A noodle is not a noodle is not a noodle across the streets of Southeast Asia. There are so many noodles, so many soups, and so little time. But we find an excellent little khao piak shop — no name, no menu, no sign — around the corner from our Vientiane guesthouse, and this noodle quickly becomes our breakfast habit.
Khao piak is a soup of thick homemade rice noodles that are round and heavy, unlike the skinny little threads of vermicelli or the flat sticks of pho. “Wet noodle” is my favorite translation of these starchy strings.
Here at the khao piak shop, three generations rise and shine together. The stick-thin, gray-haired French-speaking grandfather in his jogging suit. The jovial roly-poly grandma in charge of herbs. The cute little girl in pigtails. And her mother, the soup queen.
The noodles are powdery when she pulls them from the bag. She sets them to soak several minutes in hot broth with ground pork and meatballs. When it’s all ready, the noodles emerge drenched and squiggly, just as I love them. I have always had a thing for the thick, slippery starchiness of some pastas, and my avoidance of wheat in recent years hasn’t diminished my love of a good noodle. I just do rice now, or mung bean or potato.
Khao piak, like most any soup in Laos, is served with an abundant pile of basil, mint and raw green yard-long beans. Another dish holds the bean sprouts and lime. Then you have your choice in condiments: fish sauce, shrimp paste, bottled sweet chili sauce, rice vinegar, sugar (yes, sugar is a popular choice) and my favorite — a jar of oily roasted chili paste with a rich, smoky flavor and just enough heat.
It is this way every morning. By mid-afternoon an SUV is parked where our morning table had sat, and there is virtually no sign of this house having been a noodle shop. This is not unusual. Shops change by the hour here. At daybreak, the noodles will return.