Sticky rice, laap, papaya salad: this is Thai food, right? Not originally. These well-known Asian dishes that have traveled the globe to appear on Thai restaurant menus everywhere are actually Laotian in origin. You might not have known that, because compared to neighboring Thailand and Vietnam, Laos has a relatively low profile when it comes to cuisine. To overlook the food in this mountainous, landlocked, stunning country, however, would be a huge mistake. Spicy, bitter and incredibly fun to eat, Laotian cuisine is worth your full attention.
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HuffPost Taste spoke with Soulayphet Schwader, the Executive Chef at New York's Laotian-inspired Khe-Yo, to find out everything you need to know for a basic primer on Laotian food. Schwader was born in a village outside of Vientiane, Lao's capital city, before moving to Wichita, Kansas when he was three years old. Wichita is home to a big Laotian community, where Schwader and his family could shop at Laotian markets and eat in Laotian restaurants. When he moved to New York, he was surprised by the dearth of Laotian food -- ingredients and restaurants -- and eventually he opened Khe-Yo, a spectacular restaurant offering even better food.
The first thing to know about Lao food is that sticky rice is the national staple of Laos. Laotian people eat sticky rice, also called glutinous rice, at basically every meal. Schwader told HuffPost Taste that sticky rice is something like "90 percent of [Laotians'] diet." It's "eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner." Shwader added, "Protein is never the focus." Sticky rice is the centerpiece of every meal, and the next important aspects are vegetables and dipping sauces.
Sticky rice is eaten by itself or used as an edible utensil. You're meant to form a little mound of rice into a scooping device and pick up food with it. If you've never eaten sticky rice this way, give it a try and you'll see what we mean when we say that Laotian food is really fun to eat.
After sticky rice, another national staple is padaek (or padek), which is a paste made from cured, fermented fish. The condiment is about as ubiquitous as sticky rice, which is to say it's eaten with or put in just about everything. Chef Phet, as Schwader's affectionately known, explained that this "stinky stuff" is unique to Laos, and not everyone loves it. It's responsible for the serious umami flavor in Laotian food, imparting a rich taste like anchovies would to Western cuisine. Laotian cuisine practically yells "umami" from the rooftops, and it's got padaek to thank for that.
Schwader told us that he was once on the border of Thailand and Laos, and the same dish, papaya salad, was offered in two versions: Thai or Laotian. The Laotian version contained padaek, or "the funk," as they call it at Khe-Yo.