Wet Noodle

Noodles

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.

in the bowl

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.

herbs

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.

chili

Kin khao!

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.

serving soup

13 thoughts on “Wet Noodle

  1. I can almost taste this soup. My mouth is watering just at the picture of those noodles in the spicy broth! Now I am saddled with a craving so strong, I’m thinking of making them myself. How would you do that? In Sri Lanka, they make stringhoppers by forcing a dough of rice flour and water through a press. Would that work for these noodles? (I’d have to use find a press with bigger holes, though.)

    And you wouldn’t have a recipe for that broth, by any chance, would you?

  2. Sounds yummy! Even though you eat it for breakfast it looks like it would be good on the cold night we’re having here now!
    Have fun slurping!

  3. Tisha,
    This isn’t exactly the soup pictured above, but check out this recipe for both noodles and broth:
    http://www.khmerkromrecipes.com/recipes/recipe236.html
    As you can see, it’s a regional favorite. Absolutley essential is roasted shallot, or “roasted onion” noted in the recipe link. Add it just before serving, so it’s still a bit crunchy when you eat. You can buy bags or jars of these at most Asian markets in the West.
    The broth we had was quite clear before adding all the condiments. If you try the recipe link, let me know how it goes! I’d be curious to find out. I’ve never actually made noodles like these. The stringhopper press is an interesting idea, but you’re right: the holes are way too small. (I love stringhoppers, too, BTW.)

    Jojo, I agree. I think this would be perfect on a cold winter’s night. But then, I’d eat this soup anywhere, anytime.

  4. Tisha, I forgot to mention that I think I have a recipe for these noodles (Vietnamese style) in a cookbook at home in the US. I’ll check. But I won’t be there for a while….

  5. Oh my goddess! First. Thank you Karen for such a wonderful blog space. It truly is a joy to read your postings. Being a Lao refugee and since fleeing my homeland some 26 years ago, I am now 28, so I was 2 when we fled; I yearn to return home. I was able to return, along with my mother, uncle and aunt, and 3 cousins in the summer of 1996. It was the summer before my senior year in high school. What a magical summer it was. I had the best time. Granted the 21 hour flight was a bit of shocker, so was the 4 transfers, and 1 layover in Bangkok. However, i digress, the journey was worth it. It was a month in Laos I will never forget. I can’t believe it’s been more than a decade since I’ve been back.

    Your latest post brought back memories of one particular Friday morning in Vientiane. I think it was our second or third week there. It was the crack of dawn and my Aunt’s house was already bustling. The “local” cousins attended to our every need, wish, and whim. This morning my older cousin and his wife were taking me to a khao piak shop for breakfast before the day’s events. I cannot recall now where it was exactly but the place was packed. I’ve had khao piak before, but this incarnation of it was sheer perfection. The broth was chicken based and was fragrant with onion, shallots, and cilantro roots. It was a serum vitae of chicken, it was so flavorful. Clear with a golden hue and on the surface was the perfect amount of schmaltz, clear jewels of chicken fat. The noodles were as you said, “squiggly….slippery starchiness…” Perfectly made in size and length. They were chewy but tender. A bowl was festooned with various parts of the bird; shredded breast meat, a wing and a drumstick, and even bits of heart and gizzard. The garnish was freshly chopped cilantro, green onions, freshly fried shallots and garlic, and a goodly dash of black pepper.

    Table side was delivered the obligatory plate of limes, sprouts, and some other greens. On the tables were the fiery condiments of torture and temptations. 3 various hot sauces. The fried ground chilies in oil, another with one with garlic add, and a sriracha like chili sauce. Sugar, fish sauce and extra black pepper were there for the adding.

    I always like my khao piak fiery hot, extra sour, and sublimely sweetened, and with a touch more fried garlic. Delicious! I have always thought that food was the key to every good memory. Reading this post has brought back a flood of memories of a summer I will truly never forget.

    Thanks so much for this post and all your posts. I so do greatly enjoy reading about your experiences and travels.

  6. Souavarat,
    Thanks so much for such wonderful comments! I’m glad this post brought back these memories for you. I’m right there with you on the fiery hot, extra sour bit. And always more fried garlic. Always more garlic anytime!

  7. Khao piak sen i love very much. I like chicken version and also the pork version with pork blood of course. The noodle is equal parts rice and tapioca flour. Boil some water pour over the well mixed flour untill you get a play dough cosistency and divide into tennis ball size and roll it out and cut into strips. For the broth 1 whole chicken or some pork ribs, 1 nub of ginger crushed, one onion, one bunch cilantro roots, salt to your liking, sugar, msg and a lil knorr bouillion. Garnish with cilantro, green onion and sliced lime and add ingredients as you like.

  8. Thank you for this recipe, Miala. I am, at the moment, extremely hungry for brunch. I would LOVE a bowl of khao piak sen right now… unfortunately I don’t think I’m going to find it this morning.

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