Although heavily influenced by the cuisines of its neighbouring countries, most Lao dishes retain their own individual identity and flavours. The most obvious similarities are with the dishes in Northeastern Thailand but there are also a number of crossovers with Cambodian and Chiang Mai cuisine.
Most Lao meals involve a large serving of raw vegetables and herbs served undressed as a side order. Unlike in Thailand, savoury dishes are never sweet in Laos. In fact, the famous Sweet and Sour dishes often associated with Asian cuisine are not a favourite in Laos. Many Laos dishes are actually quite bitter, based on a belief that sweet things are bad for the body. Herbs are widely used in Laos, especially mint and dill, both considered essential ingredients. Galangal is also used in a number of popular Laos dishes along with more common herbs such as garlic, lemongrass and Kaffir Lime.
Thanks to Lao eating habits, dishes are often served at room temperature and the staple food is sticky rice, so most dishes are eaten by hand. The most famous Lao dish is Laap Lao (or larb), which is tangy and spicy mixture of herb and lemon marinated meat or fish. The dish is served with a combination of herbs, raw vegetables and spices. Another Lao staple dish is a spicy green papaya salad dish known as Tam Som. Grilling, boiling, stewing and steaming are all traditional cooking methods applied in Laos. Stir-frying has also become more common, but this is still widely considered a technique imported from China. Stews are quite often coloured green from the vegetables used, which include the medicinal Ya Nang leaf. Soups are divided into different categories that include both clear and milky soups, curries and flavoured consomme.
Lao cuisine offers considerable regional variation depending on the fresh ingredients readily available in a particular area. The French also left their legacy, particularly in the capital Vientiane where baguettes and pate are are still sold on the street. Fine French cuisine is also widely available in restaurants and hotels across Laos, while Asian fusion dishes have become popular in tourist areas. On the street, ping gai (grilled chicken), ping sin (grilled meat) and ping pa (grilled fish) are all tasty options. The meat is generally seasoned with a selection of chopped herbs and spices, as well as soy sauce and fish sauce. The Lao people differ from their Thai cousins as they like to grill their meat for longer at lower heat, which means the meat comes out drier. Classic grilled food is eaten with a spicy sauce or 'chaew', which combats the dryness.