There’s a small, unassuming restaurant along Kounxoau Road in Luang Prabang that’s my favourite place to eat in Laos. We discovered it one cold, wet evening after a day out and about in the rain. John had been biking. Ben and I’d been less adventorous, some might say soft by comparison. We sheltered in the Guest House until the rain eased to showers before venturing out, even so coats and brollies were required.
We all wanted something warming and homely for dinner that night and this small family run restaurant met the bill. Sadly, I don’t know it’s name. There was no sign. That large white sign to the right in the photo is for real-estate. I hope this restaurant isn’t for sale because for us it represents everything good about Lao food.
The service here isn’t fast but that doesn’t matter. Thai “soaps” on the big screen TV kept us entertained. The language barrier was no barrier to figuring out who’d jilted who, who was jealous, who had a broken heart.
The family running the restaurant, Dad out front, Mum in the kitchen, children clearing tables and sometimes, not often, taking the orders, don’t speak much English. Our Laos never got beyond hello and thank-you, but pointing and smiling and Kobchai li li (thank-you very much) was all we needed here.
That first night I ordered the Lao Pumpkin soup with pork. It was smoky and tasty and warmed my chilled bones. We went back again the next night. Ben ate there again when he passed through town without us a couple of weeks later, and John and I ate there twice during our last few days in Laos. There is still plenty on the menu for us to try if we get back to Luang Prabang.
We met fellow travellers there, people who were having a family gap year, people who spent the European winter in Luang Prabang. The conversations were interesting, the sort you have with people who like to get off the beaten track. Most tourists eat on the main road or at the restaurants overlooking the river. We did, too, occasionally, but each time came to the conclusion this was the best place.
You won’t get a cocktail here, or even a three course meal. But you will get pork that breaks apart with a fork, fish that’s tasty, and chilli that tastes like chilli and hasn’t be doctored for the western palate.
We had a favorite breakfast place, too. It wasn’t Le Banneton, famously promoted as having the best croissants in Laos.
They probably are – they were very good. And I did enjoy them, along with the rather Parisian attitude of the wait staff. For me, much as I love a pastry and adore crosissants, when I’m in tropical climates European food just doesn’t seem right. I don’t enjoy it as much as I do at home. Rice or noodle soup does the trick and, just like at home, I want the same breakfast everyday but there, instead of muesli, it’s noodle soup with pork and egg. So most mornings we could be found here or at other similar noodle houses around northern Laos.
After the second morning my lack of chop stick skills no longer attracted attention – eating a poached egg with chop sticks is messy! Breaking the yolk so that it mixed with all the other flavours was the best and tastiest way to eat this. You can add chilli paste but beware, if you weren’t raised in Laos, go easy with it. At this noodle house it’s very hot. An eighth of a teaspoon was too much for me – thank heavens for sprouted mung beans and fresh limes!
Ben and I went to a cooking class. What an experience that turned out to be. Ruth, the boss, took us on a tour around the morning market, regaling us with her particular take on the plight of Laos. Difficult though it is to believe when you’re surrounded by so much plenty, food is often in short supply in Laos – especially in the remote villages. NGO workers told us that many in rural Laos are food insecure. They buy only 20% of their food at the market, grow 40% and forage or fish for the remaining 40%.
Afterwards the boss handed us over to her cooks. It was a challenge keeping up. And, it turns out Ben and I have slightly differing approaches to cooking. He’s from the precise, measure everything school. My style is more slosh in some of this and that, and cross my fingers. We didn’t have any disasters, our food was delicious. My favourite was the fried eggplant with pork.
We were shown how to make jeowbong. It’s a chillipaste that’s served as a side dish. It ranges from very hot to mild – depending on your taste. It’s sometimes served with dried Mekong weed and Laos beer.
Other glorious Laos foodie delights:
A baguette – prepared while we waited in Vientiane.
Coconut rice dumplings – I queued for these where-ever I saw them. They’re cooked in a griddle over hot coals and are best eaten hot. They are very filling.
Crepes – especially crepes filled with banana and pandan custard. Yum!
Fruit shakes – they’re available everywhere there are tourists. They’re loaded with sugar: palm sugar, sugar syrup and the fruit! But they’re delicious.
No post about food in Laos is complete without mentioning the all you can eat buffet at the night market in Luang Prabang.
It’s a bit of an institution amongst travellers. Load your plate up with just about anything for 15000 kip. It’s an experience, worth doing once. But I’d much rather eat at our little restaurant only a couple of blocks way.
It pays to be adventurous and try new things – as long as it’s food. John ventured off on his own in Oudamxay (I wasn’t that well at the time) and came back with interesting parcels wrapped in banana leaves. One was a huge slab of palm sugar which, John took some convincing about, was for cooking not eating; and a white, waxey substance which he declared to be edible but rather on the bland side.
We tried other banana leaf wrapped delights as well. But, as was so often the case with the most delicious food, it was in our bellies before I remembered to take a photo! My favourite is the custard treats usually made with coconut, often flavoured with panadan or banana, sometimes taro. No photos – eaten too quickly every single time!