FOOD, DRINKS AND EATING AND DRINKING HABITS IN LAOS

FOOD IN LAOS

Laotians like fiery salads, spicy dips “sticky” rice, and grilled meats, fish and poultry. Contrary to what you might think, Laos is justifiably acclaimed for its food. Lao food is distinct from other Asia cuisines, although it is somewhat similar to the food found in the northeastern part of Thailand in the area known as Isan. Most Lao dishes contain vegetables and herbs, rice or noodles and fish, chicken, pork or beef. The freshness of the ingredients is very important to Lao people who like to prepare everything from scratch, rather than use pre-prepared ingredients, as they believe this makes their food more delicious.

Some Laotian dishes are similar to Vietnamese and Thai dishes. Some are spicy but not as spicy as Thai food. Many are on the mild side. French-influenced Laotians dishes are said to be particularly good. Laotians dishes are often served in communal dishes. Glutinous or sticky rice is preferred to Japanese style white rice. It is sometimes cooked in bamboo tubes or woven rattan baskets with chili sauce or spicy fermented fish sauce. Herbs such as galangal and lemongrass are favourites and padaek (Lao fish sauce) is found on every table.

Laotian cooks strive for the perfect balance between sweet, sour, cooked, fresh, mild, bitter, salty and spicy; dishes are served in bite-size pieces in accordance with the Buddhist custom that no whole animal be cooked and served; and texture and color are important. Dishes are often flavored with sauces. pastes and fermented fish concoctions such as nam, paa (fermented fish sauce), paa daek (a thicker spread made with fermented fish, rice husks and rice dust), nam paa daek (a sauce made from paa daek ), nam phak-kaat (a paste made from fermented lettuce leaves), jaew ngaa (sesame paste), and nam kathi (coconut sauce).

Most Laotian meals consist of rice or noodles eaten with fish and vegetables, and to a lesser extent chicken and pork. Vegetarian meals are widely available. Beef is considered an expensive luxury and tends to be more expensive than other meats. Catfish and cotton fish (a local white fish) are favorite fresh water fishes. Because Laos is not near the ocean seafood dishes are generally not available except at expensive hotels and restaurants. Laotians like the taste of wild game. Wild animals such as deer, squirrels, civets, monkeys, wild pigs, monitor lizards, rats, birds, jungle fowl and dhole (wild dog) are all consumed.

Fermented bamboo shoots are used in a favorite Lao dish, sour bamboo soup. In rural areas cultivated foods are sometimes supplemented with wild fruits and vegetables from the forest. The influence of France is can be found is in créme caramel is available at most restaurants. Baguettes, sometimes croissants and Laotian versions of French pastries, are available at every market and in every downtown area. You can even find snails in some places. French-Laotian cuisine is a real delight.

Lao food is traditionally eaten with sticky rice using fingers. In the countryside, people eat family-style, sitting on the floor, sharing a few dishes. Lao traditional food is dry, spicy and very delicious and is based on fish, buffalo meat, pork, poultry and especially herbs. Fresh ingredients—not preserved ones— are used. Other than sticky rice—which can be eaten either sweet, sour, or fermented— Laotian food is very rich in vegetables and is often browned in coconut oil. [Source: Laos’ Official Tourism Website ~~]

Due to its affection for fresh vegetables and herbs, which appear in almost every Lao meal. Both meat and fish are usually grilled or steamed and as a result, the flavours are fresh and the dishes are low in fat. Restaurants and foodstalls, lit by fluorescent tubes, in provincial towns, sometimes visited by backpackers off the beaten path, bowls of beef noodle soup and lukewarm Beerlao are the norm.

Obesity - adult prevalence rate: 2.6 percent (2008), country comparison to the world: 179.

Book: Traditional Recipes of Laos by Phia Sing (Prospect Books, 1981)

Lao Eating Habits

Most Lao meals consist of khao niaw (sticky rice) served with fresh greens dipped in chilies or fermented sauces, and laap (chopped meat or river fish salad mixed with onions, lemon grass, and spices and served with rice flour sauce and often wrapped in lettuce leaves). Many Laotians also eat rice or noodles with spicy chopped or curried fish, chicken, pork, eggs, soup and/or vegetables flavored with lemon grass and served with laap .

Sticky rice naturally sticks together so it is easy to roll into small balls, dip into food and eat with your fingers. A traditional everyday Lao meal is simple and normally consists of sticky rice, some natural vegetables and at least one kind of spicy sauce to dip the sticky rice into, plus perhaps some fish or meat. Another daily favourite is noodle soup (called feu also spelt pho) which is a hearty soup incorporating meat, noodles and vegetables. Don’t be surprised if when ordering your noodle soup, a huge plate of local salad vegetables arrives at the same time, together with a range of sauces and condiments. [Source: Laos-Guide-999.com]

Laap (sometimes spelt laab or larp) is a dish that is particular to Laos and is often served on special occasions such as weddings, Baci ceremonies or other celebrations as in Lao language laap means luck or good fortune. However you will find it served in every good Lao restaurant around the country. Laap is made from chopped or thinly sliced meat or fish that is mixed with lime juice, fish sauce, mint, coriander, spring onion, chili and uncooked rice grains that have been dry fried and crushed. It is usually accompanied by vegetables including eggplant, fresh chilies, mustard leaves and lettuce. It can be eaten with ordinary rice or sticky rice and is usually eaten with fish/meat soup depending on the main ingredient being used. If you are a visitor it is useful to ask that your laap is cooked, as in some parts of the country locals like to eat it raw, particularly fish laap.

