“The best Lao khao soi in Luang Prabang is over there,” says our guide Bounmee, pointing across the road, soon after we begin our temple tour – which actually appears to be starting out as a foodie walk.
A few minutes earlier Bounmee was introducing us to kee meow or ‘cat poo’ biscuits, which we saw a woman making in the shop-front bakery at her home, and minutes later he’ll be telling us about a duck noodle soup joint down the street.
Now, we’re strolling along Manomai Road and Bounmee is directing our attention to a simple, squat, open-fronted timber and corrugated iron shed, with a handful of wooden tables inside. There is no sign and nothing whatsoever to identify the dilapidated eatery as Luang Prabang’s best khao soi place.
Nothing except the silhouette of a woman stirring what must be the city’s famous soup in massive pots at the back of the dimly lit restaurant-cum-grocery shop. I mark the spot on my Luang Prabang map and make a few notes.
“Khao soi?” I double-check. I know the Thai version, with a rich, coconut curry base and crispy noodles on top, but at this point on our trip, I know little about Lao food and have no idea if it’s similar. While the food in Laos is distinct from that of its neighbours, it has still been influenced by Burmese, Thai, Vietnamese, and Chinese cuisines, and we’ve had a few Lao plates that are similar to Thai dishes, such as larb. “What’s it like?” I ask.
“Yummy!” Bounmee responds, grinning. “It’s flat rice noodle soup with pork. Lao people love it. The khao piak sen is good too.”
Several hours later, famished after half a day walking the length and breadth of Luang Prabang looking at temples in the sweltering heat, we say goodbye to Bounmee, find a tuk-tuk, and make a beeline for the spot on my map.
It’s mid-afternoon and the place is almost empty of diners. There are just two local men – one loudly slurping a bowl of soup, another leaving with a plastic bag of take-away. While khao soi can be eaten at any time of the day, it’s more of a breakfast soup (as is khao piak sen) so we don’t jump to conclusions.
Besides, the soup pots are colossal – they’re cauldrons in fact – and there’s no shortage of women pottering about the place, which means it must get busy at some stage. One woman wanders about with a baby, another woman dries wet dishes while sitting down at a table, another appears to be responsible for selling the dry goods and snack foods from an area in the corner, another woman sits counting the day’s takings, and then there’s the girl who watches over the soups. They all look bemused at us being here. It’s obviously not in the guidebooks.
“Sabaidee! Khao soi, khawp jai,” I say cheerily, holding up two fingers and pointing at each pot, hoping my smile communicates the rest. My Lao vocabulary consists of a whopping four phrases our guide taught us on the Mekong River cruise – sabaidee (hello), laa gawn (goodbye), khawp jai (thank you), and bo pen nyang (it’s nothing/no problem). Our stay in Luang Prabang is short so I have not learnt any numbers.
Fortunately the soup girl reads my mind and, after shyly returning the smile, reaches for two large plastic bowls into which she places the pre-cooked, flat rice noodles and a scoop of cooked pork pieces, before ladling each of the broths into the bowls. She generously sprinkles slices of finely chopped spring onions onto both, but to the slightly darker soup (the khao soi, I guess), she adds a big dollop of a rich, red, ragu-like relish of minced pork, fermented soy bean, tomato, and chilli.
One of the women follows me to our table with a plate of fresh greens – crisp snake beans, fragrant mint, aromatic Lao basil or pak i tou, which has smaller leaves and is more lemony than the Thai basils, and halves of lime – with a container of dried shrimp paste on the side.
Rice cakes in plastic bags hang (along with other snacks) from a wooden pole beside our table. The local guy who was packing his take-away soups on the back of his motorbike soon after we arrived took a bag with him and the guy at the next table is dipping his rice crackers into his soup, but after a taste of the khao soi, I don’t think I need them.
On the table is a selection of the ubiquitous condiments found in South East Asia, dried chilli flakes, sugar, chilli sauce, fish sauce, and so on, a selection of which Terence adds to the khao piak sen, which he’s opted to test out. He’s a fan of pho after all, and the kao piak sen, a light albeit slightly spicy and peppery Laotian noodle soup is of a similar consistency to Vietnamese pho.
I gently stir my mountain of relish into the khao soi, turning the thin yet solid soup into a rich, hearty, pungent broth. I taste it again and it’s perfect. It’s a little sour, it’s a little sweet, but most of all it’s full of the flavour of the pork meat and that wonderful fermented relish. To me, it needs no accompaniment.
The relish is similar to one of our Thai favourites, nam prik ong, and it gives the soup all the depth of flavour and complexity it needs. It’s sublime. Terence agrees. There’s little conversation for the next 15 minutes as we work our way through a couple of the best dishes we’ve ever tasted.
This is our first taste of Lao khao soi and although we don’t usually like to make sweeping statements about anything being the best of such and such a place until we’ve been able to do the rounds and compare, we can easily see how our guide considers it the best khao soi in Luang Prabang. So much so that we resist trying the soup anywhere else again during our stay.
Our reasoning? If there’s a Lao khao soi better than this in Luang Prabang, then we might not ever leave.