Thursday, September 01, 2011

Lao Gastronomy: 30 years since Traditional Recipes of Laos

This year is the 30th anniversary since the release of Phia Sing's classic text Traditional Recipes of Laos, translated from his notebooks for Alan Davidson with the help of Phouangphet Vannithone and Boon Song Klausner. Soun Vannithone provided illustrations for this fascinating text.

Davidson had received the notebooks on loan in 1974 and previously had a partial translation done in 1975 called Fish and Fish Dishes of Laos. Davidson passed away in December, 2003.

Born in Luang Prabang, Phia Sing lived from 1898 to 1967 and was a royal chef and master of ceremonies to the kings of Laos. He was a Lao renaissance man, skilled as a doctor, architect, dancer, sculptor, painter, poet and mentor to Lao princes.

As a royal chef, he identified over 114 recipes essential to an understanding of Lao cuisine and our culinary heritage. He also had extensive remarks on the ingredients and equipment that was common to Southeast Asia and those that were unique to Laos and the Lao palate.

Many of these dishes can be found in Lao restaurants across the US, but many more will only be found in homes and certain festivals in certain communities. There are the expected recipes for classic dishes like Laap and Khao Pieak, but also less common dishes such as Kanab Padaek, Ba Ling Sousi Haeng, Tom Om Kanna Kuai and Om Teen Moo.

As Lao Americans and others around the world continue to work to preserve our heritage, we are faced with an interesting challenge: The old saying is 'you are what you eat,' but eating Lao dishes alone will not make you Lao any more than eating sushi makes you Japanese. But we should ask, what does it really say about us as a people, and where might we go from here?

Most of us must recognize that in our lifetimes, how many of us are likely to taste all 114 of these dishes even once? Let alone well-prepared versions, with good company.

It will take more examination to see: Do these recipes reflect all 17-18 provinces of Laos. And while this is extensive, it is surely not exhaustive.

I cannot help but feel even more work and research remains to be done to build upon Phia Sing's impressive work.

Further, I would urge Lao households and cooks to continue to add to the repertoire of dishes that may be part of distinctive Lao cuisine. Let's not let our gastronomic heritage languish.

Let's experiment and create dishes that go beyond merely tasting good. When we are successful in developing new recipes, those recipes will also reflect our various locations and community histories, our regional tastes, and our values that we would pass on to the next generation.

For example, I would personally consider a variation on an ortolan, veal or foie gras abhorrent and inconsistent with Lao values. However, a Lao approach to sustainably harvested ocean fish and an abundance of access to seaweed and North American fauna could become a very intriguing culinary exercise.

There's a wide variety of possibilities and I look forward to seeing the discussions that emerge from all of this.

What are some of your favorite Lao dishes or new recipes you're inventing?

1 comment:

chrmega said...

from my experience, i notice that most people don't know who Lao people are, never had Lao food or know that Laos is a country. i don't believe we should be trying to develop new recipes when not many people have had a chance to try authentic Lao food. i think it's most important to carry on tradition or go back and learn.