Top 10 Differences Between Laotian and Thai Cuisine

by Victoria on February 3, 2013

Laos Grilled Riverweed

Since this is my first time traveling to Laos after being to Thailand many times as an adult, I can now differentiate a few things between the cuisines of both countries. This is all based on a few conversations with the locals, as well as what I noticed when I was eating at more authentic restaurants or street vendor’s places.

  1. Thai food is overall more flavorful.
  2. Laotian cuisine tends to be saltier but less tart (less lime).
  3. The spicy meat salad (or larb) is not made quite as spicy as it is in Thailand, although they may just have been serving it that way to me, thinking I can’t handle it.
  4. There is a lot more seafood in Thailand. Well, there is also a lot more ocean surrounding it.
  5. Laos has riverweed. This comes from the fact that it has many more rivers flowing through it and it is one of the traditional dishes of the country. I have never eaten this anywhere else in the world. Has anyone else?
  6. After talking to a cook at one of the local restaurants in Luang Prabang, he did say that food in general in Laos is less spicy than in Thailand. They do tend to serve it to farang (or foreigners) without spice unless you ask to make it spicy or the “real” way, as they don’t think we can handle it. But honestly, even when I asked for spicy, I often barely could detect any heat level.
  7. The papaya salad is always made with a fermented shrimp paste (pala, in Thai). This has quite a pungent odour and taste, and it definitely puts some people off. I don’t actually mind it too much, and have tried it in a variety of dishes, but I would prefer eating items without it. While you could ask to not have this added into your papaya salad, it would still always be left with a hint of the pungent paste since they would mix it in the same mortar and pestle (unless they went to the trouble of thoroughly washing it out first).
  8. There is much less sugar in a lot of Laotian food, which is most noticeable in their shakes, desserts, and other types of drinks. In Thailand, the sugar can be completely overwhelming, and if you order a Thai iced tea, they won’t just add in a huge scoop of sugar, they also top that with sweetened condensed milk, and evaporated milk. Those already have enough sugar, so I always have to specify “Mai Sai Namdam.” Don’t put sugar! This is really refreshing in Laos, and I love how the kids aren’t growing up rotting their teeth out at such a young age and expecting everything to be so sweet that there’s barely any other taste sensation left to notice.
  9. Water buffalo is used in a variety of ways. Not just for grilling the skin and eating it like chips with your beer, but it’s also ground up for a special spicy chili paste that is served. It’s also another protein option for practically any dish, besides the usual chicken, pork, or tofu.
  10. In general, Laotian food is similar to the food found in Northern Thailand, specifically Issaan food. This becomes obvious with the ubiquitousness of the more traditional dishes, such as the variety of sweet and spicy sausages, larb, and the presence of pala (the fermented shrimp paste mentioned earlier) mixed into many of the sauces).

Now that I’ve had the opportunity to compare these two countries’ cuisines, I’ve just arrived in Cambodia and will be able to throw a third into the mix! Stay tuned…

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Jim November 14, 2013 at 12:20 pm

Victoria, thanks for the feedback on Lao/Thai food. Typical Lao and typical Siamese Thai food are actually very different. The Lao food is the food of the Lao people in Laos and northeastern Thailand (Esaan). Most western people believe that since Laos is smaller and so much less populous than its neighbors Thailand and Vietnam, it is more likely influenced by these countries in terms of food and cultures. But they don’t know that Laos used to be larger (as it included Esaan) and more populous before it was invaded and depopulated by Siam almost two centuries ago. First the Lao people eat primarily sticky rice, while the Thai prefer white rice. Second, dishes like papaya salad, beef jerky and a variety of Larb made of chicken, duck, fish and meat, or Lam, Jaew Bong are Lao. These dishes are very hot when prepared by typical Lao people. The Thai have developed their own version from these Lao dishes. Some Viet dishes, like Pho and Nem, are also popular in Laos. The Thai dishes are more diverse and include a lot of sea food, curries, noodle, etc. They are usually delicious and colorfully presented. The Lao have begun to improve and diversify their food since the country has opened up recently while the Thai has been a tourist mecca and advertised its food and cultures to outsiders several decades earlier. Most young Thai don’t even realize some of their favorite dishes that they enjoy eating (with usually the prefix Thai- attached on them) are actually of Lao origin.

