If you’ve spent even one day in Luang Namtha you’ve probably discovered the excellent Night Market. You may have even ventured the 10 minute walk to the morning market (It’s worth it. Go!). And while you’ll find familiar Asian fare at these spots like noodle soup and spring rolls, you will also encounter some seriously interesting Lao edibles. Much of this food is harvested right from the forest and because it’s unfamiliar it can intimidate even the most adventurous eater.
But don’t let that stop you! Here is a teeny tiny guide to some local foods of Luang Namtha. These are some of my favorites and I hope they will start your eating adventures off on the right foot.
Pickled Mustard Greens
This dish is popular and you will notice a few vendors who selling nothing else. The greens are a variety of mustard green that have been lactofermented (think sauerkraut or kimchi). They are tart, salty and flavored liberally with fresh ginger and fresh chili. It’s a good accompaniment to a meal so grab a little plate and eat it cold, along with sticky rice and whatever else strikes your fancy.
Rattan Shoot Salad
Another cold vegetable dish, these long white stalks look related to bamboo, but are actually the young shoots of the rattan palm. This is the same rattan used to make wicker chairs and baskets, but as a young plant it is tender and tasty. You can buy a plate of whole shoots or get a salad version, chopped up and mixed with chili, lime and other aromatics. This was one of my favorite dishes and so good that I was happy to eat it as a salad, forgoing the rice. It’s on the spicier side and the pricier side (but not really…) at 10,000 kip for one plate, which is about $1.25.
Fried Bamboo Fritter
These “fritters” look like tasty golden bundles of straw, about the size of your hand. They are, in fact, lightly pickled bamboo shoots, tied up, battered, deep fried and filled with a tasty mixture of minced pork or chicken. Deliciously salty, the bamboo remains moist and the filling is tasty without being too spicy. If you arrive early you can get one freshly fried, but even hours-old fritters are good and worth a try.
Yeah, tree frogs. If you’re interested in eating the “weirder” animals you’ll have your pick at the markets here. Stuffed bullfrogs on sticks, grilled rat-type-animals, silkwork larvae and huge crickets and roaches are all available. Most of these creepy crawlies I enjoy only with reservations (“it’s good… for a cricket”). But I recommend the little crunchy fried tree frogs, caveats aside. They are fried so crispy they remind you of pork cracklins or whatever crunchy bits are left at the bottom of the frying pan. Eat them head, legs, bones and all, and dipped in awesome sweet spicy sauce. Great as a beer snack. This is another food that goes for a bit more, at 10,000 kip, but worth it.
This one hardly deserves to be on the “strange food” list as it’s at home on the eastern European menu — my Russian grandma makes a similar (though less flavorful) version. Basically it’s a very smoky, salty and very delicious roasted eggplant puree. But as we’re in Laos, not Russia, it’s also blessedly spicy. It’s not the most exotic dish nor the most attractive one, but it may be my favorite bite of food I’ve tried here. Eat it with sticky rice, as usual. I could easily put away a few plates, and at 5000 kip each you can afford to.
Rice Cake with Tamarind
This dish is only available at the morning market. You’ll see the attractive bowls laid out with different shapes of rice cake: cubes and sticks, stubby noodles and long ones. Most people approach the stalls for takeaway but you are more than welcome to sit down, point to a bowl and dig in. The dish is very simple: smooth rice dough in the shape of your choice served with a ladle of tart tamarind water over the top. The beauty of this dish is that the tamarind broth can go sweet or savory. Make a sweet and sour treat by adding brown sugar, or flavor your bowl with chili paste, salt and MSG. Or all of the above! A big bowl of rice cake costs 3000 kip and leaves you full. Or you can add an egg for a more complete meal (Try the ones with a hole in the shell. They’ve been emptied, mixed with delicious things, refilled and cooked. Awesome!)
Are these dishes all Luang Namtha’s has to offer? Of course not! There are pork knuckles and fish roe, steamed squirrel and fresh water algae awaiting you. But hopefully now you can approach at least a few Lao dishes with confidence. Get out there and taste away!