Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Luang Prabang kao soy face off

For the last two days I've been eating Laotian kao soy in Luang Prabang, at the urging of Robyn from EatingAsia and Mark from Stickyrice. They each have their favorites, so I was sent, backpacker-cum-chef in tow, to decide which was better.

We had two kai soy Lao to try, the first, Mark's recommendation, was located across from Wat Vatsensoukharam. The second, the EatingAsia recommendation, was served by Mrs. Sum in the Luang Prabang morning market.

Wat Vatsensoukharam kao soy

When we found the place that Mark and Tu recommended, I was happy to see that the proprietor of the stall was a woman in her 50s or 60s. This filled me with confidence, based on my own prejudice that all old people are great at making soup. Lina found this particularly funny because the woman bore a very slight resemblance to Aung San Suu Kyi whom I had recently discovered I had a bit of a crush on. (Be aware, reader, this is not a crush based on actual physical sex appeal but more in the way that some guys once found Margaret Thatcher attractive. You know, woman of power and influence. Suu Kyi, however, looks as though she would probably make you a nice cup of tea and play you some Bach after sex, as opposed to Thatcher who would probably just rape your grandmother's pension and tax you heavily for using the sink to wash your cock in afterwards.)

“Do you think she's hot?” Lina asked me, smirking. I blushed and continued eating my kao soy. Kao soy is a rice noodle soup topped with a hearty bolognese-like pork sauce.The dish itself was incredibly tasty and seemed to be hidden out of view in a pot, much to the dismay of the other diners who all asked each other “What is that? It looks great!” as they tucked into their regular old chicken noodle soup. We continued to eat with the air of folks who are in the know as they looked on enviously.

The broth is always the deciding factor for me whenever eating noodle soups, and this broth was absolutely perfect. It was clear and tasted as though it had been made with great care and skill, such was the depth and subtlety of its flavour. The porky bolognese sauce added another level of complexity, and even though I was presented with a full table of condiments I did not think anything else was needed apart from a small teaspoon of chilies to satisfy my own taste for spice (as well as the metabolic benefits that they bring).   -Steven

I thought the Wat Vatsensoukharam kao soy was delicious. The broth was complex and the noodles were thin and perfectly cooked. However, there were a number of annoying factors. First, the entire table was filled with backpackers, foreigners and other tourists, making the place feel (rightly or wrongly) "less authentic." Second, the portions were not enormous, which meant I had to jealously guard my kao soy and listen to Steven's complaining until he had ordered a second bowl of soup. Luckily, he's convinced of the superiority of his own metabolism as compared to my own, (encouraged by chili consumption) so there was no harm in a bowl of pho on top of the kao soy.

Finally, the much touted bowl of fresh herbs and vegetables were nowhere to be seen, and instead the kao soy was served with a little bit of lettuce and herbs already in the bowl. This gave me the feeling that the proprietress, as much or as little as she may have vaguely resembled Aung San Suu Kyi, was resting on her laurels now that she had a steady tourist clientele. Overall, a great bowl of kao soy but I wasn't as fully convinced as Steven, perhaps because I don't have a bone for Aung San Suu Kyi. -Lina

Read Mark's review of Wat Vatsensoukharam kao soy

Mrs. Sum's kao soy

Having reported to the Twitterverse about how good the first kao soy was, Lina was then instructed by Robyn of EatingAsia to go to a different place for the same dish as it was far superior. The gauntlet was laid down, and this morning we headed to the Luang Prabang morning market.

This place was bigger and Mrs. Sum bore no resemblance whatsoever to Aung San Suu Kyi, which was a disappointment. However she still looked as though could make a nice cup of tea, and with any luck, a fantastic bowl of noodles.

The setting was certainly more pleasant even though it was in a covered area of the market. It was dark and the day before Lina said she was positive she could smell urine. The physical appearance of the place could have featured in a novel about life in a Russian slum in the 1800s but the slivers of sunlight streaming through the cracks and the hearty smell of broth bubbling away were enough to immediately dispel any illusion of alcoholism and deprivation in 19th century St. Petersburg.

The woman's smile was as hearty as her soup and there were enough local people eating there to lend credence to the quality of her fare. While the setting had buckets more character than the other place, the broth lacked the body of our previous bowl. Thankfully this void was filled with a wider range of condiments including pickled green papaya and shrimp paste. It was as though she gave you a plate of soup and you could finish it off too your own taste. Again not a bad thing. At this place we also received a nice plate of greens and another plate of raw veg with some delicious nutty dipping sauce.

I'd say there was very little to choose between the two but the portion was significantly bigger and pickled green papaya was available at Mrs. Sum's, but at the first place, the soup was tastier and she went to the trouble of cutting up the greens with a pair of scissors (personally I always find this more convenient to eat.)

If I had to choose who to take with me on the ark to make me noodle soup I would probably choose the cook from the first place as I would hope that not only would she physically resemble Aung San Suu Kyi, but that she might also be able to entertain me by playing piano during her time off. - Steven

I'd visited Mrs. Sum for kao soy last year with Frances and Brock and it was really, really good. I was expecting the same this time, and I wasn't disappointed. The porky sauce was really good, better than the first place we tried, but Steven's analysis of the broth situation was correct--Mrs. Sum's was weak and just not as good as the Wat Vatsensoukharam bowl or as good as I remembered it being last time. However, her radiant smile counted for a lot, as did the plate of fresh vegetables and herbs, long beans, lettuce, mint, basil and more, as well as the sweet peanut dipping sauce she gave us to nibble on with the green beans. I was also a big fan of the lightly pickled green papaya (a new project for my tabletop pickle press?) I prefered the ambiance of the morning market, and perhaps because I'm not knee deep in Doestoyevsky I didn't find any resemblance to 19th century Russia, although I will admit that I had moaned about smelling urine next to to the backpacker buffet the night before. Thankfully, this was a few yards from Mrs. Sum's joint and there were no backpackers to be seen in the early morning.

Overall, I'd say that the kao soys were equally good, each with their unique strong points. However, for my final bowl before heading back to Phnom Penh I'd choose Mrs. Sum's based on the fact that she's a complete charmer, her pork sauce is porkier and the portions are bigger. -Lina


  1. and now, I just really want to try kao soy. I'd even settle to try it from the second establishment ;)

  2. look very interesting, i would have to try it out one day. i already try Cambodian and Vietnamese Noodle. This time it should be try something different.