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.
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.
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.