From outward appearances, it may seem that Vietnamese and Lao food are hard to distinguish. While both cuisines may use rice as a staple, that’s really where the differences end. Rice and a border is really the only commonalities between the two countries.
I’m going to explain in this post what influences, ingredients, cooking methods, and rising popularity for each dish is so that you can better understand the differences.
Comparing Flavors and Tastes Between Laotian Food and Vietnamese Food
What’s the main difference between Vietnamese Food and Laotian Food?
Vietnamese food typically has foods that have more mild flavors. Dishes are typically brought out with herbs, vegetables, and spices on the side. Typically, it’s up to the diner to put mix the food together (example is the infamous pho dish).
Lao food typically has cuisines that have herbs and vegetables minced in. Similar to Vietnamese food, most often, the herbs and vegetables aren’t simmered for long periods (like Thai food). Lao cuisine also uses Padaek, which is fermented fish sauce, as an ingredient for a lot of it’s foods.
Lao food also uses more glutinous rice, as compared to Vietnamese food which uses jasmine rice. Lao food uses more curry than Vietnamese food, which is why Lao food is known its sour, sweet, and spicy flavors.
What are some similarities between Vietnamese food and Laotian food?
For both countries, some of their cuisines use jasmine rice to accompany a main entree or dish. Seriously, that’s where the differences end.
Why is Vietnamese Food More Popular Than Lao Food?
Popularity is a relative term depending on where you reside. The concept of Vietnamese food is probably due to the fact that the war may have brought about familiarity with the country. It can be assumed that’s where the start of the exploration of Vietnamese cuisine in the west began.
While Laos was part of that war, the country itself wasn’t as publicized on the news as it’s counterpart.
Why are there more Vietnamese restaurants than Lao restaurants?
While from outward appearances it may seem like there are more Vietnamese restaurants, chances are, you may have experienced Laotian cuisine without even realizing it. In the United States, Laotian dishes are a big part of Thai restaurants.
If you have ever seen “drunken noodles” in a Thai restaurant menu, you’ve likely seen other Laotian dishes next to Thai dishes. Drunken noodles were actually invented in Laos.
Vietnam vs. Lao – Countries, Cultures, and Food Origins
Where is Vietnam and Laos?
Both countries are right next door to each other. Laos is on the west and Vietnam is on the right. Laos is a landlocked country, so you won’t see a lot of seafood dishes in Lao cuisine.
Both countries share a border, but their cooking styles are vastly different.
I was born in Vietnam, but raised in Laos. I can tell you without a doubt that the dishes from each country are unique in their own right.
Vietnam Cuisine Origins & Influences
Vietnam has some french colonial influences as can be seen by it’s banh-mi dish. When Mongolia invaded Vietname back in history, they brought beef with them, which is how beef became part of the diet. The Chinese also influenced their cooking techniques by introducing deep frying as well as the use of chopsticks. Laos influenced them by introducing egg noodles, flavorful spices, curry, and coconut milk.
Lao Cuisine Origins & Influences
Lao cuisine is influenced by North Eastern Thailand as well as Cambodia. Europeans that visited Lao introduced to tomato, papaya, corn, and pineapple through the Columbian Exchange.
Popular Shared Dishes
Top Three Most Popular Vietnamese Cuisines
Cold Spring Rolls
These spring rolls are absolutely healthy. They are made with rice paper that is moistened. Inside, vermicelli noodles, along with sliced pork, a few different herbs, and shrimp are wrapped together. It is then dipped in a delicious peanut sauce.
Pho is kind of like chicken noodle soup is for westerners. It is beef or chicken broth that is simmered after a burnt onion is added to give this delicious aroma that also includes ansi seeds. It’s eaten with vermicelli noodles and is absolutely delicious.
Vermicelli Noodles with Egg Rolls
I’ve added vermicelli noodle dishes to all three of the popular Vietnamese cuisines, I totally see that. This one makes the list because it’s not wrapped nor is it dunked into a soup. Rather, it is topped with chopped crispy egg rolls, sliced pork, pickled carrots and jimeca, and lightly doused with a sweet fish/chilli sauce combination along with cilantro, green onion and basil.
