With culinary heavyweights Vietnam and Thailand for neighbors, Laos’ cuisine is seemingly always on the losing end of a simile. It’s like Thai, but with less spice, less intensity. It’s kind of Vietnamese, but not as Vietnamese as Vietnamese. Sure, it shares the flora of these tropical countries (thick stalks of water spinach, squat pumpkins as orange and sweet as a Butterfinger, mountains of feathery herbs so crisp and sharp they clear your sinuses) and a few of those powerful pantry ingredients (fish sauce, coconut milk, chili sauce), but it deserves a chance to be considered on its own.
Case in point: Larb is the national dish of Laos, a plucky mix of protein (raw or cooked, from fish to buffalo) dressed with lime juice, chili, toasted rice powder and a battery of aromatics—mint, cilantro, holy basil, lemongrass, and spring onions are all fair game, depending on the cook in the kitchen. Some extreme versions you’ll come across in the countryside may be spiked with blood, bile, or other ante-upping ingredients, but generally speaking, this is a pretty farang-friendly staple, and something you should plan to eat at least once a day during any trip to Laos. Now get going.