From scrumptious sweets to deliciously charred meat-on-a-stick, each afternoon around dusk multitudes of food carts converge to Vientiane’s kerbsides peddling cheap and flavourful eats to the hungry masses.
Sabaidee Magazine explores downtown Vientiane’s street eat hubs, samples some tasty on-the-go fare, and meets a few of the friendly faces behind some of our favourite snacks.
On The Verge
While its kerbside dining culture may not have the global reputation of neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam – Laos still has plenty to offer in the way of street food. Each afternoon a host of stalls pop-up street side across the capital, selling quick snacks and whole dinners to the city’s booming population of busy office workers and students, and tourists satiating their culinary curiosity.
On Vientiane’s kerbs the emphasis isn’t on a ‘sit back and relax’ dining experience, with only a handful of roadside tables and chairs on offer at most of the makeshift kitchens around town. Rather it’s a food culture that thrives on speedy convenience – offering customers a quick and easy alternative to home cooking, but retaining all the traditional flavours and methods of classic Lao fare. An authentic, more diverse spin on fast food.
These stalls have the fast food industry’s patented ‘drive thru’ experience down pat too – with many customers pulling up to purchase food on their scooters, or through car windows, exchanging kip for a striped plastic bag or banana leaf parcel, then continuing their journey.
While the food may be delivered speedily, and devoured just as quickly, the preparation is a different story. Ahead of selling their wares by night, many vendors spend all day sourcing and prepping fresh ingredients, painstakingly moulding dumplings and desserts, readying dough and cooking massive pots of food.
If you can’t manage to claim one of the few available seats, never fear, many dishes are made to eat on-the-go, particularly handy for strolling to the next vendor, and the next, to see what they have on offer.
While there’s street snacks to be munched across the capital, two popular kerbside dining hubs are Ban Haysoke, particularly the intersection around Home Ideal, and the Ban Anou Night Market, also known as the 450 Anniversary Market. We visit both to get a feel, and a taste, for what’s on offer.
The junction of Rue Hengboun and Chao Anou Road in Ban Haysoke is a nightly hot spot for street snacking. Monday to Saturday from 5pm to around 10.30pm, the intersection is a hive of activity with vendors setting up shop: wheeling carts into place, heating woks, and hooking up lights and fans to their stalls. Here, you’ll find small bites – more snacks than meals – designed to be devoured as entrées, shares, desserts or sides. They’re also easily nibbled at on their own as we happily discover.
There are few seats here, with most local customers pulling up by the scooter and car load. Many stroll from stall to stall, examining displays and selecting their purchases with precision, adding to the collection of snack-stuffed bags in the crook of their arms, before heading home for a family dinner.
Ban Anou Night Market
At the Ban Anou Night Market, running every evening along Khun Bu Lom Road from around 5pm to 11pm, the stalls are heaving with people buying dinner en route home from work and school. This is a strictly grab-and-go affair with only a handful of tables and chairs scattered amongst the 50-odd marquee-topped stalls. Dishes are speedily spooned from heaped pots into plastic bags. Much of the food on offer is home cooked, rather than made on-site, with many vendors spending the whole day in their kitchens preparing a diverse spread of traditional Lao fare, then transporting it to the market via car, cart or tuk tuk – straight from the kitchen to the market.
The range of treats on offer can be a tad overwhelming so we embarked on a culinary mini-tour to chomp and chew our way around downtown Vientiane’s streets. There’s a whole lot more deliciousness out there just waiting to be discovered, but here’s a few of our favourites.
Han Tui Khanom Khoo, Ban Haysoke
Nestled on the corner of Chao Anou Road, just down from Home Ideal, Nok and her partner Tui have been selling their delicious Khanom Khoo – a Lao-style donut – at their stall ‘Han Tui Khanom Khoo’ for seven years. Each day Nok and her mother, who learned to make the dish in China, prepare the dough which is pulled and flash fried on-site. Nok says their trick is that Tui, who mans the bubbling wok, keeps the oil fresh and turns the dough every 3 or 4 seconds while it cooks. It’s fast-paced and laborious work, but the result is delicately light and fluffy sweets like Kholo (balls of dough filled with sweet beans and sprinkled with sesame seeds), Patiso (dough parcels filled with mince pork and herbs), and classic sugar-dusted doughnuts.
Khanom Khoo is the most popular item. An x-shaped savoury dough snack with a hint of sweetness, it’s usually dunked into coffee, noodles or Khao Piek (rice porridge). They are a bargain bite at 1,000 kip each, and customers are buying them piping-hot and by the bag load.
The pair set up shop Monday to Saturday at 3pm and sell until midnight or until sold out. On a good night sales will equal 40kg worth of flour in their dough. She says they mainly sell to Lao customers and the stall starts getting busy around 5pm. This is evident as a crowd of customers – no doubt drawn to the wafting scent of fried dough – starts to form around the stall and Nok starts to serve.
Miang Chao Kao, Ban Haysoke
Opposite ‘Han Tui Khanom Khoo’ is mother-and-son team Sy and Choung, who sell homemade Lao desserts at their family’s stall ‘Miang Chao Kao’. Choung is a student by day and helps his mother, who cooks a fresh batch of sweets daily with her husband and sister, at the stall from around 4pm Monday to Saturday. The family starts to cook the day’s wares at around 11am from their nearby home, and have been perfecting their recipes over the last 35 years, selling at this stall and a second cart in front of Vat Haysoke.
