Travel Diary: Where To Eat In Luang Prabang, Laos
If you asked me to describe the food in Laos, I would start by telling you what it's not. It's not like Thai food, but it's similar. It's not like Vietnamese noodles or Cambodian curries, though some dishes feel like they could be eaten in either country. It's not like Chinese stir fry or Burmese salad spreads, yet there are fresh vegetables and flavorful herbs in just about everything. Laotian food is a different thing entirely, and it's absolutely delicious.
It's our final day in Luang Prabang, the peaceful ancient capital of Laos, and after stuffing our faces with noodles at the night market and sipping on mango smoothies along the Nam Khan River, we learn to prepare some of the country's most celebrated dishes at Tamarind, a local restaurant and cooking school.
Laotian food is its own distinct cuisine, and the food is as good if not tastier (and healthier!) than the better known cuisines of its neighbors. But the chef running our cooking class says the country's landlocked placement between Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, China and Myanmar has prevented its culinary traditions from spreading all over the world.
Locals start their days with a staple: small balls of sticky rice dipped into jeow, a spicy, herb-filled sauce. We learn to make this first and then move onto fish steamed in banana leaves, ground chicken stuffed in lemongrass and spicy Lao curry. Chili, basil, mint, coriander, galangal, kaffir lime, lemongrass and dill seem to be in everything. So I am, without a doubt, in heaven.
For food lovers visiting Luang Prabang, do not miss these four spots:
1. Learn to make sticky rice at Tamarind.
Book yourself a cooking class on Tamarind's farm just a few miles outside the center of town. You'll cook among lotus ponds surrounded by palm trees, and you'll probably never want to leave (until the mosquitos come out... then you'll definitely want to leave). Pro tip: bring bug spray and/or wear long pants.
2. Have a drink along the Mekong River at Viewpoint Cafe.
Watch monks in saffron-colored robes cross the Mekong River on delicate bamboo bridges.
3. Drink a smoothie on the patio of Utopia.
A backpackers' haven with views of the Nam Khan River, Utopia is situated on the other side of town from Viewpoint Cafe. But its chilled-out deck and reliable wifi makes Utopia a nice pitstop during the day or start to your morning. Order the Saffron Robe Smoothie -- a ridiculously delicious blend of mango, turmeric and cinnamon.
4. And most importantly, head to the night market for street food alley.
There really is only one place you must eat at when in Luang Prabang and that's in the alley of street food vendors just off the town's main thoroughfare, Sisavangvong Road. You can spot the alley easily because there's usually a small crowd gathering around a few fruit carts and crepe stands at the corner.
Prepare for the most impressive buffet of your life as you walk by table after table of grilled meats, fish, noodles, fried rice, dumplings, salads and fruits. Along with a cold beer, a meal there will cost you a few dollars at most and taste better than most of the food you've eaten on your trip.
It was unclear to me if all the food was from the same restaurant kitchen or if each table represented a different vendor, since there's a lot of repeat dishes throughout the alley. Regardless, the food I had tasted great. (Disclaimer: I favored all carb-related food items over the meat).
For Vegetarians: There is one all-vegetable buffet table a ways down the alley on the lefthand side.