Victoria November 18, 2013 at 12:44 am

Thanks for the additional insights, Jim! I LOVE Esaan food, so it looks like I should be thankful for Laos creating it to begin with!

Alex June 26, 2014 at 3:00 am

Yes, I’d have to agree with Jim. Many Thai dishes are influenced and/or originate from Laos. And ‘real’ Lao dishes, such as papaya salad, are actually very spicy whereas Thai dishes are more sweet, so I’d have to disagree with you there. And to reiterate what Jim has said, Thailand has always had enormous tourism in their country, unlike Laos who has just opened up their country to visitors in the last decade or so, which is why many of their dishes are believed to be Thai, when in fact, it is Lao!


Victoria June 26, 2014 at 10:39 am

Interesting! I guess I’ve eaten more southern and central Thai dishes, which are spicier and more sour than sweet, so I’m comparing different regions based on my experiences. I have to go back to Laos now and try to find out more – my two weeks there wasn’t quite enough to really get the chance to explore all of the food around the country. 🙂

Mann July 19, 2014 at 9:07 pm

Alex. We have no an evident which country originate papaya salad. But I heard that Laos people will get angry when the people say that it originate from Thai. But Thai people don’t care because everyone acknowledge that papaya salad is Thai cuisine. Lao’s culture is very like to northeastern Thailand (Esaan) culture. So, some of cuisine that originate in Esaan can influence to Lao or vise versa.

dave December 29, 2014 at 10:03 am

Jim already said parts of thailand/siam was actually laos until the French divided the lands up..its evident that the people are of lao origin so i would believe that papaya salad is of lao origin

Hello from the other side September 17, 2016 at 11:21 am

According to an article from a famous Thai scholar Sujit Wonthes, he concluded a very high possibility that Somtam was originated in Thailand by Chinese-Lao residents living along Chaopraya river in early Bangkok period. The food has the same cooking method with already existed food called Som (which is Lao cuisine) and they adapted papaya with it for the first time in Bangkok as papaya was just brought there from Malacca (and Thai people call papayas “Malakor” derived from Malacca).

nancyinyoface February 19, 2017 at 5:13 pm

My best friend is Laos and Thai. I love Laos food!!!

Diane July 12, 2017 at 11:26 am

My husband is from Luang Prabang, where the best food in the country originates. Even if you ask for spicy, they will never give your the real spice. I tell them “Lao spicy” no then they look to my husband for confirmation. Other have already stated how Laos used to be larger and that area of Thai food is really Lao in origin. The joke among Lao people is that you take Lao food and add peanuts to make it Thai!?

Ben August 14, 2017 at 10:01 pm

Hurrrr….Here come again.

Funny that many of you guys said for sure that Papaya salad is originated from Laos. Make me think of the time I saw a self-proclaimed expert of Thai food said that larb is the northeastern Thai food and northern Thai food has no larb. Such expert.

Think about this: papaya (also chill and tomato) are not Asian. THEY ARE FROM AMERICA continent. They were introduced to SE Asia via Portugese merchants and mercenaries in 16-17th century. Now think about this: How can they travel to SE Asian? Of cause by sea. Then think more: Does Laos has any sea?

Those Westerners came here and trade with Siam and Myanmar, which has ports and do a huge trade with other countries. that’s the reason why they can dominated the area for centuries according to many historians: Economy.

