For the most part, Laos has a rice-based diet so it’s easy for those with coeliac disease or following a gluten-free diet to find enjoyable things to eat.
Lao cuisine is heavily influenced by its Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese neighbours so you will find a variety of dishes from those countries on the menu, along with French dishes left over from its colonial past.
The French influence has unhelpfully (for us, at least) brought fresh baguettes, croissants and wheat flour to the table while the Chinese influence has brought egg noodles and instant noodles containing wheat. As is often the case in South-East Asia, soy sauce (which contains wheat) is ubiquitous.
These recommendations are based on my experiences in Laos but obviously recipes will vary in each kitchen, so it’s always best to alert the chef to your food intolerance. However, in Laos, although a lot of serving staff spoke basic English, it was quite difficult to explain about gluten, and there seemed to be little recognition of a gluten-free diet (it is not marked on menus, for example), even in the touristy areas.
Your best bet is to go for dishes that are naturally gluten-free and ask for soy sauce to be excluded. As always, it is practically impossible to avoid cross-contamination in the kitchen.
I wouldn’t say that Laos is the easiest country in which to maintain a gluten-free diet, but it’s by no means the hardest.
A meat stew made with aubergine, lemongrass, chillies, wood ear mushrooms and green beans, this is a popular dish in Luang Prabang. If you like lemongrass, you will love Ô-lam.
Làhp (similar to the Thai dish, Laab) – main picture
Minced chicken, pork or beef with fresh herbs, particularly mint. Served with sticky or steamed rice, it makes a filling meal.
Kaipen (Fried Seaweed)
Sheets of paper-thin and flash fried seaweed, often coated with sesame seeds, are served as a bar snack or appetiser in a lot of Laos restaurants accompanied by a fiery chilli paste.
Fẽr (similar to the Vietnamese dish, phô)
You will find plenty of rice noodle soups on the menu in Laos, however, be very careful when ordering that you don’t get wheat (or egg) noodles instead. See below my warning about Khao Soi soup.
Fresh spring rolls – wrapped in rice paper.
Fresh spring rolls are a tasty snack or lunch-time option. Occasionally, you can find fried spring rolls made from rice paper instead of pastry. However, as they will share the fryer with other wheat-based products, the fried versions are best avoided in Laos.
Fried rice and stir fries
A back-packer favourite, fried rice with chicken, seafood or vegetables is on offer pretty much everywhere in Laos and you will also find a delicious range of stir fries. Ask for your dish to be prepared without soy sauce.
Luang Prabang sausage
Unlike its British counterpart, sausages in Laos are not stuffed with barley or wheat making them a safe option for coeliacs. Fragrant with local herbs and lemongrass, they’re a delicious treat.
Papaya salad (similar to the Thai dish)
Strands of green papaya intertwined with green beans, dried shrimp, peanuts and doused in a thin chilli sauce, papaya salad is a delicious way to reinvigorate the taste buds. I ate it with steamed rice for a complete meal.
Khao Nom Kok (coconut pancakes)
I first tried these on the night market in Luang Prabang and absolutely loved them. Since then, I have tried them elsewhere but the ones in the night market were still the best!
Made from rice flour, coconut milk and sugar, the little pancakes are cooked in a special pan making them very safe for coeliacs as there is no risk of cross-contamination.
Crunchy on the outside with a silky texture in the middle, they are traditionally served in a banana leaf and very addictive. You usually get about five which is a good serving as they are quite rich.
Mango sticky rice (similar to Thai dish)
You can find mango sticky rice in Laos which is one of my favourite naturally gluten-free deserts. Fresh mango served with warm, sweet sticky rice and a serving of slightly salty coconut sauce. Yum!
And a dish to watch out for…
Khao Soi soup (Lao version)
This traditional Lao soup comprises flat rice noodles topped with minced pork, tomatoes, peanuts and chillies, served in a herby broth. However, be very careful when you order this from a menu as it shares a name with a completely different soup which originates from Northern Thailand and uses wheat noodles.
Menus in Laos don’t always distinguish between the Lao and Thai versions, so you will need to check the description of the dish closely and ask the serving staff before ordering to determine which version you are going to get. One is naturally gluten-free, the other is most decidedly not. I struggled to make myself understood when asking whether the noodles were made from rice or wheat (the answer was no, yes, no), so your best bet is to choose a restaurant which specifically says it is made with rice noodles…or give it a miss.