How to Eat Your Way Through Luang Prabang, Laos
I used to think of myself as a pretty adventurous eater, but that was from the safety of my home in Chicago where adventure meant going for Indian, Thai, and Mexican all in one week. In Southeast Asia, that term takes on an entirely new meaning. Snake soup? Sure, why not. Smoked bat? Why of course. Fat juicy worms? Well, the line must be drawn somewhere.
As you walk through the morning market in Luang Prabang, Laos, the smells can be bothersome, the number of people . . . maddening, and the sheer chaos . . . bewildering. Unlike most markets, I’ve been to, and I’ve been to A LOT, this is the first time I’ve seen the vendors selling their goods on the ground, literally on tarps on the street. The space to walk is about 2 meters wide if you’re lucky, so there is a lot of jostling about but don’t get deterred.
The deeper you go, the better it gets, and that’s where the food stalls appear. We picked the one with the most locals (a good idea for anywhere you travel) and sat at a small communal table. We ordered two bowls of steaming khao soi, or pork noodle soup, a typical Laotian breakfast for $1.75 each.
The soup mama grabbed a handful of the fresh noodles piled up on her table and threw them into a boiling pot of soup, swished it around and ladled it all out into two large bowls. She topped it with spicy minced pork and slid them over to us. We were about to start slurping when she handed over another large bowl of fresh mint, chilies, limes, bean sprouts, sliced bamboo, and banana flower and motioned for us to add it all in.
We almost got a spoonful when a plate of long beans, tomatoes, and some dark sticky fermented paste mixed and chili sauce appeared. Not sure what to do, we dumped it all into our bowl and got smiling nods of approval from the locals around us.
This basic bowl of pork noodle soup just became extra.
Wait for it . . .
We waited patiently, just in case there was more until she gave us the universal sign to start eating. The limes balanced out the unknown pungent paste and the fresh pop of mint cooled my mouth after the chilies set it ablaze. The layers of flavors were harmonious, and I ate every bite.
Full of soup I was ready to explore more of the market with its colorful mounds of veggies, the slightly assaulting smell of mystery meats mixed with fish, and all sorts of dried oddities. Turns out that no matter how full I am from my meal five minutes ago, when I smell coconut cooking and see a man making little fluffy coconut balls, I must eat it, whatever it is. For a few cents, warm coconut balls are the perfect dessert after breakfast.
Markets are the best way to eat local food on a budget. Read this great article about how to keep your food costs down when traveling.
Laos gained its independence from France in 1954, and the food still retains that influence. French cafes are throughout the old city center where sitting with your morning croissant and coffee is a must. We went to Le Banneton Café, which is conveniently directly across from a massive temple, and snagged a table on the narrow sidewalk. This place gets loads of internet posts, so it was crowded, mostly with tourists and a few locals.
We ordered the spinach quiche and a toasty baguette stuffed with two types of pork, cheese, and pickles which was worth the hype, the quiche not so much, the crust was a bit soggy. But after I finished my quiche, I ordered another baguette with homemade jam and butter and devoured that too while the monks went about their daily business on the temple grounds. Two hours, four coffees, and $17 later it was time to explore more.
For our last meal (not before prison, just before we left town), we decided to splurge and go for the adventurous tasting menu at Tamarind ($24 per person). Situated across from the Nam Kham River the setting is lovely. When we called to make a reservation, they warned us that adventurous means eating whatever is fresh from the market that morning. Since we had already been there, we knew what that might mean; 10 cm long cockroach type beetles with horns, fat juicy looking worms, and field rats.
But never ones to walk away from a challenge, we were committed. It all started simple enough, sour snake soup, ten dips varying from eggplant to river weeds to be eaten by hand with sticky rice, all delicious and innocuous. I said to myself, “Self, you got this.” Maybe it was the lemongrass-ginger vodka drinks, but I was feeling confident.
And then the main courses came. Another 14 small dishes of traditional Laotian food. The plate looked like a scene out of horror movie, crickets, baby frog, bat, fermented fish stomach, and fat crunchy beetles. We waited for an explanation of each course, trying not to look horrified.
“Self, you can do this, you even paid for this. Get munching.”
Surprisingly, I liked the smokiness of the bat. And the baby frogs eaten whole? Well, they were covered in an onion sauce, so who wouldn’t enjoy them? Those fat crunchy beetles, not so much. Crunchy on the outside and gooey on the inside—not a fan.
But overall, I was proud that I tried everything and didn’t secretly spit anything into my napkin to feed to the neighborhood cats. Not even the fermented fish innards which were so shockingly fetid that it made my eyes water. Thank goodness for vodka and the fistfuls of sticky rice that I shoveled into my face to get past the flavor.
Now, where are those yummy coconut balls for dessert?