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History of Laos & Lao Cuisine

Among Southeast Asian countries, Laos has a relatively low profile. Lao cuisine is also relatively unheralded compared to the dishes of its neighbours Thailand and Vietnam. But, the truth of the matter is, many of us tasted Lao cuisine without knowing it. Most Thai restaurants have dishes from the Isaan region of Thailand - 80% of Isaan dishes have Lao roots. Some of these are synonymous with Thai cuisine, e.g., sticky rice, som tum, and larb are derived from Lao dishes.

To understand how this came about, we need to delve a little into the history of Laos.

Mekong and the Mountains

Joyce White Map.png
Laos is Southeast Asia's only landlocked country i.e. it doesn't have any sea coast. Lao share land borders with Thailand in the west, Vietnam in the east, China & Myanmar in the north and Cambodia in the south.

However, the Mekong River runs along the entire western border of Laos, much of it forming the common boundary with Thailand. The Mekong River is so central to life in Laos that it is known to Laotians as 
Mae Nam Khon, which in Lao means Mother Mekong.

The three major, historic Laotian cities of Luang Prabang (food and old royal capital), Vientiane (political capital) and Pakse are all located along the Mekong River.

Three-quarters of Laos is covered by mountains and steep forested hills. The highest peak is 
Mount Bia, Lao Bia Phou at 9,245 feet (2,818 metres) in the Annamite Range in the country's north.

Lao-Tai and Hill Tribes

Laotians comprise four main ethno-linguistic groups: Lao-Tai (62%), Mon-Khmer (24%), Hmong-Iu Mien (10%), Chine-Tibetan (3%), and Chinese (2%).

There are 7.5 million people in Laos, of whom 4.6 million are ethnically Lao. There are 15 million ethnically Lao people in Thailand which has a total population of 70 million i.e. there are more Lao people in Thailand than in Laos itself. Indeed, there are more Lao people in the Thai capital of Bangkok than Laos' capital Vientiane.


The Lao-Tai people were originally from Yunnan and Guangxi of today's southern China, who were pushed south by wars in China. The biggest migration wave came in the 13th century when China fell under the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1271 - 1378).

Fa Ngum (born in Luang Prabang) founded the first Lao kingdom, known as Lan Xang or “land of the million elephants” in 1353.

During its heyday, Lan Xang was the largest kingdom in mainland Southeast Asia. The territory of Lan Xang (1353 to 1707) included today's northeastern Thailand or Isaan. Today, the majority of Isaan population is ethnically Lao.

From 1707 to 1779, Lan Xang kingdom broke into three rival kingdoms of Luang Prabang, Vientiane, and Champasak.
Between 1779 and 1893, the kingdoms of Vientiane and Champasak fell under the kingdom of Siam while the kingdom of Luang Prabang became a vassal state of the Siamese. Put another way, the Laotians lost their country (even if it was three separate kingdoms then) for over a century.

Map of Siam (territorial cessions).svg
CC BY-SA 4.0Link

As a result of the Franco - Siamese War of 1893 in which the Thais were defeated, the territories of former kingdoms of Luang Prabang, Vientiane, Champasak came under French rule. The French Protectorate of Laos was created east of the Mekong River while territories of the three old Laotian kingdoms west of the Mekong River remained in Thailand as Isaan. 

In doing so, the French split the old kingdom of Lan Xang in two - west of Mekong River into part of Siam and east of Mekong River into part of French Indochina.

The French Protectorate of Laos together with Vietnam and Cambodia became part of French Indochina till 1954 when Laos became fully independent of France.

Today, there are more ethnically Lao people in Thailand than in Laos itself.

Thai cuisine is often divided into four regions, North, South, Central and Northeast (or Isaan) food. Given its history, Isaan food naturally has Lao roots. Isaan / Lao food has spread to Central Thailand and beyond, and some Lao dishes are assumed by many people to be synonymous with Thai cuisine.

Lao Cuisine

Sticky rice, green papaya salad and meat & herb salad (laab) are considered the trinity of Lao cuisine. Sticky (glutinous) rice is the dish that bind Lao people in Laos and overseas. Green papaya salad is probably the most travelled Lao dish found across the world. Laab is Laos' national dish.

