What is it?
It´s a cookbook from the manuscripts of the late Phia Sing that have been reproduced in facsimile and furnished with English translations.
Why are there two different covers?
The bilingual book was originally published in 1981 (left) and has just been republished last month (right).
Who was Phia Sing?
Chaleunsilp Phia Sing (c. 1898-1967) was for many years the Master of Ceremonies and Chef at the Royal Palace in Luang Prabang.
So he wrote a Lao Cookbook?
Not actually. Before he passed away in 1967 he wrote down his recipes in two French gridded notebooks. These notes were passed on to the Crown Prince by Sing´s widow, who in turn loaned them to the late Alan Davidson in 1974.
Alan Eaton Davidson (1924 – 2003) was the British Ambassador to Laos from 1973 – 1975. Above all, he was perhaps the ultimate “foodie” of his generation. He was also responsible for the mammoth Oxford Companion to Food, illustrated by Soun Vannithone and a “must have” reference guide for anyone interested in foods. He also published various other culinary books, including Fish and Fish Dishes of Laos, it was during his research for this book that he encountered the manuscripts of Phia Sing.
Laotian Thao Soun Vannithone is an artist and his work adorns these books as well as the Oxford Companion to Food, Fish and Fish Dishes of Laos and many other books. He is also related by marriage to my family, so I was lucky enough to get my 1981 publication signed by him!
He was featured in the 2010 BBC documentary called “The Man Who Ate Everything, The Story of Alan Davidson”.
So the book is just a translation of the Lao recipes?
No, it´s much, much more than that.
It´s a facsimile of the notebooks that have been meticulously reproduced, translated, edited and illustrated by Davidson and his team, (Phouangphet Vannithone, Boon Song Klausner, Jennifer Davidson and Soun Vannithone).
Phia Sing´s beautiful ancient script are mirrored with English translations.
There is a wonderful introduction that is 50 pages long and covers:
- The life of Phia Sing.
- Lao eating habits and attitudes to food.
- Lao culinary terms and culinary equipment.
- Lao ingredients.
The recipes occupy 250 pages and there is a supplement of 10 pages with recipes for Lao desserts (which were not covered by Phia Sing’s notebooks).
The section on Lao Culinary Terms and Equipment will bring a smile to Lao readers and offer a fascinating insight to others.
The Ingredients and Other Practical Information for the Cook section is a great reference guide to what foodstuff is used and how it is used.
Very helpfully the ingredient names have been translated to include their Lao pronunciation and at times their scientific names, as well as information, history and other details. Very informative, much like Davidson´s Oxford Companion to Food, but in this case a whole section on ingredients used in Lao cuisines.
Lao cooks do not often use precise measurements, preferring to rely on experience or judge by eye. But there are Lao measures and Phia Sing uses them in his recipes, in the book these have been converted to English, Imperial and Metric.
Ok, what kind of recipes does it have and are they easy to follow?
This is an authentic and traditional cook´s guide. Remember, the recipes are translated from Phia Sing´s own hand. There are helpful notes after some of the recipes from the Davidson’s.
“The notebooks are a precious resource for those wishing to cook Lao food: the 124 recipes were compiled to give a balanced view of the cuisine (albeit from quite a high-ranking perspective). In the thirty years since its first appearance, materials and ingredients have become easier to source, and the cooking techniques and styles more familiar to us. The dishes, therefore, are very cookable”, say the publishers website.
Reading through the book, the recipes are easy to follow, the ingredients preparations are clearly explained and the cooking method is straight to the point.
There are too many recipes to list here (go buy the book!), but below are some of my favourites.
- Pa Ling Sousi Haeng: Piquant Fried Catfish
- Or Lam Sin Kuay: “Or Lam” of Water-Buffalo Meat
- Lap Pa Keng: Minced Raw Fish
- Sai Ua Moo: Pork Sausages
- Keng No Mai Sai Yanang: Soup Made With Bamboo Shoots and Yanang Leaves
- Jum Som Phak Kad: Pickled Greens, Lao Style
- Jaew Bong: Bong Sauce*
*I would have prefered to have called the Jaew Bong either a Laotian Chili Chutney or Lao Chili Jam, (but it´s not my book!).
Because I do not currently have a scanner (long story), I can´t show you what a recipe page would look like, but with a bit of web searching, cutting, pasting and editing, I managed to make this:
Leela´s blog SheSimmers had a go at the Ua Sikhai: Stuffed Lemon Grass Stalks (page 175) with wonderful results.
If the publishers ever want to make another version of this book, with full colour photographs, I´d volunteer immediately to be sent to Laos to recreate Phia Sing´s legacy!