Laotians and Italians have at least one thing in common. When an Italian gets up in the morning he doesn’t wonder whether he’ll have a bowl of pasta or not that day. It goes without saying – at some point - either lunch or dinner - he will indeed have a bowl of pasta. Laotians, likewise, from my observation, appear to have the same relationship to their noodle soup called pho. It seems they are always eating it. Either for breakfast or lunch or in between. They eat it at roadside stands or they get it to go or they, like these folks, eat it at a stall in the market. This is my favorite pho place in my favorite food market - Thong Khan Kham. Please note the crowd. When it comes to third world eating turnover is your friend.
The Vietnamese brought it with them when they themselves were brought here to run the bureaucracy of Laotian French Indochina. But it has a couple of Laotian twists. First there’s the plethora of condiments. Vietnamese pho, at least in my experience, is a much more pristine affair. Chili flavored fish sauce; fresh mint, basil, and coriander, perhaps a few more fresh chiles, a handful of bean sprouts, a squeeze of lime and some shrimp paste if you’re feeling brave. That’s about it. Here we have all that plus scallions; long beans; soy sauce; vinegar; chiles - whole pickled, crushed dried and crushed dried in oil; pickled ginger; peanut sauce and a real shocker – sugar. I originally thought it was MSG but it’s not. People actually dump soup spoons full of it into their broth!
And although you can easily get a pure beef pho, Laotians are big fans of innards. You pick out three or four bits you like with the tongs provided which are then chopped up by the proprietor. These and the fresh noodles become the foundation of your soup. Brit that I am, I adore this. I tend to go for a tongue, kidney, spleen combo.
But is this the future? Here’s the food court at the brand new mall in downtown Vientiane. I must admit it does have its advantages. It’s bright and air conditioned (kind of). There’s a series of sinks with soap, water and paper towels for washing your hands before eating. There are a half dozen TV’s all playing different Thai channels so you can keep up with soccer matches or new music videos. And then there’s the food.
Of course there’s plenty of pho - even one actually made by a cook from Vietnam. But then there’s a lot more. This is a Chinese noodle soup. Note the wontons and the pork tinged that weird color. You can also buy kimchee soup; fresh and deep fried spring rolls; pot roasted ham hock on rice, the list goes on and on. There’s even an Indian halall food stand for our visiting Muslim friends from Malaysia and Indonesia.
But, alas, could this truly be the future? This construction site is Vientiane Mall – Phase Two. The edifice going up - surrounded by the charming buildings which remain of the original Morning Market - will be finished next year. The billboard announcing its amenities includes the following:
1st Level consists of:
Units for Fast Foods of sizes: 100 m2; 192 m2; 368 m2; 504 m2 Expected to house Fast Food like - Pizza, Ice cream, Grill/Burger, Fried Chicken