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Me with a spoonful of deep-fried grasshoppers!
As an American, I’ve lived most of my life in a shiny glass bubble and I’ve always been a picky eater.
Traveling is my time to experience bold new adventures, embrace street foods and broaden the glossy sheen of my bubble. If you’ve read my my Korea’s Fear Factor Foods then you know I like to have fun with my ‘Fear Factor Foods‘ series. One of my more exciting moments in travel actually comes with discovering unique food culture shocks!
For instance, on my first day in Laos, visiting Vientiane’s night market, it occurred to me I didn’t have an iota about Laotian street food. Not one. Ignorant American. But could you blame me… how many Laotian restaurants do you know of in the U.S.?…
My point, exactly.
Standing between me and the growling pain in my stomach- which was becoming more audible my the second- was a thin line of food tents. I was eager to get my first sampling of Laotian food.
Okay, well not quite. To say I was ‘eager to sample the food’ is a bold-faced lie. I was curious to see Laotian food and if it seemed friendly enough, then maybe I’d consider trying it.
This was my discovery…
Four types of Fear Factor Foods in Laos:
1. Mystery Meats & decoding shapes
Street food in Laos can feel ambiguous at times. Just because you can’t see the animal, doesn’t mean it’s not there and not knowing what’s in a dish is just as scary… as discovering what its contents really are. Perusing the shishkabob meat vendors, I found myself attempting to decode shapes and wondering, What the hell kind of meat comes in that size and shape? Rationale might say that if meat comes cooked in a consistently odd-looking shape, then I might try to match an animal, rodent or reptile of that demeanor.
The ones behind the fish completely puzzled me.
For instance, I kept seeing this meat which was reminiscent of a rat. Surely, Laotians don’t eat rat. I dismissed the idea. Then when I was in Luang Prabang shopping at the produce market, lo and behold, I saw it… Total food culture shock.
Fear Factor Foods in Laos: Whoa… Rat jerky!
It’s things like this which make me glad I’m vegetarian!
2. Deep Fried Bugs
Bugs and insects are a common snack theme around Asia so by now I don’t feel food culture shock when I see them: Thailand, Korea, Cambodia, China and yes,… Laos. They love the bugs and it has surprisingly good protein such that even the United Nations has promoted it as a more eco-friendly diet. But one mystery that always confounds me, though: How do they catch all these bugs?
I attempted to ask this pleasant gentleman (below) how he got his grasshopper/cricket insects– i.e. bug traps, harvesting, chasing them down? He responded by tossing one of those deep-fried thingies back in his mouth and after a crunch or two, offered me one.
Well, so much for growing beyond language barriers…
Salty. Tastes just like shrimp!
3. The foods that make you go… hmmm.
There’s mystery meats… and then there’s mysterious purposes!
Fear Factor Foods in Laos: Animal hide jerky?
Let’s swish and gargle blood by the pint? Do shots? Sprinkle it on for salad dressing? Use it as sauce for our pork sashimi? (above)
…and what’s up with that brown liquid?
• The Yum vs. Hmmm… vs Ewww!
90% of the time, food is all about presentation. We eat with our eyes before we let it into our mouths. Let’s face it, would you eat something that looked funky, unfamiliar and mildly unappetizing?
For instance, these were some Laotian street foods that gave me a mild case of fear factor in Laos
— MILDLY UNAPPETIZING —
— MODERATELY UNAPPETIZING —-
And then BAM!
“Safe foods” aren’t always safe
Remember the adage- looks are deceiving. Even something which looks ‘safe’, though not presenting fear, can offer unpleasantness. When I finally mustered the courage to order, I chose the dish below. It looked veggie harmless enough, but my first bite was so spicy, it burned just sitting in my mouth. What you see in that package is exactly how far I got eating it.
Does ‘Going local’ mean starvation?
Generally, if the city or town is in Lonely Planet, you’ll almost always find at least a couple of tourist restaurants around; starvation isn’t a factor. But if you truly want to experience local foods, you’ll need to be daring, compromise your eating habits and know you may not end with a full stomach.
In Luang Prabang, I’d find Laotian street foods, such as a cheese baguette (the baguette is common there) sandwich, fruit salads with yogurt and fruit smoothies. The grilled fish on a stick tempted me many times and I’d heard from other travelers, it was delicious.
But going back to my first night in Laos- this (below photo) ended up being my dinner!
Anyone have fear factor foods in Laos to add to this list or perhaps pleasant raves of their experiences with Laotian food culture?
Related Laos articles on GRRRLTRAVELER:
- Photo Essay: Nong Khiaw, a traveler’s elbow and armpit of beauty.
- Photo Essay: Oh my Buddha!!! (Wat Si Sisket, Vientiane)
- What will your Kip buy in Laos budget accommodations?