Few books are available in English on the food of Laos. There are four of them, to be exact, and three are difficult to obtain. The crown jewel from a history and technique perspective, The Traditional Recipes of Laos, has undergone additional printings, and has a story so absurd it’s a miracle of circumstance it exists at all.
It’s 1974, and Alan Davidson is the British diplomat to Laos, stationed in Luang Prebang, the royal capital. Outside of his diplomatic duties, he’s been working on a series of books on seafood. Residing inside the murky Mekong river resides a giant catfish that also swims in Davidson’s imagination, Pangasianodon Gigas. The problem Davidson has encountered is the unwillingness of the Laotians he’s encountered to share their recipes, and the ones he’s obtained have been very difficult to decipher. The food culture of Laos is one that’s shared orally and through observation and participation in the kitchen. Many of the measures people use are idiosyncratic, relying on a particular bowl the cook owns, their eyeball, their nose.
It’s 1974, and lots is happening in Laos. The Vietnam War, the aftermath of the American War on Laos, the Laos Civil War between Royalist forces and the Communist Pathet Lao. This is the last year of the reign of King Savang Vatthana. Alan Davidson had to have been preoccupied with difficult official diplomatic duties, and yet, he couldn’t quite shake from his head his book on fish.
An audience with the Crown Prince was drawing to a close. Davidson had breached the subject of the fish of Laos, and was regaled with tales of the giant catfish, the Crown Prince himself being an enthusiast of fishing. Davidson rose to leave from the audience, but a nagging frustration inside him gave way to a voice. He paused, and he turned back, possibly broaching rudeness, Davidson asked the Crown Prince for an additional moment to discuss a problem he was having. Laotian recipes for fish, he explained, have been difficult to obtain – would His Royal Highness know of a credible source that he could direct him to?
Well, there is this one thing, the Prince explained: some notebooks written by the late Royal Chef and Master of Ceremonies, Phia Sing, who had passed almost a decade earlier. He supposed Davidson could borrow them to see if he could find anything useful to his fish book. The Prince retrieved for Davidson two small cahiers, the same style French school children used for practice exercises.
The audience drew to a close. Davidson’s gambit had paid off, as he held in his hands the recipes of Phia Sing.
Imagine, in the social and political upheaval of the time, amidst all of the bombings, a civil war claiming tens of thousands of casualties, an impending regime change, two frail school notebooks.
What happened after the solidification of power of the Pathet Lao in 1975 is what happened in every major regime change in history: the old symbols were washed of their meanings, inverted to become evil, and the past of the old regime would be actively forgotten by the new powers. The Royal Family would be moved to a re-education camp, where they would die of malaria. The only surviving member lives in exile in France.
In all of this, the two notebooks, filled with handwritten Laotian recipes would, if having been discovered at all, been considered insignificant, or an artifact of a regime past and likely destroyed. Or, if they weren’t, they may have just fallen apart, worn away by time.
Alan Davidson was quick to hire a translator to begin interpreting the Laotian script in the recipes. He was concerned about their legitimacy at first, but he was assured they are recipes, with measurements. Phia Sing had wanted to write a cookbook and donate the proceeds of its publication to the upkeep of a Buddhist statue that had been a gift to Laos from the Emperor of Siam. It was in these notebooks that he elucidated his methods of many dishes to the end of publishing them. Davidson xeroxed all of the pages, and promptly returned the notebooks to the Prince. From there, he began the task of interpreting, translating, and contextualizing the recipes. The excitement of the find dwarfed Davidson’s disappointment that there were very few recipes for fish contained in the notebooks.
This project would take Davidson much longer than his stay in Laos. As the situation in Laos became uncertain, Alan Davidson’s tour of duty came to an end and his diplomatic duty was reassigned. It wasn’t until 1980 that the work would be published in English under the title Traditional Recipes of Laos, an editor credit attributed to Alan Davidson, and the author credit to Phia Sing.
Who was Phia Sing? Not much is known about him. He lived from 1898 until 1967. He was the Master of Ceremonies of the palace, and the Royal Chef, but that isn’t typically somebody that would ever be written about. He tutored the Crown Princes, and according to Davidson was a “sort of Laotian Leonard DaVinci” who’s habits included being “a physician, architect, choreographer, sculptor, painter and poet.”
This picture exists of him, and in terms of biography details that’s all that’s available. Worlds more than if, for a split second, Davidson had thought it better to just leave his audience with the Prince without trying to uncover recipes for fish.