(And no. God I don’t know why you guys are so easily belief everything. Lan Xang or Laos ancient kingdom did not that big as Jim said. The north of Thailand was Lanna, not Lan Xang. The central, Sukhothai then Ayuthaya. Northeast or Issan? This area was torn between Ayuthaya and Lan Xang for decades. It’s not fall under Lan Xang all the time. Instead of that, Lan Xang was usually fell under Ayuthaya most of the time. Dare you to look at the world history for what I say. The only true Lan Xang are the area on the right of the Mekhong. Vieng Chan, Luang Prabang, Pak Se, etc. If you said that Issan was occupied by Lan Xang from time to time, with the same logic Normandy should belong to England instead of France or Texas should belong to Mexico too)

I don’t say that papaya salad was invented by Siam, at the same time I would not conclude that it was invented by Lao. Remember that Siam know these ingredient before Lao. So it can be anything. Siam invented than Laos took it, or vice versa.

I’ve seen a lot of comments regarding Laos and Thailand, whicj really makes no sense in academic thinking. Just some example: I have seen some say Laos adopted red, green, etc, curry from Indian then spread it to Thailand and other coutries. (You can see some comments like this from the comment section in the link below) Not think about the world map and ask yourself:If you are ancient Indian merchant, how can you go to Laos WITHOUT crossing Siam or Myanmar? From China then go south? That makes no sense since you have to cross mountains with forest and full of diseases (that’s one reason why China, although so powerful in the past, hardly invade the south)

Truth is curry is from Indian. That’s right. But it’s not introduce to SE Asian via Laos. It was introduced via Tamil sailors who land in Myanmar, south of Thailand and Malacca strait. Then spread to the north and to Laos. Another evidence: coconut milk. Most curry use coconut milk as a substitute for khee or Indian butter. Now think about this:Does Laos cuisine use coconut milk? Almost none. Why? Because Laos has no sea. Simply. Not to talk about other common ingredients in Thai cuisine: Shrimp paste, dried shrimp. All are from the sea, which Laos has none.

Now for you who don’t know (and it seems to be alot in the page). Thai cuisine can be separate into 4 groups: Issarn, north, south, and central. For Issan, that’s right. It’s close to that Laos. For others, no. North is closed to that of Myanmar. Khao Soi and Hunglay curry are good example. Both are from Myanmar. For central, it’s Mon (a minority in the East of Myanmar) and Siam, also mixed by other such as Chinese or even Potugal (ask Thai which deserts Thai learn from Portugese. Most Thai can answer you.) since it was an impotant port. For south, it’s full of Indian infulence which spread via Malaysian and Indonesian cusine.

And if you said that most thai nowadays are Laos, again you are wrong. Actually “Thai” is nationlity which comprised of many ethics. Those who say that ususally don’t know about Kuy (a minority group in Issarn), Lua (locals of the north), etc. Just example. See the guy who play guitar on this clip. Thai? May be Lao if you follow the words of others? Truth is he is Thai by nationality. By blood: his grandfather was a Danish who worked under King Rama V, who married to a girl of Sawas-Chuto clan (which is Mon). On his mother’s side: his grandparents was Chinese married to Siam. None of them are Laos. and it’s not just him. Most Thai are the same. to say that people from Laos ethic is one of present (or ancient) day thai is true, but to say that the majority of Thai was from Laos is really stupid. Some like saying the majority of American are Irish.

Actually there is an theory and explanation why you guys belief it that way, but I would not say it here. that’s another topic. Just read what Mr.Jeez said below and think for yourself.

…I thinks some Laotian are nationalism without fact.

Somtam (papaya salad ) is not origin from Laos. Don’t forget Laos is landlock country and papaya is the native plant of latin America. It’s impossible that Laotians would known papaya before Khmersor Thai. Chili also origin from Latin. With same reason Laotian can’t claim papaya salad as Laos origin.

notice: every that Laotians claim. you must request evidence from them. In ASEAN culture page. No one see any evidences from Laos. But for Vietnamese or Thais, they chat with evidence such as antiques book, portrait, etc.

Pho from Vietnam or Tom yam from Thailand also. OK,it may be origin from outside their countries but they adapted into their uniques recipe which everyone on earth accept but Laos can’t accept…

Sorry for any typo.

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