Laotian food isn’t particularly well-known in the States. Many of the flavors are similar to those used in Northern Thai cuisine, but Lao fare tends to be more bitter, more earthy, and less spicy than the food of its neighbors. Still, there’s a lot to love, from the chopped meat salads known as laaps to the hearty meat-and-eggplant stew orlam.
Noodle soups are their own galaxy here. The variety of noodles alone makes it possible to eat a different kind of noodle soup every day for a week without repeats, and the Lao love of condiments means that every table comes equipped with at least half a dozen different sauces/chilis/vinegars/pickled things to further customize your bowl. Flavouring the broth is pretty much up to you: containers of chilli, sugar, vinegar and fish sauce (and sometimes lime wedges and MSG) are on the tables of every noodle shop, allowing you to find the perfect balance of spicy, sweet, sour and salty. Also on offer at many noodle shops is mi, a yellow wheat noodle served in broth with slices of meat and a few vegetables. It’s also common to eat fõe and mi softened in broth but served without it (hàeng), and at times fried (khùa).
Many other types of noodle soup are dished up at street stalls. Khào biak sèn is another soup popular in the morning, consisting of soft, round rice noodles, slices of chicken and fresh ginger and served in a chicken broth, though it’s hard to find outside bigger towns. More widely available, and a favourite at family gatherings during festivals, is khào pûn, a dish of round, white, translucent flour noodles, onto which is scooped one of any number of sweet, spicy coconut-milk based sauces.
These noodles also find their way into several Vietnamese dishes, such as barbecued pork meatballs (nâm néuang) and spring rolls (yáw), in which they are served cold with several condiments and a sauce. There’s also a Lao incarnation of khào soi, the spicy noodle curry eaten throughout northern Thailand and the Shan States of Myanmar; the version common in Laos (in Luang Prabang and certain northwestern towns) consists of rice noodles served in almost clear broth and topped with a spicy meat curry.