Lao food is distinct from other Southeast Asian cuisines. One is that the Lao meal almost always includes a large quantity of fresh raw greens, vegetables and herbs served undressed on the side. Another is that savoury dishes are never sweet. "Sweet and sour" is generally considered bizarre and foreign in Laos. Yet another is that some dishes are bitter. A couple of the green herbs favoured in Lao cuisine but generally ignored by their neighbours are mint and dill, both of paramount importance.
Galangal is a cooking herb that is heavily favoured in Laos, unlike in neighbouring countries. It appears in probably the majority of Lao dishes, along with the conventional herbs: garlic, shallots, lemongrass, etc. Another distinctive characteristic of Lao food or more properly, Lao eating habits, is that food is frequently eaten at room temperature. This may be attributable to the fact that Lao food served with sticky rice is traditionally handled by hand.
Grilling, boiling, stewing, steaming, searing and mixing (as in salads) are all traditional cooking methods. Stir-frying is now common, but considered to be a Chinese influence. Stews are often green in colour, because of the large proportion of vegetables used as well as ya nang leaf. Soups are categorised as follows: tom, tom jeud, keng and keng soua. Keng is soup that contains ginger and padek, and keng soua is keng that contains both galangal and ginger. Tom jeud is mild soup that isn't flavoured with strong spices.
The staple food of the Lao is sticky rice. The Lao national dish is laap, a spicy mixture of marinated meat and/or fish that is sometimes raw (prepared like ceviche) with a variable combination of greens, herbs and spices. Another Lao staple dish is a spicy green papaya salad dish known as tam mak hoong or tam som – generally dressed with fermented crab (pudem) and a chunky, intense fish sauce called pa daek, resulting in a stronger flavour than the milder, sweeter Thai style.
"Ping" means grilled. It is a favourite cooking method. Ping gai is grilled chicken, ping sin is grilled meat, and ping pa is grilled fish. Before grilling, the meat is typically seasoned with minced garlic, minced coriander root, minced galangal, salt, soy sauce and fish sauce, each in varying quantities, if at all, according to preference. The Lao seem to prefer a longer grilling at lower heat. The result is grilled meat that is typically drier than what Westerners are accustomed to. The Lao probably prefer their food this way, because they wish to keep their hands dry and clean for handling sticky rice. They also typically eat the grilled food with a hot sauce (chaew) of some sort, which takes away the dryness.
Lao cuisine has many regional variations, according in part to the fresh foods local to each region. A French legacy is also apparent in the capital city, Vientiane, such that baguettes are sold on the street, and French restaurants (often with a naturally Lao, Asian-fusion touch) are common and popular.