Breakfast is generally eaten between 6:30am and 7:30am and often consists of French bread served plain, or with eggs or with pater and vegetables or of foe (Vietnamese noodle soup), poached eggs and tea or coffee. Lunch is generally eaten between 12:00noon and 1:00pm. Many people eat out, grabbing a quick meal or snack such as a bowl of noodles, sandwiches, or laap. Dinner is generally eaten between 6:00pm and 7:00pm. It is the main meal of the day. It generally an informal meal with meat or fish, rice and is similar to lunch except often more dishes are served. Main dishes made at home, include a variety of stir fried dishes and soups.

In the past, a Lao family would eat home cooked meal together sitting on the floor around a Lao-style table called a pa kao or ka toke. Though this tradition is still common in the country side, it is not widely seen in urban areas nowadays.

Attitudes About Food in Laos

Alan and Jennifer Davidson wrote: “Until the last few years one of the most noticeable features of daily life was the morning procession of Buddhist monks around the towns, accepting offerings of food from the willing population. In this respect, food had an important role in the religious practices of the Lao. [Source:Alan and Jennifer Davidson <>]

“Eating at home, the Lao give the impression of being completely relaxed; hospitable, informal, and free of any feelings of hurry, anxiety or ostentation. Such, at least, is the impression which an occidental visitor will receive. In fact, however, the relaxed atmosphere invests procedures which are surprisingly formal. <>

“The Lao practice is to prepare more food than will be consumed. This practice is not effected by serving a large number of successive 'courses', as in the west, but by laying out a wide variety of foods at once, in such abundance as to ensure that everyone will have as much as he or she may fancy of anything. This ideal situation may not always be achieved; but it is always the aim. <>

Although nutrition appears to be marginal in the general population, health surveys are of varying quality. Some data indicate that stunting—low height for age--in the under-five population ranged from 2 to 35 percent, while wasting—low weight for height--probably does not exceed 10 percent of the under-five population. These figures reflect village diets based predominantly on rice, with vegetables as a common accompaniment and animal protein--fish, chicken, and wild foods--eaten irregularly. Children aged six months to two years--the weaning period--are particularly susceptible to undernutrition. The nutritional status of adults is related closely to what is being grown on the family farm, as well as to dietary habits. For example, fresh vegetables and fruits are not highly valued and therefore are not consumed in adequate amounts. As a result, it is likely that vitamin A, iron, and calcium deficiencies are common in all parts of the country. [Source: Library of Congress]

Staple Foods in Laos

Sanath Weerasuriya wrote in the Sunday Times: “So what do the ordinary people eat? Sticky rice and duck, pork or fish straight from the great Mekong River are their usual fare. Seafood is popular at any restaurant or hotel even though Laos is a landlocked country. The famous Thai soup Tom Yam, which is seafood based is a hot favourite in Laos too. Keng no may, a bamboo shoot soup, or keng het bot made with mushrooms are two other favourite soups in Laos. [Source: Sanath Weerasuriya, Sunday Times, August 12, 2007 /=/]

“For travellers from Bangkok, the striking difference between their food and Lao cuisine is the use of sticky, or glutinous rice (klao niaw) at every meal. Sitting down to a bowl of chopped raw meat, a chicken’s head, and a salad made of shrub leaves, and sticky rice interspersed with rounds of fiery home-made rice whisky is not the normal traveller’s idea of a mouth-watering exotic meal. Distinctively Lao food that favours raw food rather than cooked. This preference tells a lot about Laos culture: For instance, the proximity of most parts of Laos to the forest where food is still hunted or gathered in the provinces. Along with klao niaw there is another essential ingredient in a Lao meal, one that the Lao tend to use as an ethnic marker. This is pa daek, a pungent fermented fish sauce. On the back verandah of every Lao peasant’s house you will find an earthenware jar of pa daek.” /=/

In the Lao PDR, staples are the most commonly eaten food items. Staples are grouped into Rice (glutinous and non-glutinous), maize, cassava and other roots and tube., Rice is the main staple of all diets among all the ethnic groups. The Comprehensive Food Security and Vulnerability Analysis (CFSVA) estimates that on average, glutinous rice was consumed approximately seven days per week by the Lao-Tai and Austro-Asiatic groups, and approximately three days per week by the Sino-Tibetan and Hmong-Mien groups. [Source: World Food Program <<<]

Vegetables are the second most important food group in the Lao diets. According to the CFSVA, all ethnic groups consume vegetables on a daily basis. 80 percent of the overall vegetable intake comes from wild vegetables. Fruits are rarely purchased; instead, they often come from forest or garden fruits. There is high diversity of vegetables and fruit consumption among all the ethnic groups. <<<

Food consumption is different in urban and rural areas. According to the Ministry of Health, urban people’s diet is well-balanced since they consume meat, fish, eggs as well as green leafy vegetables. On the contrary, the diet in rural areas is generally poor with limited intake of protein, fat and micronutrients, although often a high intake of vegetables. <<<

Water buffalo, pork and chicken and poultry are popular meats with the Laos people and it is not uncommon for wild animals and plants to be included in the Laotian diet. Insects, frogs, snakes, mouse deer, quail and small birds, wild herbs, edible cane and aromatic tree bark are all fair game when Laotians prepare their meals. <<<

VM posted on Laoconnection.com: “The meat market or butcher shops in Laos are quite interesting. As a person who loves food and will try anything once, you can bet this will test your limits. Lao people hunt and eat just about anything that can be found in the forest. So you'll see all sorts of animals. The exotic examples include snakes, different birds, large rodents, rats, squirrels, bats, baby bird eggs, frogs, and all kinds of animal inners and guts for sale, not just the meat - because that would be a waste! Meat is fresh though and often slaughtered or caught that day. However note that in the market there's often no refrigeration. Best time to buy meat is right in the morning when it's freshest and hasn't been sitting out in the sun all day. [Source: VM, Laoconnection.com *-*]

Important Ingredients in Lao Cooking

Essential ingredients in Laos dishes include coriander leaf, lime juice, papayas, green and red chilies, mint. ginger, lemon grass, watercress, water-lily stems, MSG, banana buds and leaves, lotus flowers, tamarind jam, morning glories, snails, several kinds of eggplant, bamboo shoots, monkey's ear mushroom, ferns, tofu, Chinese cabbage, chestnuts, dried mushroom, potatoes, asparagus, watercress, corn, tomatoes, shallots, scallions, leaves, galangal (similar to ginger), garlic, sugar, carrots, tree ear fungus, onions, sour Chinese cabbage, ground peanuts, Chinese water spinach, coconut milk and white radish.

