Dishing up Lao-style kao soi in Luang Namtha
Mornings are chilly in Luang Namtha, even during the hot season.
We're staying 6 kilometers from town, in a wood cabin on stilts next to a river. After midnight fog creeps up the river's banks. At 6am we pedal our upright one-speeds through a gauzy grey curtain.
We ride fast to keep warm, gliding past a tumbledown wat where a dozen monks and novices are queuing for their morning alms procession. We pass vendors squatting roadside behind rattan trays heaped with chubby sausages, fish-stuffed banana leaves cross-hatched with grill marks, and waffles (yes waffles, and not for tourists either). Business owners fold back the wooden accordian doors on their shop houses, women and a very few men shuffle into a nearby market. Bustling now, it will be all but deserted by the time the fog burns off.
After we pass the market there are stretches of hushed nothingness, spent brown-stubbled rice paddies stretching from either side of the road. Traffic is light and all I hear as I count kilometer markers (5 kilometers to Luang Namtha town, then 4, 3 ...) is the whir of the bike wheels.
In thirty minutes we've reached the main market in Luang Namtha town. Finally, after three tries on three subsequent mornings, we're in time for the peak of trading. At this hour the front section is liveliest: a concrete square patch-worked with plastic tarps displaying herbs and green vegetables, three types of bamboo, the odd piece of fruit, the carcasses of forest animals, sellers (women all) seated on the ground behind their wares. Akha ladies, some wearing extravagant headwear dripping silver, stand in a corner behind piles of spiky stalks of rattan (as in furniture, but this rattan is for eating). They chat and spit red betel juice and eye Dave and his camera warily.
After an hour of looking and writing and photographing, communicating in whatever language we're able (Thai, mostly) we notice that the fog has lifted. But the sky remains a dull pewter, washed with this slash-and-burn season's haze more than clouds. We're no longer chilled, but not quite comfortably warm yet either.
So we make our way to the opposite end of the market for breakfast. Back here, across four women vendors cook over wood fires built in smoke-smudged brick hearths. They all serve the same thing -- soup noodles, fer (Lao pho) and kao soi (rice noodles in soup with a dollop of meat ragu) -- at identical long wooden tables covered with plastic.
On our first morning at this market we threw in our lot with a short, sturdy grandmotherly type. Are her noodles the best of the four? We don't know. That first meal was an investment, a down payment on the smile that we're determined to coax from this serious, bordering-on-dour faced woman before we leave town. So we've forgone comparative sampling in favor of becoming short-term regulars.
Lao kao soi with a healthy helping of fresh leafy greens and herbs
It's no hardship. She serves a delicious kao soi, and the bounty and perkiness of her herb-and-greens plate is unrivaled by those on the tables of her competitors. There's curly leaf lettuce, cabbage, young watercress, tender pea shoots, morning glory, snake beans, mint, Thai basil -- all to add to our bowls or nibble on the side (beans dipped in shrimp paste) at will.
She also keeps a big basket of mixed green leaves under her counter; when I ask her to 'sai pak' she stuffs a handful into her rattan ladle, plunges it into one of her blackened, bubbling cauldrons, and adds the blanched greens to our kao soi.
And on our last morning, she smiles. Twice.
Northern Lao kao soi was a surprise. Before heading to Luang Prabang we heard about fer, the Lao version of the Vietnamese noodle soup -- that it's ubiquitous, that in some remote spots where restaurants are thin on the ground it might be all there is for a visitor without access to a home kitchen to eat, and that many travelers get sick of it, fast. But in Luang Prabang and Luang Namtha at least, almost every fer vendor also serves kao soi. And kao soi is so good we can't imagine ever tiring of it.
Maybe kao soi is less known than fer, or less talked about anyway, because its primary ingredient -- an Italian bolognese-like ragu made with minced pork, tomatoes, shallots, chilies, and tua nao (fermented soybeans smashed, formed into discs or cakes, and sun-dried) -- isn't visible to the casual eater. Most vendors keep their ragu in a covered metal enamel pot hidden in the jumble of other ingredients on their tables.
Mrs. Sum's long-cooked pork ragu makes her kao soi the best in Luang Prabang's a.m. market
Kao soi assembly goes like this: rice noodles -- thin, wide, or spaghetti-round and rough-textured -- are boiled to order and placed in a bowl. Then bean sprouts or, if you ask, lots of leafy greens. Perhaps a dash of Maggi sauce and always a soupcon of MSG (it's endemic in Laos, in cooked foods and in tabletop condiment trays so that diners can add more to taste). A couple of healthy spoonfuls of ragu, then broth to almost fill the bowl, and finally cilantro minced with scallion greens. Kao kob, crispy cakes of glutinous rice and/or crispy pig skin might be crumbled over the top (we quite like the former).
Kao soi with the addition of kao kob, crispy glutinous rice cakes
The rice noodles and chopped pork suggest Shan kao soi, but for us it most closely resembles the Thai specialty nam prik ong -- which isn't a noodle dish at all but a 'relish' of chopped pork and tomato that's eaten with fresh and blanched vegetables.
We absolutely love nam prik ong and ate lots of it on this last trip to Chiang Mai. With every version I thought, "Spoon this over rice noodles, add some meat broth, and you've got northern Lao kao soi."
In fact that's just what northern Thais often do with their leftover nam prik num -- eat it with noodles.
There's no trick to eliciting a smile from Mrs. Sum.
As the sign at her noodle stall announces: "Mrs. Sum Smile Free!!!" And she does grin easily, especially when you tell her that her kao soi is the best kao soi at Luang Prabang's morning market.
It is. This we know to be a fact, because in Luang Prabang we did do some sampling.
We loved the selection of sliced and chopped herbs and vegetables (banana flower, cabbage, cilantro, bean sprouts, Vietnamese mint, bamboo shoots) displayed at a stall on the market's main artery. The vendor is friendly and there are always customers packed around her L-shaped half-in, half-outdoor table.
But her ragu is a bit wan, and on some days too salty as well. It lacks the long-cooked depth and complexity of Mrs. Sum's. (She does do a lovely fer though, made with whatever porky bits and bobs you choose from the meat and offal filled bowl on her table).
Mrs. Sum grabs a handful of our favorite rice noodles
So it's to Mrs. Sum's stall that we return again and again. It's the last place we eat on our last morning in Luang Prabang.
We choose the floury rice noodles that remain springy even after a good long soak in hot broth, ask Mrs. Sum to 'sai pak', and request an extra spoonful of her delicious ragu for each of our bowls. Mrs. Sum smiles down at the table, quietly pleased, and asks if we'd like her to add some fresh tomato as well. Why not?
When she places the bowls in front of us we add heaps of Chinese la jiao-like dried chili paste and a squeeze of lime. We raid the veggie baskets on her table, tearing curly lettuce into strips, snapping watercress stems in half, and picking mint and basil leaves from their stalks. Everything is added to our noodles, stirred under and wilted in the soup.
A last bowl of Mrs. Sum's kao soi on our last morning in Luang Prabang
Mrs. Sum chuckles and shakes her head when I tell her again that she makes the best kao soi in the market. She raises her eyebrows at our between-slurps oooohs and aaaahs. Her neighbors hoot as Dave photographs, and she busies herself rearranging condiment bottles on the table, embarased. We're oddities, making such a big deal over a humble bowl of noodles.
Still, when we've finished and she sees that our bowls are empty (not a drop of broth), she smiles again. We didn't need to tell Mrs. Sum she makes a good kao soi; she already knows it. But there's not a cook in the world who doesn't love to see her food enjoyed and hear it praised -- no matter how humble or how ordinary it is.