There are only a handful of books in English on the food of Laos and almost all of them are difficult to obtain – this should be reason enough to write a new book. It’s the intention of the Laohaus blog to eventually publish a book of recipes that reflect the Lao-Canadian experience, but in order to understand the need for that we’ve had to try and understand the existing books.
As mentioned in our previous post, Traditional Recipes of Laos comes from the notebooks of esteemed Royal Chef, Phia Sing, as organized and edited by Alan Davidson. Davidson, author of the Oxford Companion to Food, earned a reputation as a thorough scholar of cuisine. He possessed a genuine desire to understand and communicate his subject matter, to do it justice in writing, and his compassionate understanding is clearly brought to this work.
Thankfully, Traditional Recipes of Laos has undergone successive rounds of printing and beautiful new editions of the book are available through Amazon. As a place of departure for someone attempting to understand Laotian cuisine I’d say that there’s no better spot. To the general reader its strength lies in Davidson’s copious notations. There are 50 pages in the front of the book dedicated to the equipment of the Laotian kitchen, the ingredients, table manners, and methods of preparation, fully illustrated by Lao artists. Reading the editor’s introductory notes would give someone sufficient understand of Laotian cuisine.
The book contains 114 of Phia Sing’s recipes, with the recipe written in his own Lao handwriting on the left and the English translation on the right. The recipes are valuable cultural relics, but contrary to Davidson’s notes, which are accessible to a beginner, Phia Sing’s recipes could be approached by the skilled Lao cook but perhaps not by anyone else. There’s much assumed knowledge, for example a suggestion with most recipes as to what jaew to serve accompanying the dish, which always references back to Davidson’s own list of jaews, wherein he describes what they are but not how they are prepared. Nor is there instruction for preparing sticky rice in the book, the rice ubiquitous with the Lao meal, even though prepared sticky rice is used as an ingredient in several of the recipes.
Phia Sing’s recipes are also super Laos. That is to say, Davidson includes a detailed list of Mekong river fish in his introduction, of which many of Phia Sing’s recipes revolve around. Sure, there are probably adequate substitutes available in a Canadian fish market, but that involves having someone already that knows what would suffice, or doing the work to figure out what those are. Many ingredients, such as herbs and mushrooms, simply don’t exist here. Or, the adventurous home-handy hipster could make them for themselves given time and resources, but the book contains no indications of how to do that. If you grew up in that cultural context all of that would seem normal and would need to explanation. Obviously, in Phia Sing’s personal recipe books he doesn’t need to stoop to saying “first soak the sticky rice in water, etc.” since to him that would likely be like providing written instruction on how to fill your lungs with air.
The intention here isn’t to throw shade on the work of two masters. Traditional Recipes of Laos is a treasury of authentic, high quality preparations, and is in itself a beautiful book. But given the source material comes from sometime before 1967 (Phia Sing’s death) and was probably never thought to be exported anywhere outside of Laos itself, the material is dealing with a context that’s just straight up different than the one we find ourselves in today. We could speculate that even in the contemporary context of food in Laos these recipes are old school. The guys at Laohaus love old school, and consult this book frequently, but that’s the difference between skilled cooks that grew up immersed in Lao food culture and anyone else. The point we’re trying to make with this project is that Lao food makes sense in this context, and anyone can learn to love it.