Laap, the Laotian National Dish
Laap (ລາບ) is a meat-based salad flavored with lime, garlic, fish sauce, mint leaves, spring onion, and ground toasted rice, which adds a subtle nutty flavor. The meat could be chicken, pork, beef, buffalo, duck, or fish, and some restaurants offer vegetarian options such as mushroom or tofu. Dried chillies, banana flower, and raw vegetables can be served on the side, and regardless of the meat (or non-meat) of choice, it's difficult to find a bland plate of laap. This dish is flavorful and filling while also being refreshing on a typical hot Lao day.
There are cooked and raw versions of laap, and some include organ meats such as tripe, liver, and intestine. We recommend avoiding raw versions for the sake of your stomach, except at more upscale restaurants like Mak Pet, where kitchen hygiene is maintained to a high standard. Places with an English menu are unlikely to serve organ meat unless specifically stated on the menu. Cheaper restaurants will frequently add MSG, so say 'bor sai peng ngaa' if you'd rather skip this.
Laap is available at just about any restaurant in Laos, although they usually won't have the full spectrum of available meats. A dish of laap can cost anywhere from 15,000 kip in cheaper restaurants to 45,000 kip for a large plate in some of the better restaurants. The quality varies, but even a low-cost laap is a satisfying option.
Lao Kitchen is one of the best restaurants in Vientiane for trying laap. Their duck laap is especially tasty, and they also have an excellent tofu laap for vegetarians. Ban Lao Beer Garden has reasonable prices and a pleasant outdoor seating area. If you want to splash out on a full on Lao experience, head to Kua Lao and enjoy some traditional music and dance along with the food.
The Lao say that you aren't truly full until you've had sticky rice, and a plate of laap would be incomplete without it. If you want to eat laap the Lao way, order it along with any other dishes and family style sticky rice, and try eating it with your hands: Scoop a bit of laap with enough sticky rice to fit inside a closed hand. It's considered impolite to leave grains of rice in communal food plates, but there's no rule against mashing the rice in the palm of your hand for a few seconds before dipping it into the food. With a cold Beer Lao to wash it all down, you might struggle to find a more perfect dish to finish each day for the rest of your trip.
If laap isn't your thing — or perhaps especially if it is — don't forget to try tam mak hoong.
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