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.
This Tai Neua jeow was prepared for us in Ban Siliheuan and bursts with flavour. The sweetness of the sugar and the sharp tang of the ginger and garlic are softened by the spicy umami flavour of fermented soy bean paste.
It is served with very sour berries (mak lod ໝາກລອດ) wrapped in spring onion leaves and coriander (cilantro). The berry tree grows in the forest and around the homes of Tai Neua people. The berry ripens and yellows until it is too sweet to eat. Crab apples, cranberries, unripe plum slices or cape and ordinary gooseberries would easily substitute for the mak lod – the sourer the fruit the better.
1 knob ginger, the size of three fingers
6 big garlic cloves
15 small dried chillies, not bird’s eye chillies
3 – 4 tablespoons (2 rounded Chinese soup spoons) fermented tua nao paste or substitute such as miso or Korean fermented bean paste
3 tablespoons raw cane sugar
1 tablespoon MSG
Salt, added depending on the saltiness of the khao soi paste
Pound the garlic in a mortar with half a teaspoon of salt for a minute and then add the ginger. When the paste is well integrated and squishy, remove it to a bowl and set aside. String the chillies on a skewer and roast over the fire or gas flame or under an electric grill until semi blackened but not immolated. Deskewer into the empty mortar and pound until well mixed and broken up. Then add thefermented bean paste and pound again. Put the ginger and the garlic paste back into mortar, pound a bit and add the sugar and MSG until all is well mixed. Taste and adjust the levels of salt, sugar and MSG to suit your own taste.
To serve, take a mak lodt berry (which is VERY sour) and remove the pit with a sharp knife. Wrap the sour fruit with a piece of coriander (cilantro) and spring onion leaf, then dip the little bundle in the jeow and pop into your mouth. A taste explosion will ensue. Any very sour berry could be eaten this way, such as gooseberry, a slice of crab apple etc.