Key ingredients in Lao Cooking: 1) Galangal: typically used in soups, mixed dishes and marinades; 2) Kaffir lime: typically used in soups and stews; 3) Lemon grass: (hua sing-khai) used in soups, stews and marinades; 4) Shallots; 5) Lao eggplant: small and round Kermit eggplant, used in stews or eaten raw; 6) Papaya (green): shredded and used in spicy papaya salad; 7) Tamarind:sour fruit used in soups or as a snack; 8) Tamarind leaf: used in soups; 9 ) Cha-om (acacia): used in soups, curries, omelettes, and stir-fries; 10) Nam pa: clear fish sauceused as a general condiment; 11) Padaek: Lao-style fish paste; 12) "Three-layer pork": pork belly; 13) Dried water buffalo skin: used in jaew bong and stews; . [Source: Wikipedia +]

Spices used in Lao Cooking: 1) Coriander (cilantro): both leaves and seeds added to dips, marinades, and a wide variety of dishes; 2) Chile pepper: seven popular types; ) Asian basil: eaten raw with feu; 3) Mint: Lao: used in goy/laap, and eaten raw; 4) Lao coriander: ("Lao dill"), used in stews and eaten raw; 5) Lao basil: used in soups and stews; 6) Garlic; 7) Ginger root; 8) Banana flower: a raw accompaniment to noodle soup or cooked in others; 9) Ginger flower.

Vegetables and vegetable-like foods used in Lao Cooking: 1) Bamboo shoots: used in stews or boiled as a side dish; 2) Rattan shoots: typically used in stews (bitter); 3) Mushrooms: used in soups and stir-fries; 4) Yanang leaf: used as a green colouring agent and as a seasoning or thickener for soups and stews; 5) Turkey berry: Solanum torvum, typically used in stews and curries; 6) Yard long beans: eaten raw, in stews, and can be made into a spicy bean salad (tam mak thoua); 7) Phak kadao: Azadirachta indica or neem, a bitter vegetable often eaten raw; 8) Phak lin may: a bitter green, eaten raw; 9) Wild betel leaves: Piper sarmentosum, a green, eaten raw; 10) Scarlet wisteria: Sesbania grandiflora, blossom eaten as vegetable in soups and curries; 11) Phak bong: Ipomoea aquatica, stir-fried, steamed, or eaten as raw vegetable accompaniment; 12) Sa khan: stem of Piper ribesioides, used in stews; 13) Kaipen: dried sheets of edible Mekong River algae, similar to nori; 14) Lime: common ingredient to many dishes; 15) Tomato: eaten as a garnish item or in papaya salad; 16) Cucumber: eaten as a garnish or as a substitute for green papaya in salad.

Padek: Fermented Fish

Nicole Long wrote in Journeys Within: “Padek is fermented fish. It is used in a lot of Lao food. Sometimes it is used just to add a little flavor to soup and sometimes it is the predominate ingredient to a dish. Once you have tasted and smelled Padek you will always be able to identify it. Pungent doesn’t even begin to give it justice. As I said before, it is fermented fish. I think you can use your imagination! [Source: Nicole Long, Journeys Within, March 4, 2012 ***]

“Padek is enjoyed by all in Laos. It is made by taking whole fish from the river and mixing them with salt, garlic, rice husks and water. After mixing you place the ingredients in a jar. In the countryside this would likely be a clay jar with banana leaves tightly tied by vine around the tops. In the city it is now held in plastic and glass jars and bottles. You then leave the jar in the kitchen area for about 2 weeks. After 2 weeks it is then edible and sold at the markets. The Padek is good for about one year (as long as it is enclosed). ***

“Did I mention I love this stuff? I know you are thinking that I am crazy, most people do when I tell them that it is my favorite thing in Laos. Lao are amazed when I tell them how much I love it. Mostly because they say they have never seen a foreigner eat it. If you want to impress tell someone, Koy mak Padek! Seap lai! (I like Padek! Very delicious!) ***

Importance of Peppers, Pepper and Ginger in Lao Cuisine

Peppers (the fruits of the genus capsicum), black pepper (the condiment), and ginger are important ingredients in Lao cooking. Alan and Jennifer Davidson wrote: “It emerges from this study that all these three spices (to use the term in its broadest sense) have one thing in common, namely that they belong to the first of three classes of plants which the Lao distinguish for medicinal purposes. This is the class of 'hot' or 'chauds' plants, for which the Lao term is hon. The second class is that of the 'cold' (yen) plants, which produce a cooling and re-freshing effect instead of a heating and fiery one. The third class consists of those plants which are neutral in this respect. [Source:Alan and Jennifer Davidson <>]

“However, although our three spices are thus classed together, they occupy very different places in Lao cookery. Pepper, the condiment, is used, but seems to have come to Laos as a result of Chinese and Thai influences. Pepper, the fruit, in contrast, is one of the essential elements in traditional Lao cookery, almost as important as rice and fish sauce. Ginger, according to M. Pottier, is the next most important flavouring, but is much more besides. Unlike the other two plants, it has a ritual significance and is an important element in offerings to the spirits. It is deemed, in the world of spirits, to represent gold; while its relation Zingiberzerumbet is taken to represent silver. <>

