The Culture of Lao Food
Food brings us together. To better understand a culture, look at how people eat. And nowhere is this more true than in Laos, where food is a communal activity that brings people together. Days start early as sticky rice, that has been soaking overnight, is cooked along with a range of dishes. Traditionally the food is cooked over an open flame, fueled by a tree branch that gets pushed along as the end burns away. In a country which has known real hunger, people want to be able to offer you food. Even the greeting of ‘Sabaidee’ is often replaced by ‘Ginn khao leao bor?’ or ‘Have you eaten already?’. And so most people will try to make sure they have something to offer visitors. And of course you must have good food to offer to the monks when they come by on their alms rounds. By giving to them you gain merit, and maybe that will make the difference to passing the exam, or recovering from sickness quickly. Cooking plenty of food first thing is an important start to every day.
As well as giving food to the monks to gain merit, it is also needed to feed those loved ones who have left us. Even when they have gone from this world, they will still need feeding. It is also important to appease the spirits all around us. As such, most people have spirit houses nearby and leaving food and drink for the spirits who dwell there will keep them happy. Of course the tree spirits need to be looked after too. And the river spirits. And all the others. This is why you may also see a ball of sticky rice on trees or bridges, on the side of boats, or on walls.
Food also plays a part at wedding ceremonies. The bride and groom have a baci, a traditional ceremony where blessings are given to everyone attending. To symbolise the marriage, they will share an egg which marks the joining together of two people whose lives are then intertwined. It is this moment, more than any other, that signifies the moment when the marriage begins.
Lao Food Preparation
Whilst eating is a communal affair, so too is the food preparation. Most Lao food is prepared by chopping and bashing, and traditionally this is done by the women. From a young age girls will join their mum, aunts and older sisters, learning from those around them how to make the same food that their mothers and grandmothers learnt in this way many years before. This is also the opportunity for gossip to be shared and advice sought. And when there is nothing left to share, then the singing begins. And some of the lyrics would make a fisherman’s wife blush! It is easy to join in the cooking but do make sure you don’t leave the pestle in the mortar. It is believed that if you do this, the women in the household will become infertile.
Laos is a country of fishermen. Fish provide a lot of the protein, and fish is used in almost every dish in some form. A word of warning though, if you have a whole cooked fish, be careful not to turn it over on your plate. Eat the flesh from the top, then peel off the bones and eat the rest. Otherwise, it is believed that the turning over of the fish will cause a fishing boat to capsize and you wouldn’t want to be responsible for that! This is even seeing a more modern interpretation lately. With less people on fishing boats, and more in cars, you might be responsible for the car flipping over. So whatever you do, be careful with that fish.
Lao Food Recommendations
Above all, enjoy your food. People are very generous about sharing their meals and their laughter. Food is life here in Laos. If you are planning on visiting and would like to learn more about the role food plays in Lao culture, there is no better way than jumping right in – fingers first! Start with a brief introduction to Lao cuisine, before trying some of our recommended foodie experiences in Laos. If you are looking for a detailed insight into some favourite Lao dishes, then we highly recommend this post from A Life Without Borders.