In the cart, trays of delectable Lao sweets gleam like bright-hued jewels. There’s the emerald-like Khao Nom Ked Keo – meaning ‘glass crown’ – which is made from pandan leaves, sticky rice, cassava flour with a sweetened mung bean filling. The milky-white Khao Nom Tom Sai Mak Phao is also popular with a caramelised coconut filling wrapped in mung bean and sprinkled with sugar and ground sesame. Each small piece is 1,000 kip with bigger sweets costing a little more.
Chao Gao Patisouk, Ban Haysoke
Next to Sy and Choung’s stall, we chat to Sang and his granddaughter Jo-ee as they assemble fresh Patisouk – incredibly moreish taro-covered pork dumplings – in front of their family stall ‘Chao Gao Patisouk’. The pair gently mould each tiny parcel with precision and deft speed – we count one made every 10 seconds. “We usually make and sell 1,000 of these a night,” Sang says. We don’t doubt him – customers are already hovering around the stall and they haven’t even started cooking yet.
Sang’s brother is readying the wok, much to the liking of the growing crowd. He delicately drops each Patisouk in, expertly avoiding any stray drops of oil sparking from the heat. Another long-termer, the family have been selling from this stall for over 30 years and can be found here from Monday to Saturday.
Sihome Grilled Chicken, Ban Sihome
Just off Khun Bu Lom Road is Soi 5 – well-known for its grilled chicken stalls. A street food institution, Sihome Grilled Chicken is where Vone, and her mother before her, have been serving up their signature bird for 44 years. This stall is completely open-air with chicken skewers, wings and other cuts displayed on a table and whole butterfly chicken sitting on a charcoal barbeque. You’ll find Vone’s table closest to the main road every day from 4pm to 11pm.
Vone says their chicken is marinated and basted in their special tomato-based sauce, which leaves the bird impossibly tender, while the barbeque adds a rustic charred flavouring. Some of her loyal customers have been frequenting the stall since they first opened, with generations of families buying their chicken from her. As we are chatting, a 16-year-old girl next to us says she’s been eating Vone’s chicken since she was little when her mother used to buy it for the family. Now she picks it up on her way home from school to take home for dinner.
Khao Gee, Ban Anou Night Market
Pear has been selling her Khao Gee for five years. She has put her own spin on this typical Lao dish of egg-dipped sticky rice patties by making them smaller and skewering them for a quick, light and easy snack. She sets up shop here from around 5pm, making, and usually selling out of, around 300 skewers every night. Mostly selling to local customers but also curious foreigners, if customers want their Khao Gee with an extra kick Pear can baste is with her special chilli and fish sauce mixture.
“If you want to be successful here you have to have patience and be able to stand by this fire all night,” says Pear as she flips a row of Khao Gee over her charcoal barbeque with expert precision.
Bee’s Stall, Ban Anou Night Market
Bee and her sister run neighbouring stalls at the Ban Anou Night Market. Both offer huge pots and trays heaped with homemade Lao dishes which they both cook at home with their mother throughout the day, preparing ingredients from 6am and cooking from 2pm, to ensure the food is as fresh as possible when they bring it to market.
Bee mans the ‘sticky rice section’ of the stall – which displays an array of dishes made to be eaten with sticky rice like bamboo soup, mixed vegetables, snails and Khee Lek – a thick stew of buffalo skin and Khee Lek leaves, which is believed to cure sleeping disorders. Her sister’s table offers whole grilled fish stuffed with herbs, stir fry and other dishes designed to be accompanied with steamed rice. They cook the same amount of food each day and, while they don’t know how much they’ll sell, they usually run out by 10.30pm.
Koon Duck, M Point Mart, Quai Fa Ngnum
Strolling along the Mekong in search of dinner, we bypass the multitude of squid skewer stalls and head straight for Koon Duck – one of a chain of vendors operating outside M Point Marts across the city. Here, the food is fresh, flavourful, and cooked in front of you in a flash. The Thai franchise has been in this riverside spot on Quai Fa Ngnum for four years and being in the heart of downtown it’s usually buzzing with tourists and locals feasting at the cluster of outdoor tables, or grabbing takeaway between 5pm-10pm every night.
Manning the woks are two ladies wearing cloth masks to guard against the smoking woks. Boun and her partner dish out plates of Pad Thai, fried rice and Suki Yaki for 15,000 kip a pop, expertly flicking every last grain of rice or noodle from the wok with their spatula and onto plates or takeaway containers. There’s also a fried instant noodle dish that isn’t on the official menu, but customers seem to know to order it as two business men tuck into the steaming plate of stir fry noodles.
This article was originally printed in Sabaidee Magazine, Issue 15, March 2014. You can pick up Sabaidee Magazine free from cafes, restaurants, spas and hotels across Vientiane, and stay up to date with their latest articles and local events through their Facebook page: www.facebook.com/sabaideemagazine.
Words by Kate Antonas, photos Phonsavanh Sangsomboun