“I found for myself that there is a similar mystique surrounding the giant catfish of the Mekong, Pangasianodon Gigas. The fishery for this noble creature, the largest freshwater fish in the world if one excepts anadromous sturgeon, used to be attended by rituals of such complexity that it seems a wonder that the fishermen ever succeeded in catching any. Now, alas, the rituals are but a memory and the fish itself is in danger of extinction.” <>

Lao Cooking Methods and Kitchen Utensils

The typical Lao stove, or brazier, is called a tao-lo and is fueled by charcoal. It is shaped like a bucket, with room for a single pot or pan to sit on top. The wok, maw khang in Lao, is used for frying and stir frying. Sticky rice is steamed inside of a bamboo basket, a huad, which sits on top of a pot, which is called the maw nung. A large, deep mortar called a khok is used for pounding tam mak hoong and other foods. It is indispensable in the Lao kitchen. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Key utensils: 1) Steamer Basket and Pot: Most often used in the preparation of sticky (sweet) rice, however, it can be used to steam vegetables, meats, or just about anything. 2) Ladle: Made from coconuts, mostly used to as 'dipping cup', i.e. a person would dip it into a liquid and drink from it. 3) Mortar and Pestle: Used to mash ingredients, such as is done in the making of Tam Mahung. 4) Sticky Rice Basket: These baskets are used to hold sticky rice once it has been cooked and cooled. 5) Platter or Tray: This tray is used to hold food put out all at once. It is a circular bamboo table which is called a taat.

Grilling, boiling, stewing, steaming, searing and mixing (as in salads) are all traditional cooking methods. Stir-frying is now common, but considered to be a Chinese influence. Stews are often green in color, because of the large proportion of vegetables used as well as ya nang leaf. Soups/stews are categorized as follows, tom, tom jeud, keng, and keng soua. +

"Ping" means grilled. It is a favorite cooking method. Ping gai is grilled chicken, ping sin is grilled meat, and ping pa is grilled fish. Before grilling, the meat is typically seasoned with minced garlic, minced coriander root, minced galangal, salt, soy sauce, and fish sauce, each in varying quantities, if at all, according to preference. The Lao seem to prefer a longer grilling at lower heat. The result is grilled meat that is typically drier than what Westerners are accustomed to. The Lao probably prefer their food this way, because they wish to keep their hands dry and clean for handling sticky rice. They also typically eat the grilled food with a hot sauce (chaew) of some sort, which takes away the dryness.

Eating Customs in Laos

The Lao eat with a fork in the left hand and a spoon in the right. The fork is used to push food onto the spoon. Sticky rice, however, is eaten with the fingers of the right hand, which are cleaned with a napkin. The rice of often formed into a ball and dipped into the dishes and used for mopping up like bread. Laotians generally don’t eat with chopsticks. Chopstick are generally only used for eating noodles and noodle soups. Most food was handled by hand. The reason this custom evolved is probably due to the fact that sticky rice can only be easily handled by hand. Because food is often eaten with the hands, Laotians always wash their hands before eating. They say that you tell if you have washed your hands well enough when sticky rice sticks to your hand.

In a traditional home, the meal is served while diners sit on a mat on the floor. As a sign of respect to a guest, the host and his family will not raise their heads above the level of that of the guest's. Therefore, they may bring the food in a squat position so as not to offend anyone.

Laotians like to eat in groups and sample many different dishes. When a group eats together a variety of different dishes are ordered and everyone samples the different offerings. Sticky rice is usually served in a lidded basket. The custom is to close the rice basket when one is finished eating. At the end of meals it is considered bad luck not to place the lid back on the basket. Guests may be served tea or fruit, which should not be refused. One should at least take a taste. It is not customary to bring a gift when visiting.

The traditional manner of eating is communal, with diners sitting on a reed mat on the wooden floor around a raised platform woven out of rattan called a ka toke. Dishes are arranged on the ka toke, which is of a standard size. Where there are many diners, multiple ka tokes will be prepared. Each ka toke will have one or more baskets of sticky rice, which is shared by all the diners at the ka toke. In recent times, eating at a ka toke is the exception rather than the rule. The custom is maintained, however, at temples, where each monk is served his meal on a ka toke. Once food is placed on the "ka toke" it becomes a "pha kao." In modern homes, the term for preparing the table for a meal is still taeng pha kao, or prepare the phah kao. [Source: Wikipedia]

Lao meals typically consist of a soup dish, a grilled dish, a sauce, greens, and a stew or mixed dish (koy or laap). The greens are usually fresh raw greens, herbs and other vegetables, though depending on the dish they accompany, they could also be steamed or more typically, parboiled. Dishes are not eaten in sequence; the soup is sipped throughout the meal. Beverages, including water, are not typically a part of the meal. When guests are present, the meal is always a feast, with food made in quantities sufficient for twice the number of diners. For a host, not having enough food for guests would be humiliating.

