Kees and I were fortunate to be able to watch 16 year old La make her Khao soi noodles in Ban Siliheuang, Muang Sing. The workspace she uses is shared with other village women on a roster basis. After grinding her rice and water batter La has about one hour to make a large bowl of noodles. Her work is a ballet of time and motion, not a single movement is wasted as she interweaves making new noodles, steaming the noodles, transferring them to a long bamboo pole, and finally folding them ready to be cut and sold. As soon as she is finished, she removes her logs from the fire and inserts the logs of the next woman so the newcomer will have a roaring fire to operate the steaming wok and its cover. La then washes her batter bowl and extinguishes her own firewood with the bowl-washing water, ready for next time.
La gets 7 – 10 kg of noodles from 4 kg of plain rice. In the market, Khao soi noodles sell for 5,000 kip (about 75 cents) a kilo. La can make 4 kg of noodles in an hour, not counting the time spent grinding the soaked rice and water into a batter.
The batter is thickish like pancake batter or paint that you would want to thin. An oily cloth is run over the noodle tray every 2 -3 times it is used. La works with two trays made from what looked like biscuit tins. Spreading the batter takes around 30 seconds.
Spreading the rice batter in the pan
Spreading takes around 30 seconds
replacing already steamed tray with new tray of noodle
The water in the wok has to be boiling fast to generate the steam which cooks the noodle sheet. As soon as the new tray of noodle is in place the fabric padded lid is put over the wok and a ladle of water swirled around the edge of the wok to generate more steam. The noodle dough puffs up when it is cooked, coming away from the bottom of the hot tray.
Noodle sheet is hung over bamboo pole
Swapping the noodle sheets
Sheets cool as new ones are made
Folding noodles ready for cutting 1
Folding noodles 2
Final folding of noodle sheet 3
Folding the noodle sheets
Khao soi noodles are cut and used in the Northern Lao version of Khao soi, a noodle soup topped with a pungent fried sauce of pork mince, garlic and fermented soybean paste (mak tua nao) chopped spring onions, coriander and greens, as well as other noodle dishes. Never refrigerate these noodles as they lose their texture. They can survive about 2 tropical days unrefrigerated and can be refreshed in boiling stock for a few seconds.
You cannot go to khao soi village Ban Siliheuang in Muang Sing without making the famous pork and fermented bean sauce which is the key ingredient topping Northern Lao khao soi.
Here is how the Tai Neua make it. Our cookbook shows you how to make this khao soi sauce the traditional way, Luang Namtha (Tai Lue) style. The two ethnic groups have influenced each other over the past 200 years. There is not much difference really, just the type and form of chillies). Both groups insist that soaking and chopping the chillies from scratch gives the best results, but most restaurants and khao soi market stalls in both districts take a short cut by using dried chilli powder and chilli flakes.
Ingredients for the meat and fermented soybean (tua nao) sauce
4 big cloves garlic
1 cup fermented soybean paste (actually 3 heaped Chinese soup spoons)
3 – 4 tablespoons (actually 2 heaped Chinese soup spoons) mild chilli powder, brightly coloured – not from bird’s eye chillies
750 g fatty pork such as belly pork, minced (3 big handfuls when minced), or a mix of pork and beef which is evidently especially delicious.
1 cup palm oil (or other vegetable oil, but not coconut, mustard or olive oil)
Salt to taste
MSG to personal taste (Tai Neua use a whopping amount in everything)
2 tomatoes, sliced in small wedges
Method for sauce (soup and accompaniments are further down the post)
Put the garlic cloves and ½ teaspoon of salt in a mortar and pound for a minute.
Nang Jantee pounding garlic for the khao soi meat paste
First the oil is added to the wok
Khao soi paste is added
Slicing tomatoes for adding to the meat paste
In a hot wok or frying pan, add the cup of oil. When heated, slip in the garlic mixture and fry while moving it about until the garlic is browned. Before it burns (!!), add about 1 cup of tua nao paste and stir to mix. Continue to fry together until the oil returns.
Add the two types of chilli and keep on frying, while moving the sauce around the pan.
Add the tomato slices and stir fry until the moisture comes out. The paste is ready when it smells good and the tomato has started disintegrating.
Add the minced pork, 2 teaspoons more salt (or to taste) and 1 – 2 tablespoons of MSG. (Remember, this is a very concentrated sauce expected to last a few days refrigerated (hence the oil, salt and pork fat) and to serve many people). Keep on frying until the meat is thoroughly cooked then thin with water to a thick Western savory mince consistency. Then, um, add another tablespoon of MSG and stir to mix in. Sai told us “If like to live long time don’t put in water.” After a bit of pondering I figured out he meant the meat sauce, not the person eating it. Continue to cook until the oil returns again and then transfer to a deep bowl to cool. In the cold, the fat in the sauce will solidify. It is the oil, chilli and reduced water content that preserves the sauce.
Sauce finished, we proceeded to make the soup base (there was only one fire). This can be done concurrently if you have two gas rings for example.
Ingredients for the soup base
250 g pork bits (Nang Buawon used slices left over from the pork she minced by hand for the meat sauce)
Half a pot of water (2 – 4 litres depending on how many people you have to feed, ours fed four with plenty left over. Don’t worry about the quantity because all the flavour comes from the sauce and condiments added later. This bland soup is to heat the noodles and cook the pork which is added to the dish when serving.)
Method for soup base
Bring the water to the boil. Add the slices of fatty pork. I saw no salt or MSG added, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some was slipped in while I was not looking. Simmer away while preparing the accompaniments until the meat is cooked.
Accompaniments and garnish
Finely chopped or sliced spring onions and coriander leaves, 1 tablespoon for each bowl being served
Pea or soy bean tendrils (or Chinese flowering cabbage), raw or blanched, to your taste
Coriander (cilantro), smallest you can get, roots removed, fresh
MSG, Soy sauce (which is also made in Tai Neua villages), lime wedges or juice, and crunchy and feather-light beef rinds, also a village specialty)
Noodle soup base ready for garnishing with spicy khao soi paste, herbs and vegetables
Nang Buawon preparing a bowl of khao soi noodles
About this time Sai disappeared to get some kao soi noodles from another villager while Nang Buawon set the table and sliced some of the pork. When he came back, she put two thirds of a bowl of noodles in each bowl, topped it up with the boiling stock then poured the excess back into the pot. She then added the pork, a good hit of the meat sauce (1 very heaped Chinese spoonful, 3 – 4 level tablespoons) and sprinkled over the chopped spring onion and coriander.
Each bowl was served piping hot and ready for us to doctor with any or all of the condiments and additional spicy meat sauce. (I noticed that Sai added another tablespoonful of MSG to his.) All the ingredients were mixed together and silence interspersed by slurps and grunts of pleasure ensued!
The next post will be about the wonderful sweet spicy jeow (chao) made with fermented soybean paste, ginger and garlic which is served with sour fruit from a tree (mak lodt ໝາກລອດ)