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.