Laotian sticky rice known as khao nieow is the staple of every meal in Laos and Isaan (Thailand). Sticky rice is so central in Lao cuisine and life that Lao people call themselves L
uk Khao Niaow or "Children of Sticky Rice". Sticky rice binds Lao people regardless of where they live.

Cooked by steaming in a basket known as thip khao, sticky rice is usually served in smaller individual baskets called lao aep khao and eaten using fingers. Laotians pinch the sticky rice and roll small balls with it. It is then dipped into sauce or used as a spoon of sort to pick up meat, vegetable, etc.

Besides being the staple with accompanying dishes, there are sticky rice dishes themselves such as Khao Jee. It is sticky rice pancake dipped in beaten egg and fish sauce, grilled over charcoal or pan fried to make a savoury, eggy, sweet snack that is lightly crisp outside and tender chewy inside.

Thum Mak Hoong, green papaya salad with fish sauce is ubiquitous in Laos. U
nripe shredded papaya, Thai eggplant, long bean, chilies, garlic, tomatoes, lime, tamarind, palm sugar, fish sauce and padaek (unfiltered fermented fish sauce) are pounded together in a mortar and pestle to make the pungent savoury, sourish, spicy salad.

Thum Mak Hoong is eaten with, what else...., khao nieow (sticky rice).

Som Tum at La Vela resort in Phuket, Thailand

If you feel a sense of
deja vu with 
Thum Mak Hoong, it might be because of Som Tum. The latter is synonymous with Thai cuisine. Som Tum originated in Laos, part of which became Isaan, and from there spread to Central Thailand and beyond. Now, som tum is found around the world but usually seen as a Thai dish.

Laab is a meat and herb salad usually made with grilled, stir fried or raw chicken, beef, duck, fish, or pork tossed with 
chili, mint, cilantro, lemongrass, and other fresh aromatic herbs, flavoured with fish sauce, lime juice, padaek, ground toasted sticky rice, etc. Roughly ground toasted sticky rice (khao khoua) is a defining ingredient of the Lao national dish. The meat may be sliced or ground.

Laab is eaten with sticky rice (what else?) and fresh vegetables such as long bean and cucumber.

If there is no Lao restaurant in your area (for example, there is no Lao restaurant or hawker stall in Singapore), you can still get your laab fix at Thai restaurants or stalls. Most Thai restaurants have laab on their menu as larb.

Like Thum Mak Hoong and som tam, laab and larb is a legacy of the intertwined history of Laos and Thailand.

We cannot talk about Lao cuisine without mentioning the Lao Khao Jee Pate. Khao Jee Pate is very similar to the Vietnamese banh mi, both being legacies of French Indochina. Khao Jee Pate is part of the 20% of Lao dishes not found in Isaan cuisine.

The sandwich is made by slicing the foot long baguette lengthwise and spread with a thick layer of pork liver pâté, mayonnaise, stuffed with pork, Lao sausage, ham, pork floss, fried egg, sliced cucumber, fresh or pickled julienned carrot, stalks of spring onion, cilantro, various sauces and optional jeow bong or Lao chili sauce. Khao jee pate is commonly sold in markets and street side stalls.

Lao Food Movement

Laos' international role and profile is rising. Laos envisage itself as a land-linked country open for business instead of a closed landlocked country. In the USA, there is a "Lao Food Movement" where Lao chefs open Lao restaurants, instead of Lao dishes remaining on the Isaan page in Thai restaurant menus.

There are no Lao restaurants in Singapore yet. Meanwhile, just be conscious that when we order sticky rice, som tum, or larb in a Thai restaurant, we are partaking in Lao cuisine and culture.

👌 This is a work-in-progress - I will be adding more Lao dishes to this post.

Written by Tony Boey on 27 Jun 2022


Image of Thum Mak Hoong courtesy of Flickr. Image of hills of Laos courtesy of Wikipedia. Image of Lao ladies courtesy of Flickr. Image of Mekong River courtesy of Wikipedia. Map of Laos courtesy of Wikipedia. Map of Lan Xang courtesy of Wikipedia. Image of Hmong wedding courtesy of Wikipedia. Image of khao jee pate courtesy of Wikipedia. Image of khao jee courtesy of Wikipedia. Image of Vientiane courtesy of Wikipedia. Image of Lao restaurant courtesy of Wikipedia. Map of three Lao kingdoms courtesy of Wikipedia.

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