Traditional Eating Etiquette

Sanath Weerasuriya wrote in the Sunday Times: “While the Lao use their fingers to eat sticky rice (the consistency of the rice leaves no other option), they would never use their fingers, as the Siamese and Indians traditionally do, to eat white rice. Neither, do they use chopsticks like their Chinese and Vietnamese neighbours. Chopsticks are reserved for noodles. For white rice, the Lao use spoons. [Source: Sanath Weerasuriya, Sunday Times, August 12, 2007]

Alan and Jennifer Davidson wrote: “Eating at home, the Lao give the impression of being completely relaxed; hospitable, informal, and free of any feelings of hurry, anxiety or ostentation. Such, at least, is the impression which an occidental visitor will receive. In fact, however, the relaxed atmosphere invests procedures which are surprisingly formal. These have been described to me by Dr. Amphay Dore, formerly of Luang Prabang, with the proviso that the concepts and traditions to which he refers are those of the older generations and would not necessarily be familiar to younger Lao (although still implicit in certain features of their table manners). [Source: Alan and Jennifer Davidson <>]

“Briefly, one has to understand that two of the important concepts in Lao life are piep, which may be roughly translated as prestige, and lieng, which means feeding, giving nourishment. The concept of lieng gives rise to what might be called contractual obligations. Both concepts apply to Lao meals. <>

“This means, in practice, that at a family meal the father and mother, being the persons of highest rank in the family unit, take the first mouthfuls, followed by the other family members in descending order of age. Once this 'first tasting' has been accomplished, the meal appears to be free for all, but in fact is still subject to rules, for example that no-one should help himself at the same time as anyone else or go in front of a person of higher rank, which would cause that person to lose piep. <>

“A guest must observe the same rules, and also additional ones. If he begins to eat without first being invited to do so by his host or hostess, he will be deemed to have no piep at all. (The logic here is that it is only someone who has nothing who is entitled to appropriate what belongs to others.) He may not continue eating after the others have finished. If he is still hungry, it will be necessary for at least one member of the household to continue eating with him. However, even so, he cannot go on indefinitely, for custom requires that he should leave something on his plate. If he were not to do so, the host's piep would suffer, since it would seem that he had not provided enough.” <>

ALCOHOLIC DRINKS IN LAOS

Lao lao is a smooth but powerful rice liquor favored by Laotians. It is distilled over charcoal fires in old oil drums. A shot typically costs 25 cents and the first one is spilled on the floor for good luck and to pay homage to local spirits. A popular place to buy it in the Vientiane area is Ban Xanghai, where dozens of competing bootleggers have stills set up in front of little shacks. Customers pull up to these shacks on boats and pay $1 (sometimes a day's wage for a city laborer) for a liter. There is a similar place near Luang Prabang. The local lao lao from Phongsali Province is smooth, strong and tinted green ! During the final stage of the distillation process this rice whisky is running over fresh picked raspberry leaves absorbing the green color.

Beer Lao beer is the national brand. It is produced by a brewery outside Vientiane and has won several awards. Large bottle generally sells about $1. Other local brands of beer tend to be flat and more watery than the Beer Lao. Thai-produced Singha beer, Singapore-produced Tiger beer, and some Vietnamese and Chinese brands of beer are available. Some local bars in Vientiane offer cheap, local-style of draft beer.

Bars in Vientiane feature Beer Lao beer, Jim Beam whiskey and Stolichanaya vodka. Local people also drink beer or strong local alcoholic drinks (similar to Mekong whiskey sold in Thailand) made from sugar cane or rice and moonshine. In some rural arural you can see lao hai (jar liquor), a weaker form of lao lao consumers from a communal jar with reed straws. It is not always hygienic. Luang Prabang is famous for a sweet rice wine called khao kam . Imported beers, whiskey and liquor are available but expensive. The choice of French wine in Vientiane is surprisingly good and and nearly tax-free.

There is no legal drinking age in Laos. According to Wikipedia: “There are two general types of traditional alcoholic beverages, both produced from rice: Lao hai and Lao lao. Lao hai means jar alcohol and is served from an earthen jar. It is communally and competitively drunk through straws at festive occasions. It can be likened to sake in appearance and flavor. Lao lao or Lao alcohol is more like a whiskey. It is also called Lao khao or, in English, white alcohol. However, there is also a popular variant of lao lao made from purple rice, which has a pinkish hue. [Source: Wikipedia +]

In more recent times, the Lao state-owned brewery's Beerlao has become ubiquitous in Laos and is highly regarded by expatriates and residents alike. The Bangkok Post has described it as the Dom Perignon of Asian beers. In 2004, Time magazine described it as Asia's best beer. In June 2005, it beat 40 other brews to take the silver prize at Russia's Osiris Beer Festival, which it had entered for the first time. +

Lao Lao

Lao Lao is the powerful rice liquor favored by Laotians. It is distilled over charcoal fires in old oil drums. A popular place to buy it is Ban Xanghai, which is up the Mekong River from Vientiane. Here dozens of competing bootleggers have stills set up in front of little shacks. Customers pull up to these shacks on boats. A liter of the smooth but powerful liquor goes for about $1 which for a long time was day's wage for a city laborer. [Source: Peter White, National Geographic, June 1987]

Nicole Long wrote in Journeys Within, “Lao lao—a lovely, pungent fermented delight—is basically it is moonshine. When you head into a Lao lao Whiskey village, you know it. You can’t escape the smell. And if you think the smell is harsh, wait until you taste it! It is like gasoline. It will deliver quite a punch and it only takes a few shots to not be able to walk straight. Usually you will see Lao lao consumed by the locals out of water bottles. [Source: Nicole Long, Journeys Within, March 4, 2012]

Lao lao can sometimes be found at local restaurants or bought from the night market with an animal, reptile or, in this case, a bird inside. Lao believe that some of these provide extra vitality or increase your strength or fertility. I was told that this particular bird possessed the ability to give you energy and heal aliments. I think you have to believe this in order to consume it. Why else would you? And anyone will feel better after a couple shots.

