You are here


Lao Women Making Food

Lao food is very tasty, but it can burn your tongue and bring tears to your eyes because sometimes it is really HOT! The Lao eat sticky rice (also called sweet rice or glutinous rice) at every meal. It is a different kind of rice than Americans are used to. The Lao grow their own rice and then mill it to get the hard outside husk off the grain and polish it to remove the bran. They usually only mill a basket or two at a time so the rice always tastes fresh. The sticky rice is soaked in water for several hours and then steamed in a basket over a pot of boiling water. Next the rice is put in another basket that can be used as a serving dish or lunch pail.

Because most people don't have money to spend on food, they must grow or catch about everything they eat. Children help to gather plants in the forest and net small fish and freshwater shrimp. They shoot birds with darts from blowguns and set traps for field rats. They catch frogs, snails, and insects like grasshoppers. The Lao eat many things that are strange to us, but they make them very tasty with strong tasting sauces. Often there is little to eat besides sticky rice, so the other foods are like condiments, something to add flavor to the meal. One can eat a lot of rice if the other dishes are strongly flavored, very hot or very salty.

Sticky rice is fun to eat and saves on dishes and silverware since you eat it with your fingers. Everyone sits on the floor around the sticky rice basket and uses fingers to grab a bit of sticky rice, which is then squeezed into a ball in the hand. It is just sticky enough to hold together well. Then the rice ball is dipped into a sauce and eaten.

A common sauce is called pla dag. It is made from fish left to ferment and rot with lots of salt and some rice flour. It is gray, salty, and very smelly, but it adds flavor to the rice nicely. A hot sauce might be made of fish sauce (a salty, watery liquid made from fish), fresh lime juice, chili peppers, and garlic. It is very hot, very sour, and very salty all at the same time so you can eat lots of rice with it.


The Lao often have papaya trees growing near their homes. A favorite dish is green papaya salad. Lacking green papayas, common vegetables can be substituted - grated carrots, grated rutabaga, shredded cabbage, or cut green beans.

Lao Salad


  •  1 medium sized green papaya or three cups other shredded vegetable 
  •  1 fresh lime or lemon 
  • fish sauce or salt 
  • 1 ripe tomato or some cherry tomatoes 
  • sugar 
  • 2-3 cloves of garlic 
  • 2-3 fresh small Thai chilies or 1 jalapeño

The chili peppers and cloves of garlic are pounded together in a mortar with a pestle. (A potato masher in a pot or metal bowl can substitute.) Shredded green papaya (or whatever vegetable you have at hand, like cabbage) is added and pounded with them along with a ripe tomato or some cherry tomatoes. Squeeze the juice of a fresh lime or lemon on the salad. (Note: If you don't have a lemon or lime at hand, get some big red ants and pound them in the salad. The formic acid in the ants' bodies has a nice sour taste that can substitute.) Mix in 1 tbs. fish sauce or scant tsp. salt and 1-2 tsp. sugar. If you like, you can add a couple tbs. of finely chopped peanuts and/or dried shrimp. Mix and add more salt, sugar, or lime juice to taste. Lao salad is hot, sour, salty, and sweet all at once. Serve with sticky rice.

Salty Beef

Cut a thick hunk of beef into very thin slices. Use lots of salt and/or fish sauce on the meat and let stand a while. The Lao would dry the meat on a tray placed in the sun to preserve it, but the sun here isn't hot enough. Deep fry the meat to cook it and drive out most of the moisture. If the meat is very, very salty, you can eat a lot of sticky rice with it.