Footpath Feasting: the Best Lao Khao Soi in Luang Prabang
“The best Lao khao soi in Luang Prabang is over there,” our guide Bounmee informed us proudly, pointing across the road, soon after we began our temple tour – which seemed to be starting out as a foodie walk.
A few minutes earlier Bounmee had been introducing us to kee meow or ‘cat poo’ biscuits, which we watched a woman making in the shop-front bakery of her home, and minutes later he was telling us about a terrific duck noodle soup joint down the street.
Now, we were strolling along Manomai Road and Bounmee was directing our attention to a simple, squat, open-fronted timber and corrugated iron shed, with a handful of wooden tables inside. There was 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 have been the city’s famous soup in massive pots at the back of the dimly lit restaurant-cum-grocery shop. I marked the spot on my Luang Prabang map and made a few notes.
“Khao soi?” I double-checked. I knew the Thai version, with its rich, creamy, coconut curry base with crispy noodles on top, but at that point on our Luang Prabang trip, I knew little about Lao food and had no idea if the soup was similar.
The food in Laos is all at once distinct from and similar to that of its neighbours. It has been influenced by, and has in turn occasionally influenced, Burmese, Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and various Chinese regional cuisines, and we had already enjoyed a few Lao plates that were similar to Thai dishes, such as larb, the spicy minced salads.
“What’s it like?” I asked.
“Yummy!” Bounmee responded, 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 swooning over shimmering temples in the sweltering heat, we bid goodbye to Bounmee, found a tuk-tuk, and made a beeline for that spot on my map.
It was mid-afternoon and the place was almost empty of diners. There were just two local men – one loudly slurping a bowl of soup, another leaving with a plastic bag of take-away. While khao soi is now eaten at any time of the day, it had traditionally been a breakfast soup according to Bounmee, as had the khao piak sen he mentioned, so we didn’t jump to conclusions.
Besides, the soup pots were colossal – they were cauldrons! – and there was no shortage of women pottering about the place, which meant it must get busy at some stage.
One woman wandered about with a baby. Another woman dried wet dishes while sitting down at a table. And yet another appeared to be responsible for selling the dry goods and snack foods from an area in the corner of the shack. A further woman sat counting the day’s takings. And then there was the girl who watched over the soups.
All women appeared bemused by our presence. Their soup joint was obviously not in the guidebooks.
“Sabaidee! Khao soi, khawp jai,” I said cheerily, holding up two fingers and pointing at each pot, hoping my smile communicated the rest. My Lao vocabulary consisted 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; always comes in handy). Our stay in Luang Prabang was short so I hadn’t learnt any numbers.
Fortunately the soup girl read my mind even if she had no clue what I was saying, and, after shyly returning the smile, she reached for two large plastic bowls into which she placed the cooked flat rice noodles and a scoop of pork, before ladling a broth from each pot into the bowls.
Next, she generously sprinkled slices of finely chopped spring onions onto both soups, but to the slightly darker soup (the khao soi), she added a big dollop of a rich, red, ragu-like relish of minced pork, fermented soy bean, tomato, and chilli.
One of the women followed 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 – and a container of shrimp paste.
Rice cakes in plastic bags hung, along with other snacks, from a wooden pole beside our table. The local bloke who was packing his take-away soups on the back of his motorbike soon after we arrived took a bag or rice cakes with him while the guy at the next table was dipping his rice crackers into his soup. After a taste of the khao soi, I didn’t think I needed them.
On the table was a selection of the ubiquitous condiments found in Southeast Asia – dried chilli flakes, sugar, chilli sauce, fish sauce, and so on – a selection of which Terence added to the khao piak sen, which he opted to test out.
Terence is a fan of Vietnamese pho, and the kao piak sen, a lighter albeit slightly spicy and peppery Laotian noodle soup is of a similar consistency to pho.
I gently stirred my mountain of relish into the khao soi, turning the solid broth into a rich, hearty soup. I tasted it again and it was perfect. It was a little sour, it was a little sweet, but most of all it was full of the wonderful flavour of the pork meat and that fantastic fermented relish. To me, it needed no accompaniments.
The relish was similar to one of our Thai favourites, nam prik ong, and it gave the soup all the depth of flavour and complexity it needed. It was sublime. Terence agreed. There was little conversation for the next 15 minutes as we worked our way through a couple of the best dishes we’d ever tasted.
That was 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 could easily see how our guide considered it to be the best khao soi in Luang Prabang. So much so that we resisted trying the soup anywhere else again during our stay.
Our reasoning? If there was a Lao khao soi better than that in Luang Prabang, then we might not have ever left.