Snake Whiskey and Rare Salamander Wedding Alcohol

Laos Snake Whiskey (50 percent alcohol, available for £13.99 online) is a special whiskey is infused with a real farm raised snake and various medicinal herbs. The whiskey is steeped for several months, which then imparts a unique flavour into the whiskey, it is quite an acquired taste. The story is that this is used in SE Asia as an Aphrodisiac; and it is also claimed to have medical uses, such as the treatment of back and muscle pain. Every bottle is unique in its own way so therefore the item purchased may differ slightly in looks but not size. Laos Herbal Snake (55 percent alcohol) is a rice-based whiskey infused with a real farm raised snake and a medicinal herb. [Source: Thailand Unique website]

On the discovery of a new salamander in Laos Bryan Stuart told the writer Laurel Neme: “In 1999, one of my Lao colleagues found the first examples of a salamander up in the northern part of the country. The actual discovery was rather unusual. He had gone home to a rural part of northern Laos for a wedding, and when he returned to the capital city, he brought back with him a few examples of a salamander that had been put into the local alcohol for medicinal purposes. The idea was you put this animal that has very toxic skin secretions into the alcohol, and then you drink the alcohol at a party, such as this wedding, and there's some perceived health benefits from doing so. In any case, it is really this sort of unusual circumstance where his attendance at this wedding resulted in bringing these salamanders to my attention. [Source: Laurel Neme, mongabay.com, December 21, 2011, Dr. Laurel A. Neme is the author of “Animal Investigators: How the World's First Wildlife Forensics Lab is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species” *-*]

Local people have historically for a very, very long time collected the animals in very small numbers for in some cases food, in other cases medicinal purposes, such as the wedding alcohol example I gave earlier, but that there was no real significant commercial trade in the species Alcohol preservation does over time dilute the colors; the colors do leach out of the specimen. But these were freshly collected, I think, and the colors were still apparent for these animals that had been preserved for medicinal consumption. They were immediately recognizable as something different. Their skin texture, their size, and the coloration were just totally unique. *-*

Drinking in Laos

James D. wrote on his Tikitiki blog, “What is different about Laos — really, really different – is not about what they drink but how they drink. In Laos, when you sit down to a table to drink with friends, you really sit down to drink with friends. What I mean is that you don’t get your own glass and sit sipping your beer and talking with each other. There is only one glass at the table and everybody shares that one glass. Somebody will fill the glass and hand it to whoever’s turn it is–probably yours if you are new at the table–and everybody else will wait until that person is done with their glass before they get a chance to drink. [Source: James D, Tikitiki blog, January 14, 2010, tikikiki.com/2010/01/wasting-brain-cells\=\]

The glass is typically passed around in a clockwise fashion, although if you are the guest chances are it’s going to end up in front of you a lot more. Each person gets their turn with the glass and passes it to the next person, typically filling the glass for that person before they pass. Does this sound like a slow process to? Think again. Because the end result is that while you’re sitting there looking at your beer and wishing you could enjoy it, you’re really worried about the person who is next and all the people who are waiting for you to drink, so what really happens is you end up drinking it as fast as possible. And in Laos, the beer just keeps on coming. \=\

“And Laos know how to drink. In my experience, they drink all day every day, and if you get in too good with the locals (I’ve got a problem with that), you are lucky to make it back to your room without being sucked into a table full of people who want nothing more but to eat and drink the day away. As if the sharing and generous spirit didn’t stop there, Laos people seem to have decided it is a good idea to have free alcohol on hand in the bars. Hey, it’s not such a bad idea, if you consider all the people that might not be able to afford a drink. \=\

While this might not be as true in the capital, I definitely found it to be true in the northern mountain ranges. Whenever I went into a bar, there was always a bottle or three of different kinds of whiskey lao, a bitter liquor that is usually homemade. But the price certainly made up for the bitterness. As long as you’re drinking in a bar, and probably even if you were, you are welcome to have as many shots of the whiskey Lao as you want…free of charge. Do I need even tell you what the end result of this policy is? As if the big bottles of beer Lao for one dollar weren’t enough… in Laos, drinking is about sharing. It’s about time with friends — as it is anywhere, I guess — but here, they really mean that. There is no real sense of personal property in Laos. There is no sense of, “This is mine and this is yours.” \=\

Drinking Customs in Laos

When partying, Laotians often sit on the floor of the home and drink lao lao and eat food. Drinking is a communal affair presided over by the host or an older man who plays the role of bartender and begins the festivities by pulling out a bottle and pouring the first shot on the floor to honor the house spirit and then downs a shot himself.

The host then pours lao lao into a shot glass and hands it to a person on his left to drink. The drinker raises his glass, make eye contact with the other guests, downs the shot in one gulp. The glass is passed back to the bartender who prepares a shot for the next person, who repeats the same ritual. Guests are expected to have at least nine drinks. It is very impolite to refuse. Subsequent drinks may be refused but refusing the first is almost a taboo.

On doing business in Laos, one website reported: “In the Lao drinking tradition, one person, usually the host, moves around the room offering a shot glass of whiskey to each guest. The server is obliged to drink first and must be witnessed by all those present. As a guest of honour, you can also take over this important position. The host will be delighted. But be careful. While making the rounds you will be asked by each guest to drink from the glass first. You may decline and avert their attention by a joke. The best approach is to say, "I'm not as strong as you. I'm counting on you to hold up the village tradition." [Source: seasite.niu.edu |=| ]

“You may have to drink enormous amounts of alcohol when in the provinces particularly when visiting villages. Women may retire from drink after initial rounds but this is not acceptable for men. Remember that for the villagers this may be the event of the century and it is important to join in the festivity. There are a number of ways of dealing with this situation assuming you are not alcoholic in which case you are in heaven. You can raise your glass at each toast but not consume when you put the glass to your lips. You can ditch the liquid in the nearest bush at an unobserved moment. Or if cornered into actually consuming the alcohol you can take it in your mouth and look for an immediate opportunity to spit it out when unobserved. As a final avoidance strategy, you can remove yourself from the line as your host approaches and you will escape the current round.” |=|

Lao Coffee and Non-Alcoholic Drinks

Fruit drinks are sometimes available. Make sure to try nam nam (ice limeade made fresh with a blender and pile of limes). Squeezed sugar cane and fresh coconut water are also widely available and good. Sometimes fruit drinks are mixed with salt and served in plastic bags. Some Lao people drink Vietnamese-style coffee with condensed milk. The coffee produced in southern Laos is exceptionally good but often what is served to tourists is instant coffee with powdered cream. Laotian-style (Vietnamese-style) coffee is made by pouring hot water through a stocking-like bag filled with coffee grounds and served filled with ultra-sweet condensed milk. Some Laotian also drink green, black, and jasmine tea.

