Noodle soups are their own galaxy in Laos, where it’s possible to eat a different kind of soup every day for a week without repeats. Here’s a look at some of the most famous bowls.
Khao piak sen
Although the words literally translate to “wet rice strands,” this soup is significantly more appetizing than its name implies. The thick round noodles are made from a mix of rice and tapioca flour, which gives them a delightfully chewy texture and usually leaves the broth they’re cooked in slightly viscous, too. Meat toppings vary but can range from chopped chicken to fried pork and blood cakes, and bowls come topped with a spoonful of fried garlic. You’ll know which vendors have khao piak sen because the noodles, which come in different widths, are dusted with white flour.
Often sold alongside khao piak sen, khao pun is made with thin fresh rice noodles, similar to vermicelli or khanom jeen. They come in a clear broth flavored with herbs, fishballs and unidentifiable pork parts. Toppings include roughly chopped strands of lean pork, sausage slices and offal, and khao pun is always served with a separate platter of raw vegetables and herbs—less to add to the soup itself and more to snack on between slurps.
Khao pun nam phik
Another variation on khao pun, made with a rich, spicy coconut milk-infused broth and minced pork. Coconut milk doesn’t play a huge role in Lao cuisine, but this laksa-like dish seems to have taken root, though it’s admittedly a little harder to find than khao pun and khao piak sen. Look for vendors who have a big tray of chopped banana flowers, long beans, cabbage and herbs, which are all added to the bowl before serving.
Pronounced “fer,” this hugely popular dish is, perhaps unsurprisingly, similar to the famed Vietnamese soup, but made with a different grab bag of spices and herbs flavoring the broth. Other common ingredients include fish balls, pork balls, Vietnamese sausage and sliced pork, and, in this case, crispy puffed rice cakes that we were instructed to crumble over the soup. Like khao pun, pho is served with a separate plate of raw vegetables and herbs to munch on. Some pho vendors also distribute little bowls of homemade peanut sauce to dip the raw veggies into.
Khao piak khao
Laotian rice porridge, which should be familiar to anyone who’s experienced Chinese congee or Thai jok. This version, with chopped chicken, fried shallots and scallions, didn’t look like much from the outside, until I dipped my spoon in and discovered a barely cooked egg just waiting to be popped beneath the surface. Like most rice porridges, the soup itself is fairly bland, but this is where the table full of DIY condiments really livens things up.
Not technically a noodle soup, clearly, but I’m including it because some of the pho vendors in town also steam up fresh Vietnamese-style rice flour rolls. This one is called nam khao sai kai, and it’s basically a giant banh cuon roll on steroids. Lurking inside of that slippery, neatly folded package is a mix of minced pork and mushrooms, plus a runny steamed egg that’s been grafted to the rice flour.
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