The Irresistible Noodle Dish Taking Laos by Storm
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this foodie find will warm your soul. And your belly.
By Daniel Malloy
Dive in, your impulses tell you as soon as the fragrant bowl of layered deliciousness is delicately placed on the table. But you mustn’t approach with haste.
Khao soy deserves reverence, and you, dear eater, must put the final touches on this Laotian hit before you can become a satisfied slurper. So let us belly up to a noodle shop in scenic Luang Prabang to take a trip through this increasingly popular cultural collision.
The process begins with tangy fermented soybean paste, the critical element that can be hard to find outside Southeast Asia. Mix with minced pork belly, garlic, onion and cherry tomatoes. Simmer for six hours, and there’s your meat paste. The blood-red mixture is combined with soft, broad rice noodles and broth. At homes in the countryside, the stock is typically made from buffalo bones. In city restaurants, more often than not, it’s store-bought stock hyped up with MSG — an unfortunate little secret shared with OZY by Joy Ngeuamboupha, owner and chef at Tamarind Restaurant in Luang Prabang, who makes khao soy occasionally at home. His wife is a devotee.
When the steaming bowl arrives, it comes with a fresh basket of sides. The final step is in the hands of the eater. You must sift through the green beans, Thai basil, lettuce, chilies and mint, perhaps some coriander or watercress, to decide what is worth adding and mixing in to the concoction. Fish sauce, soy sauce, chilies, sugar and vinegar are available to tinker with the flavor profile. If you’re flush with cash, spring for the flash-fried sticky rice cake for an extra 12 cents. Crumbled into the soup, it crackles like Rice Krispies as it sinks in to become a salty, soggy delight.
Once the bowl is brought to equilibrium, grab your spoon and chopsticks and get to work.
The spice hits the back of your tongue but does not overpower. The green beans provide a welcome snap. The noodles are even more tender than the pork.
Not bad for about $2.
This seemingly timeless dish has only grown popular in recent years in these parts. Originating from the Tai Lü ethnic minority, which lives in parts of China, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam, it showed up in Luang Prabang around the 1990s. Along with a cousin of Vietnam’s pho noodles, khao soy has become increasingly popular for breakfast and lunch, Ngeuamboupha says. The dish’s growth is a sign of rising incomes in still-impoverished Laos, as eating meat was once an extreme rarity. Nonetheless, khao soy is seen as a delicious and relatively cheap way to feed a crowd. In the capital city of Vientiane, the sauce is lighter. Farther north, they crank up the soybean paste but skimp on the meat. That makes the Luang Prabang version the Goldilocks choice.
That is, if Goldilocks liked her porridge with a haymaker of flavor.