Lao coffee is often called Pakxong coffee (cafe pakxong in Lao), which is grown on the Bolovens Plateau around the town of Pakxong. This area is sometimes said to be the best place in Southeast Asia for coffee cultivation. Both robusta and arabica are grown in Laos, and if you ask for arabica, there is a very good chance the proprietor will know what you are talking about. Most of the arabica in Laos is consumed locally and most of the robusta is exported to Thailand, where it goes into Nescafé. The custom in Laos is to drink coffee in glasses, with condensed milk in the bottom, followed by a chaser of green tea. The highly-regarded tea is also grown on the Bolovens Plateau. [Source: Wikipedia]

See Agriculture

Dietary Energy Consumption in Laos

When looking at the contribution of each group of food products in total dietary energy consumption reported in the LECS 3 , it appears that cereals and meat products contribute 88 percent together (76 percent and 12 percent respectively) of the dietary energy consumption of households in rural areas while this share falls to 73 percent in urban areas (65 percent and 8 percent respectively). Meat contributes to only 8 percent of the diet of urban household to the expense of prepared food or food away from home that represent 11 percent. The contribution of other food is almost the same between the urban and rural areas. [Source: World Food Program <<<]

Carbohydrates (mainly from staples) represent 73 percent of the total amount of calories consumed in the Lao PDR, followed by protein (from meat) and to a less extent fat. Consumption of rice contributing to more than 75 percent of total consumption of cereals is already above the WHO guidelines for a balanced diet, since there are other products providing carbohydrates. <<<

The minimum dietary energy requirement is 2,100 kilocalories per day and should be met by consuming a balanced and nutritious diet. The results from the LECS 3 show that 23 percent of the population cannot meet this requirement, which means that they suffer from food deprivation. Households from the southern regions consumed about 400 kcal per person per day more than households of the regions of the North with a higher share of proteins (20 percent versus 15 percent) and lower share of carbohydrates (69 percent versus 73-74 percent). This higher share of proteins in the Southern regions might be linked to the fact that livestock is mainly raised in this part of the country. <<<

At the national level, the amount of dietary energy coming from own production and collection represents 60 percent. This reflected the fact that on average, these two types of food are high energetic food at low cost implying that any changes in own food production of the lowest income group of population may impact on their food security. <<<

Food Consumption in Rural Areas of Laos

The CFSVA outlines that fat consumption in the rural Lao diet, which was found to be very low, essentially comes from the consumption of wild forest meat and fish. This shows that Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP) are essential for the rural population. These include wild animals such as deer, civet, macaque, badger, rat, squirrel, bat or birds, and aquatic animals such as fish, freshwater snails, crabs, and shrimps or little water insects. [Source: World Food Program <<<]

Over the seven-day recall period stipulated by the survey it was found that big wildlife was eaten by 6 percent of the households, small wildlife by 26 percent, wild fish by 81 percent, while only 20 percent of the households consumed fish from ponds, 41 percent poultry and pork and 42 percent consumed buffalo/cow meat. These findings are supported by other studies highlighting the importance of natural resources for the diversification and enrichment of the Lao diets. <<<

In order to gain a better understanding of food consumption patterns at the household level, households surveyed for the CFSVA were asked how often they eat meat, staples, vegetables, etc. in a 7 days recall period. The collected data have been used to identify households’ food consumption profiles by using a simple standardized tool called the Food Consumption Score (FCS). It takes into account: a) the theoretical dietary value of food items, based on nutrients density; b) the consumption frequency of these food items within a week that is reported by the interviewed households. The FCS aims to capture as much differentiation as possible among household with different consumption patterns. The FCS is calculated by the weighted frequency (days per week) of a household's consumption of different food groups. The consumption frequency of different food items within the same food group are added together (to a maximum of 7) and the value obtained is then multiplied by its assigned weight. The food consumption score is the sum of the weighted food groups. <<<

Analysis of Food Consumption in Rural Areas of Laos

Households with a poor FCS typically consumed staples and vegetables on a daily basis and seldom other food groups. This group of households is almost, but likely involuntarily, vegan. Total animal consumption for this group ranks between 0 and 1 day per week. Thus marginal animal protein intake is mainly based on a single day of consumption. This could be due to the low availability of wildlife or wild fish and lack of income to access meat. This group could potentially contain households with a high intake of meals consisting almost exclusively in glutinous rice at which rice balls are dipped into a bowl of soup (in the worst case containing only MSG, salt and dried or freshly pounded chili and/or water, but lacking meat and vegetables other than a handful of herbs). [Source: World Food Program <<<]

