A cookbook of this sort is a complicated project and there’s lots of room to get it wrong. It’s got to be honest, useful, and interesting; the authors need to consider that it’s through their work that people are glimpsing stills of a moving phenomenon, that people are reading about and seeing food, not tasting, smelling or feeling it. There are details about food culture that need to be transmitted, either because they are important to the enjoyment of the food, or just because knowing them honors the integrity of the food tradition that’s being explained.
Mostly, the problems of it are that it’d be easy to make it not real in any number of ways. To avoid that we’ve worked out a kind of methodology.
Mad different methods to the way I do my style
1. Interviewing and recording: It’s important that the book (and blog) transmits the experiences of Chris, Charlie, and other Lao-Canadian cooks and people in their community. As I said, I’m not Lao, so in order for me to believably write that I need to have authentic source material to draw from. Most of what I know is sourced from conversation: loose and informal, but also recorded interviews. A hand held recorder is sometimes present either in the kitchen or when we’re just hanging around. Stylistically, Chris and Charlie are both engaging and informative conversationalists, offering up details in the form of childhood reminiscing, funny anecdotes, describing things they’ve watched other Lao cooks growing up doing. When there’s a good flow, topics can bounce around pretty quickly and touch on a lot of things that are new to me about Lao food and culture. So the recordings are useful in two ways: one, being able to accurately convey the way they talk into writing and quote verbatim so I’m not putting words in anyone’s mouth; two, I can go back and formulate more questions based on listening to recordings. The obvious drawback is that we all sound awful recorded and listening to it is painful.
I’m not always with the recorder, but I make notes sometimes during conversations or shortly after. Conversation is natural and spontaneous most of the time, as I’m not a formal investigator so much as a friend. I see the two of them at least five days a week. Sometimes we talk about technique for duck larb, other times we list UGK songs in order of greatness.
2. Research. I’m not comfortable just making things up, and I realize that conversation and interviewing is a great source but also fallible. Having a certain kind of heritage doesn’t necessarily make you a historian about that culture. The other large component is finding and researching written sources about Laos and Lao cuisine. There are only a handful of Lao cookbooks, so reading through them is important to understand the food and all of the little cultural details that come up.
I’m a bit of a history buff, so reading cultural histories of Laos hasn’t really been a chore. Again, English resources about the people of Laos that aren’t military histories are scarce. It’s easy to find out what the French or Americans were doing in Southeast Asia, but much harder to find what Southeast Asians were doing during or before that time.
3. Cooking and eating. The best way to understand food is to cook and eat it. On top of my own thing, I put time in at the Laohaus kitchen so that I can better understand the process of preparing and cooking food in order to write about it. Furthermore, preparing Lao food at home in a not food service related context helps understand it as a home cuisine. From this emerges a breakdown of the methods of preparation, as well as being able to quantify measurements of sauces and spices. Another important aspect of this is being able to understand and communicate what brands of products are preferred and where to get them.