwiches and tartines other than a selection of daily pastries and tarts delicately housed in a glass cabinet. We were like kids in a candy store gawking at everything from the pile of fluffy croissants to the glistening glaze of the cinnamon roll.
I asked the server about their bestseller and he pointed at a basket pain au chocolate aux amandes. Without hesitation, I grabbed one as it was one of the only seven left. The pain tastes as heavenly as it looks. The dark chocolate inside the bread had the right level of bittersweet while the almond cream was so light yet imparts a strong nutty almond flavor. Remind me again why do I need to go to France for the food?
Sakkaline Rd., Luang Prabang
Tel: +856305788340 | Google Maps
6:30 am – 9:00 pm, Daily
Read Also: A 3-Day Itinerary of Luang Prabang, Laos
7. Mango Coconut French Toast – Saffron Coffee
Saffron Coffee has to be one of the most scenic cafes in Luang Prabang for having an outdoor veranda facing the Mekong River. We could not pass up the chance to sit under the shade while I played “I spy” with my son where we had to look out for the long-tail boats moving up and down the river.
Although the cafe just opened in 2016, Saffron Coffee was established in more than a decade ago as a social enterprise. This initiative partners with the northern Laos hill tribes to grow coffee as an alternative cash crop to opium which was banned outright. Ever since opening shop in 2006, Saffron Coffee has been producing up to 10 tonnes of green coffee a year.
talk a bit about saffron’s coffee and how it is by the river.
The latte I had really good – The Arabica beans were both smooth and robust and the milk was added at the right temperature so I could drink it without having to wait.
However, I was captivated more by their Mango Coconut French Toast. The coconut milk-soaked rye oat bread was equally soft and creamy while the sliced mangoes gave just a little bit of a sourish twang to the whole dish. The sweetness of the mango puree and wild honey balances everything out and the coconut chips added some crunch to the wholesome plate of breakfast goodness.
Khem Khong Rd., Luang Prabang
Tel: +85671254254 | Google Maps
7:00 am – 6:45 pm, Monday – Thursday, 6:30 am – 6:45 pm Friday, 7:30 am – 5:30 pm, Saturday – Sunday
8. Filet of Buffalo – Le Bistro Ban Vat Sene
Filet de Buffle poêlé au beurre Maître d’Hôtel.
Quite a fancy name for what is essentially Buffalo Steak. We decided to splurge on our last night in Luang Prabang and we went for something a fancy at Le Bistro Ban Vat Sene. This establishment serves everything under the roof from a bakery spread in the morning to the typical Asian and Western fare throughout the rest of the day.
I was feeling rather adventurous so choose the Filet of Buffalo with carb-heavy sides of frites and pasta. I have heard horror stories of buffalo meat being very sinewy so I started on my entrée with the lowest of expectations. The medium-well meat came out on a sizzling plate and topped with beurre Maître d’Hôtel, a savory French butter composed of parsley, lemon juice, salt and pepper.
The steak was surprisingly good, I would not have realized it was buffalo if no had told me. My teeth had an easy task chewing the meat and the butter really enhanced the flavor of the filet helped by the herbaceous tinge of parsley. While the sides were just fillers, the penne was al dente while fries nice and crisp. I hate to use the word “elevated” but this buffalo steak is just tops.
Sakkaline Rd., Luang Prabang
Tel: +85671252482 | Google Maps
6:30 am – 10:00 pm, Daily