Many travellers visit Chiang Mai in northern Thailaind and discover khao soy. An egg noodle dish, doused in a massaman-like curry with a chicken leg on top, and garnished with the same noodles fried, pickled mustard root, shallots and a slice of lime. It is an exotic dish with interesting flavours, but it is nothing like the lesser known khao soy of northern Laos. In fact the Chaing Mai version and the Northern Laos version could not be two more vastly different noodle dishes.
(1. Chiang Mai 2. Luang Prabang - courtesy of Cindy Fan www.somanymiles.com)
In northern Laos, khao soy is mainly popular in Luang Prabang, Luang Namtha, and Muang Sing. The sauce of khao soy will travel all over the country from cooks in this region. A good sauce can command 100,000kip a kilo (roughly US$10 a kilo today). A shop in Luang Prabang’s main street, opposite Wat Vat Sene, will sell out by 11am on an average day, locals and tourists alike make it there early to enjoy their famous khao soy noodle soup. But for me, the “khao soy heang” or dry khao soy, of the Tai Yuan people of Luang Namtha is the most enjoyable, in part due to the delicious hand cut noodles that accompany the paste.
For many a westerner we could describe this khao soy in Laos as the bolognese of Asia. The sauce is made of a ground pork, with fermented beans and tomato base. It is very hearty, which suits the people of this mountainous region where temperatures in the winter can drop below 10 degrees Celsius. The dry version is eaten with the sauce, usually a dryer paste, and noodles. The wet version is rice noodles in a broth, with the sauce amply ladled on top, and accompanied by a variety of local greens and condiments to add. What gives it the most character is the fermented bean flavor, and then mixed with these soft, wide cut noodles, even eaten cold it is really delicious.
My first experience of the dry version was at a delightful performance at the village cultural hall of Ban Vieng Neua in Luang Namtha. The Tai Yuan community of all ages comes out to entertain tourists in their local hall, a wooden house in a dusty, almost suburban, street. It may sound cheesy, but it is very authentic. You feel as if you could be at their own ceremony, not a staged tourist performance. The men are playing the instruments, the women nattering at the back, ready to jump to serve food at any moment, whilst the young students are dressed in their traditional handwoven brightly patterned skirts and fitted silk shirts, dancing in rhythmic sways with complex hand movements. Between songs the women dart into the bamboo mat reception area with bamboo trays laid out in a sustainable fashion from the past, each folded leaf containing a local delicacy. The khao soy stood out as my sort of comfort food.
But I should digress. I had enjoyed the wet or soup version of khao soy for years before this.
The noodles are a wide or thin rice noodle, depending on your taste. People in Luang Prabang laugh at themselves in winter because they will fill their khao soy noodles with broken up khao kop, sticky rice cakes, these are like salty rice bubbles stuck together and really addictive. They add crunch to the wet rice noodles and make it more filling. They would tell me Luang Prabang people like to eat rice on rice. The sauce sits lovingly on top of the noodles before you mix it all and add all the spice, lime, sauces you want.
As I travelled many times north to Luang Namtha and Muang Sing, I always felt the khao soy there was really the tastiest, and something I looked forward to at each visit, eating it daily for lunch. Every visit I would learn a little more. Like the year we arrived in Muang Sing and swine flu had wiped out the pig population, so they substituted chicken. It was still tasty.
On the last visit I met a gently spoken elderly women in the night market who was known for the best in town. My colleague told me it was because she used her own organic pork. Her dry khao soy was delicious and she sold it to us for only 5,000kip (around 50c) a dish, discounted from 7,000kip because my colleague had been a devoted customer over her three week stay in Luang Namtha. She too could sell her sauce for 100,000kip a kilo like the cooks in Luang Prabang.
Visiting the market in Luang Namtha we found the price of sauce was reduced significantly, but then learned that was because they were using farmed chicken. That was when I asked where does this dish actually come from and a seller behind me chimed in “the Tai Yuan people of Luang Namtha”. So who are the Tai Yuan people?
The Tai Yuan ethnic group, originated from the Lanna Kingdom 13th-16th century. The Lanna Kingdom spread over Northern Thailand, into Burma, Laos and southern China. It is very difficult to identify any particularity in flavor or ingredients of khao soy to a particular geographic area of the group. And in this region recipes are quite fluid with influences coming in from all sides. The fermented bean paste “mak tua nao” is the character flavor that is prevalent in many Asian dishes. When I questioned the Luang Prabang noodle shop owner, all she confirmed was that her mother made it, and her grandmother too. She could not provide information as to when khao soy might have arrived in Luang Prabang, which is not uncommon in Asia where history is more oral than written. The Mekong River was the conduit for many cultural movements as the Lanna Kingdom spread Buddhism. So it is very plausible the noodles came down the Mekong during that period. The Tai Yuan language is closely related to the Tai Leu, who also have made khao soy for many years and to this day many Tai Leu communities exist on the Lao-Burmese-Thai borders.
So back to the noodles. An experience worth having is being mesmerized by the khao soy noodle makers in Ban Siliheuang, Muang Sing district, Luang Namtha province. A village just on the outskirts of Muang Sing town. Visiting in the afternoon you can see in the back of a house, the production of the famous noodles. It is on a rotation scheme, so if you come back the next day it is most likely another neighbouring house will be in production. The steaming, hanging, cutting process is done with great deftness and quickly it goes to market. It is here when you see the process ending with the cutting, and also when you see it transported in remote areas, the seller cutting the noodles for each serve, that the origins of the name, translated “cut rice” make sense. On my last visit to Muang Sing, an enterprising family had set up a mechanical production of the noodles that was operating each day. It wasn’t as much fun to watch as the ballet of the single woman maker. Definitely more chaotic, with several people and many hands working around a rudimentary machinery and conveyor.
As I journey more around this region I may find more traces of khao soy, but I like the way the market seller pronounced "it is ours", the Tai Yuan peoples’ dish. They are a group little known to many people in Laos, maybe more known in Thailand and relatively unknown worldwide. At least we can give them a big round of applause for an incredibly appetising dish, you will long for once enjoyed.
For actual detail information regarding the recipes please refer to
Dorothy Culloter and Kees Springer’s blog “Food from Northern Laos, where you can also download their outstanding cookbook for free.
And Cindy Fan, the Laos writer for Travelfish.org for many years, also has an excellent article with a recipe from Luang Prabang http://somanymiles.com/2019/04/khao-soi-lao-rice-noodles/.