Food from Northern Laos: The Boat Landing Cookbook

I have a great appetite for reading and have a huge library of cookbooks, the books occupy a whole room in my house. I have books relating to Thai, Indian, French, Spanish, British, Modern, Traditional, Sous Vide, Pâtés, Japanese, Canapés, Desserts, Tapas, Sweets, Breads, Baking, Snacks etc.. etc.. You name it, I probably have it. :biggrin:

One corner of this repository houses my tiny section on Lao Cuisine.

Neatly arranged on the shelf are Phia Sing´s Traditional Recipes of Laos, which was put together by the late great “foodie” and former British Ambassador to Laos, Mr. Alan Davidson from Royal Lao Chef Phia Sing´s notes.

Mr. Davidson was also responsible for the book, Fish and Fish Dishes of Laos. Not only has he catalogued the various fish species that are found in the region, he also includes recipes. Both these books (and the impressive Oxford Companion to Food) are illustrated by Lao artist and family friend Mr. Soun Vannithone. Though Mr. Davisdon has many food related books published, you can clearly see his love for his adopted country.

Daovone Xayavong´s Taste of Laos: Lao/Thai Recipes from Dara Restaurant showcases food from her restaurant in Berkeley, California.

From the East Coast, Penn Honthong´s Simple Laotian Cooking includes more than 170 recipes.

Though not strictly a cookbook, Natacha Du Pont de Bie´s Ant Egg Soup: The Adventures of a Food Tourist in Laos includes some recipes from her very interesting travels through Laos.

There should be more books dedicated to the culinary delights of our country, it would be sad not to have more written down on paper, especially in this high tech world where everything is available via a search engine.

All of the above books are a good resource for recipes, however my latest addition really stands out amongst the crowd.

Food from Northern Laos: The Boat Landing Cookbook by Dorothy Culloty and Kees Sprengers is a real eye-opener. You could be mistaken by thinking its another restaurant cookbook, however Dorothy has put (via pen to paper) together a wonderful collection of recipes from this region of Laos.

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Mr. Davidson writes in his Oxford Companion to Food that there are more than 56 different ethnic tribes in Laos, and Dorothy explains that there are an amazing 29 of these ethnic groups in the Luang Namtha province.

The Boat Landing is Luang Namtha´s Ecotourism Lodge, Guest House and Restaurant. Their menu boasts a collection of traditional regional cooking.

To learn from a Lao cook usually means to stand buy their side whilst they cook, and try to work out how much of a certain ingredient was added. Dorothy actually observed the cooking at the restaurant and nearby villages before replicating it in her kitchen and transcribing the amounts in to Western measurements, before retesting the recipes again. That alone is a huge amount of work!

Like any good host, Dorothy introduces us to the cooks, staff and people of the Boat Landing. Then she presents us to the rural areas and terrains including the ethnic inhabitants. All this absorbing information is highlighted with some wonderful photographs taken by her husband, Kees Sprengers.

Kees has managed to capture wonderful shots of different people in ethnic dress and their homelands whislt his wife explains to us their religion, eating habits and customs. You really get a feel for the culture before turning the pages and getting to the culinary chapters.

There are a few pages dedicated to the components of a typical Lao meal and how the meal is eaten, as well as some “dos and dont´s”, which can be very helpful for those who have never been invited to a Lao meal before.

Before we get to the recipes we arrive to my favourite part of the book. The illustrated ingredients.

One great thing about the book is that the author has taken the time to write the ingredients in English and Lao followed by the pronunciation of the Lao text in to English, or what is would sound like. This is really helpful to me as I  sometimes find some ingredient names (or translations to be exact) confusing, especially the diverse herbs and spices.

Examples include:

  • Banana Flower: mak bpee
  • Lao Basil: pak i tou
  • Coriander: pak hom pom
  • Cucumber: mak taeng
  • Lemongrass: houa sikai

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This is great for those wanting to know the names of ingredients and will definitely come in handy for me next time I go to the Morning Market in Vientiane!

There are colour photographs of most of the ingredients as well as a description. One of the most interesting ingredients detailed is Fermented Fish Sauce: padek.

Padek we all know and love, but how many of us have made it as opposed to buying it? No problem, Dorothy includes not one, but two recipes for padek!

Preseeding the recipes is a section about the traditional kitchen as well as preparation techniques.

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The techniques that are illustrated are used all over the world by the older Lao abroad, however I had never thought about showing somebody how to “slice handheld vegetables and herbs: soi” in the manner that we do, or perhaps the way we cut our limes!