Households with a borderline FCS consumed higher quantities (with greater frequencies) of wild fish, poultry, pork, beef and small wildlife. The greatest number of households with borderline food consumption was found among the Austro-Asiatic groups (17 percent of this group), but the greatest share with borderline food consumption was found among the Hmong-Mien groups (23 percent). Given the limited information we have on the amounts consumed, the diverse amount of meat should not be overestimated in terms of nutrient intake. In fact, the low but diverse meat and fish consumption may suggest that these food sources are erratic. These findings suggest that the continued but managed access to viable wildlife and fish populations are crucial for households with borderline food consumption. This does not only apply to protein intake, but also to fat intake. Households with an acceptable FCS consume meat at least 3 days a week. They have a balanced food intake which provides nutrient density and sufficient dietary diversity. <<<

Households and Ethnic Groups with Poor Food Consumption in Laos

Seventy-seven percent of Lao people with poor and borderline food consumption are found in 7 provinces: Saravane, Sekong, Oudomxay, Bokeo, Luangprabang, Xiengkhuang and Huaphanh. [Source: World Food Program <<<]

Households with poor food consumption did not have similar dietary patterns, and consumed different items with different, but rare frequency. This group of households is not a homogenous group; this challenges nutrition interventions. Nevertheless, their food consumption score is so low that their diet is nutritionally unbalanced and inadequate despite whatever items they consumed. It seems that access to sources of proteins and fats are the biggest problem for the groups with the poorest food consumption score. <<<

The CFSVA validates the use of the food consumption score as an indicator for the FS status. Food insecure households are defined as households with poor or borderline Food Consumption Scores. Results of the survey indicate that: a) Households with poor food consumption score are mainly asset-poor. b) Households with poor food consumption scores mostly live in villages with little or no key infrastructure. c) Recently settled villages have overall a higher proportion of households with poor or borderline food consumption scores. <<<

Twenty-three percent of households living in a village for less than 5 years have poor or borderline food consumption scores compared to only 12 percent of the others. This supports other studies in the statement that resettlement causes temporary food insecurity for some villagers. This emphasizes the fact that Government of Lao PDR and partners should take special care when resettling people, ensuring that their access to vital food sources is not compromised. Alternatives to resettlement should be encouraged. <<<

Typically, households with low food consumption scores do not belong to the Lao-Tai ethnic group, but rather to other ethnic groups. Only 7 percent of the Lao-Tai are have poor or borderline food consumption scores. This is in contrast to Hmong-Mien groups where 28 percent are food insecure and 22 and 20 percent from the Sino-Tibetan and Austro-Asiatic groups respectively. In terms of total numbers, the Austro-Asiatic groups make up the largest share of the food insecure, and represent 44 percent the households with poor or borderline food consumption scores. Villages with unexploded bombs contamination have relatively higher percentages of households with poor or borderline food consumption 17 against 12 percent of households in other villages. unexploded bombs clearance should be an integral part of livelihoods support aiming to enhance agricultural production. <<<

Characteristics of Households with Poor Food Consumption in Laos

Villages with unexploded bombs contamination have relatively higher percentages of households with poor or borderline food consumption 17 against 12 percent of households in other villages. unexploded bombs clearance should be an integral part of livelihoods support aiming to enhance agricultural production. [Source: World Food Program <<<]

There are strong indications that households with low education and literacy skills are more prone to have lower food consumption scores. The head of 71 percent of households with poor food consumption and 66 percent of those with borderline food consumption has no or incomplete primary education. Households with adequate food consumption only 49 percent have no or incomplete primary education. Whereas 61 percent of the heads of household among the food insecure households can read and write a simple message, 77 percent of the food secure households can do the same. Among the households with low food consumption scores, only 36 percent of the spouses are literate, compared to 57 percent among the food secure households. <<<

In terms of livelihoods, households with poor and borderline food consumption scores are mainly farmers and unskilled labourers. Seventy-two percent of the food insecure households are farmers who do not report any fishing or hunting activities. Fourteen percent of households with poor food consumption and 9 percent of households with borderline food consumption are unskilled labourers. The corresponding figures for households with acceptable food consumption are 57 percent for farmers and 10 percent for unskilled labourers. <<<

The proportion of upland farmers among the households with poor or borderline food consumption scores is much higher than among households with adequate food consumption Forty-two percent of the poor and 40 percent of the borderline food consumption households are exclusively upland farmers, whereas the upland farmers represent only 17 percent of the food secure households. <<<

The Government of Lao PDR aims to eradicate upland shifting cultivation. Areas available for such farming have been severely reduced in the past few years due to concessions for commercial activities such as plantations. The food insecurity of upland farmers may be more due to this increasing limitation to and changes in their traditional livelihood system than to a lack of paddy land. <<<

In terms of access to land, households with poor or borderline food consumption are usually farmers with less than 1 ha of agricultural land. The land area of 45 percent of households with poor food consumption and 33 percent of households with borderline food consumption is between 0.01 and 0.99 ha, whereas among the remaining households only 23 percent have 0.01 to 0.99 ha. <<<

Ways to Improve Eating Habits of the Poor in Laos

A steady access to vegetable and other crops from kitchen gardens helps households maintain a varied diet. Seventy-three percent of households with poor food consumption and 62 percent of households with borderline food consumption had no kitchen garden, whereas among households with acceptable food consumption only 45 percent lack kitchen gardens. Similarly, 52 percent percent of households with borderline food consumption live in areas where more than 70 percent of the land is fragile . This compares to 27 percent of food secure households. [Source: World Food Program <<<]

Access to proper sanitary facilities is a problem for most households in rural Lao PDR, but the problem seems to be bigger for the food insecure households. For 68 percent of households with poor or borderline food consumption scores Disposal of human waste is inappropriate. The same is true for 51 percent of households with acceptable food consumption. <<<

Access to safe drinking water is a persistent problem in all of rural Lao PDR. Three quarters of households with poor or borderline food consumption depend on unsafe water sources, compared to 58 percent of households with acceptable food consumption.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Laos-Guide-999.com, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Page Top

© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.