Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Lao City of Gastronomy?

In Laos, the city of Luang Prabang is designated a United Nations World Heritage Site, as is Pakse/Champassak.

The Creative Cities Network was launched by UNESCO in October 2004. It is designed to promote the social, economic and cultural development of cities in both the developed and the developing world.

The cities which apply to the network seek to promote their local creative scene; they share interest in UNESCO’s mission towards cultural diversity. One of the categories UNESCO designates as Creative Cities is the art of gastronomy or cooking. Once the city is appointed to the network, it can share experiences and create new opportunities for itself and others on a global platform, notably for activities based on the notion of creative tourism.

I think the initial infrastructure is in place that Vientiane could become a City of Literature in a few decades. But I think it would be interesting if Luang Prabang or another city in Laos can achieve acclaim as a City of Gastronomy. Currently, three cities in the world hold this distinction: Chengdu, China,  Popayan, Colombia and Ostersund, Sweden.

Lao cuisine has distinctive influences in cooking through exposure to international tastes as well as traditional native Lao dishes. Throughout its history, Laos has interacted with Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Khmer, Russian, Japanese, Australian, French, British and American tastes as well as over 100 ethnic minorities across 17 provinces. I think Laos could easily meet the criteria for a City of Gastronomy with a little more development.

What would it take? Without making it sound too easy, we'd want a city that could consistently demonstrate the following:
  • Well-developed gastronomy that is characteristic of the urban centre and/or region; 
  • vibrant gastronomy community with numerous traditional restaurants and/or chefs; 
  • endogenous ingredients used in traditional cooking; 
  • local know-how, traditional culinary practices and methods of cooking that have survived industrial/technological advancement; 
  • traditional food markets and traditional food industry; 
  •  tradition of hosting gastronomic festivals, awards, contests and other broadly-targeted means of recognition; 
  • respect for the environment and promotion of sustainable local products; 
  • nurturing of public appreciation, promotion of nutrition in educational institutions and inclusion of biodiversity conservation programmes in cooking schools curricula.

With Laos' focus on eco-tourism for many years as well as support from many agencies regarding conservation, the environment and sustainability, a good many of these criteria are already met. There aren't many cities in Laos yet which hold festivals dedicated to culinary arts, awards, and contests, but that's just simply a matter of organization, not a lack of interest.

Luang Prabang may still be the best candidate for this designation due to support it's received as a UN World Heritage Site and the historicity of its culinary traditions thanks to Phia Sing and others, but I don't think it's the only option. Vientiane and Savannakhet or Pakse could also easily become candidates, and all of them would benefit from the designation. 

Even if we ultimately don't gain formal recognition as a City of Gastronomy, the quality of life and the benefits to the global and local Lao community will have been greatly improved for trying.

What do you see as the opportunities and strengths for a candidate city in Laos to make a bid?

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