There are also sections on cooking techniques that are employed in our cuisine. e.g.

  • Roasting in embers, grilling: jee
  • Steaming: neung
  • Frying: koua
  • Parboiling, blanching: luak

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The book continues with some common names and description of Lao dishes. e.g.

  • Lao dipping sauce: jeow
  • Spicy meat or fish salad: lahp (which actually sounds better than the way I spell it “larb”)
  • Parboiled salad: soop

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The recipes are dived in to sections and feature various dishes and description and include variations and substitute ingredients, below is a short summary of some of the recipes available:

  • Noodle dishes: aharn bhaphet fer
    • Kao soi with parboiled vegetables: kao soi gap pak luak
    • Home style Vietnamese Pho: fer
  • Lao dipping sauces: jeow
    • Tomato and Vietnamese balm: jeow mak len sai pak ki orn
    • Sawtooth herb: jeow pak hawm pan
    • Crab paste: jeow nam bpoo
    • Giant water beetle: jeow maengda

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  • Stews and soups: soop, or/aw, gaeng
    • Bamboo shoot with pork: gaeng nor mai sai sin moo
    • Pickled bamboo shoots: gaeng nor mai som sai bpet
    • Puréed fish: poon bpaa nin
  • Stir fried dishes: bpaphet khoua
    • Fiddlehead fern: koua pak goot
    • Cucumber, duck and oyster sauce: koua mak taeng sai pet leh nam man hoi
  • Stuffed, steamed, grilled & fried dishes: bpaphet oua neung ping jeun
    • Stuffed bamboo shoots: oua naw hoke
    • Fish moke: moke bpaa
    • Crispy fish with garlic: jeun bpaa sai pak tiam
  • Salads, yams and light dishes: bpaphet yam, soop pak, tam som
    • Rice noodles with spicy broth: kao poon
    • Lao papaya salad: tam mak hoong
  • Lahp and sa dishes: bpaphet lahp leur sa
    • Spicy fish salad: lahp bpaa pak gap
    • Spicy pork salad, Muang Sing style: sa low sin moo
  • Rice dishes: bpaphet kao
    • Sticky rice: kao niao
    • Luang Prabang fried rice: kao koua Luang Phabang sai jeow bong

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These are only a handful of the recipes in the book.

Thereafter follows a short section on desserts and drinks that are commonly found, followed by the indexes in Lao and English.

It is so very clear that this project has been a labour of love for the authors and as a cook and Lao person, I can only thank them for putting in so much effort to record this wonderful cuisine.

The recipes are clearly laid out and easy to follow, and the glossary of ingredients is very interesting to say the least.

For anyone who is remotely interested in Lao food and culture, I recommend that you too should have this on your bookshelf.

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6 thoughts on “Food from Northern Laos: The Boat Landing Cookbook

  1. Thank you so for this list of Lao cookbooks especially “Food from Northern Laos: The Boat Landing Cookbook”.  I’m Laotian American and when I visit my mother she will hand me a small matchet knife and tell me (in the Lao language) to go cut her this herb or that veggie  from her garden.  I often times have no clue what she is talking about and end up scratching my head.  What ensues is a comedic series of hand jestures, discription of leaf shape and her fruitless attempt to remember the English names.  Needless to say this book will help me to know what the heck she is talking about and make her proud with some new Lao style knife skills!

    Your blog is amazing and makes me really appreciate my culture.  Thanks so much!

  2. Pingback: Food from Northern Laos | Sao Darly

  3. Hi Vietfood,
    We are spoilt by all the machines that we have in our kitchens. Kitchens back at home seem to produce the best food without all the gadgets!

  4. I really enjoyed your blog, especially re:Laotian cook books and recipes. I’m looking into ordering a couple of your suggestions. I know how to cook a free things already, but this would expand my cooking skillzzzz ^_^
    Thank you, Annie from Pho Society

  5. Hi Annie,

    I have a good collection of cookbooks, from many different cuisines, but I find the Lao ones the most intriguing, and “Food From Northern Laos” is one of my favourites.

    The Lao kitchen is fascinating to me, and when I get the chance to visit Laos, I am always on the look out for food being prepared, whether it is in homes of family members or friends, or on the side of the curb at the markets or in streets.

    It seems that nobody follows “exact recipes”, but that doesn’t mean that the preparation of the dish should not be recorded or written down. IMHO, there should be more Lao cookbooks out there!

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