Top Three Most Popular Laotian Cuisines
Lao Minced Salad
This is a delicious salad of minced meat, vegetables, and herbs that have a sweet and sour taste to it. You eat it with sticky rice. It’s often made of beef, chicken or pork and is absolutely delicious!
Papaya salad is a popular favorite at Thai restaurants that serve Lao cuisine. It’s papaya made with fermented fish sauce, tomatoes, sugar and a whole bunch of herbs. It is not for the faint of heart. Those that try it absolutely love it.
Red Spicy Curry Soup
This is a crowd pleaser. If you love curry, this dish is for you. Typically, it starts out with lemongrass and garlic simmering together with a bit of oil. Once the aroma hits, coconut milk and red chilli paste is added along with broth for a noodle dish that is absolutely heavenly. This dish is my American born kid’s favorite dish out of all of my Lao dishes I make.
Cooking Laos Dishes Versus Vietnamese Dishes
Lao dishes typically will use a Paedek base or a curry base as a starting point. Laos dishes will typically be paired with sticky rice. What this means during the cooking preparations is that when you start cooking the main entree, 30 minutes before that entree completes, the sticky rice needs to come along with it.
Vietnamese dishes typically evolve around noodles or rice, and are generally served at the same time. Vietnamese dishes do not require any simmering and is typically served immediately after finishing cooking.
Most often in both cuisines, herbs like basil, cilantro, and green onion are cleaned and prepared as a side dish to add to the main course.
What is healthier – Vietnamese Food or Laotian Food?
If you really had to generalize, Vietnamese food may be healthier due to its non-use of coconut milk, which has a high fat content. In addition, Laotian sticky rice has more calories than that of vermicelli noodles and jasmine noodles that Vietnamese dishes use.
Main Ingredient Differences in Vietnamese Dishes versus Laos Dishes
Vietnamese cuisine typically has five elements of flavor – sour, bitter, sweet, spicy, sand salty. Fish sauce, oyster sauce, jasmine rice, rice noodles, and pickled vegetables are very popular ingredients in Vietnamese dishes.
Lao cuisines are typically known for three main flavors – sour, sweet, and spicy. Padaek, lime, sticky rice, chilli paste, and mint are heavily used within Lao dishes.
Do either cuisines use chopsticks?
Chopsticks are not as popular in either country except for the use of noodle dishes.
In Laos, people generally use their hands with sticky rice as the main staple dish for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Chopsticks are taken out on the rare occasion for noodles.
In Vietnam, people use chopsticks more and sometimes with jasmine rice along with noodles. However, in both cultures, chopsticks while used, aren’t the sole eating utensil.
Recommendations for Ordering Vietnamese Food or Lao Food for the First Time
Here is my favorite dish for first timers to a Vietnamese restaurant:
Pho is pho sure where it’s at! (See what I did there?) The delicious broth along with the vermicelli noodles will have you craving more. Make sure you add in your own hoisin sauce. While this might not be on the table, I love adding just a touch of sugar to give it a little more flavor (that’s the Lao side of me kicking in). So make sure you ask your waitress, she’ll be happy to oblige.
Here is my favorite dish for first timers to a Lao restaurant:
Remember, I told you that you can find most Lao dishes in a Thai restaurant, because those are more popular. Ask your waitress if they have any Lao specific menu items!
I would highly recommend the papaya salad as an appetizer along with sticky rice (which normally comes with it). If you can’t do the Paedak (my American born kids don’t love it), I would try the Lao Minced Salad (most commonly seen in menus as Larb or one of the many names I listed above).
Summary of How Vietnamese Food and Laotian Food Are Different
Now that we’ve taken a closer look and have done a comparison between Vietnamese food and Laotian food in terms of popularity, restaurant ratios, popular shared dishes, cooking styles, ingredients used, and healthy rating, I hope you have the information for your next recipe or trip to your closest restaurant.
In our global melting pot due to the age of travel in wide spread information which includes recipes and travels from stories around the world from different perspectives, Lao food has started trending as another cuisine to explore for those who have been yearning for a dish outside of the typical westerner cuisine options.
With this blog, my hope is to allow you to try these dishes for yourself as well as bring you some of my grocery hauls from Asian store so that you can start exploring the world’s palette right at home.
What do you think you’ll try first?
If you’ve already tried these cuisines, let me know what dish you tried and what your favorites have been.