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.
- Thai food is overall more flavorful.
- Laotian cuisine tends to be saltier but less tart (less lime).
- 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.
- There is a lot more seafood in Thailand. Well, there is also a lot more ocean surrounding it.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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…