Monday, September 19, 2011

Lao Gastronomy: Fish and Fish Dishes of Laos

In the 20th century, former British Ambassador to Laos, Alan Davidson was presented with the notebooks of Phia Sing. 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.

Before arranging for the translation and publication of Phia Sing's Traditional Recipes of Laos, in 1975, Davidson used the notes as a basis to compose Fish and Fish Dishes of Laos. The current edition was reprinted by Prospect Books in 2003.

Drawings were provided by Elian Prasith Souvannavong, Thao Soun and Thao Singha. It would be wonderful to find additional examples of their work in the future. Unfortunately, there is no name for the artist who does the cover other than that he was a student at the Lycee Technique in Vientiane in the 1970s.

It's a remarkable book with lavish illustrations by Lao artists that is far from a traditional book one might expect on the subject, and I would happily recommend it to anyone interested in Lao cuisine but also the aquatic fauna and flora of Laos.

Essentially, this book breaks down into 4 categories: 1) Carp and kindred fish,  2) Catfish, 3) Perch-like fish 4) Other fish and Oddities and Mysteries.

When you see the different types of fish within these categories, it's a wonderful reminder of the biological diversity that abounds in the Lao waterways. Each entry provides notes on the fish, what it's called in English, and other countries, the Lao spelling, and of course, which dishes they taste good in.

He has a particular and deserved fascination with the legendary giant catfish the Pa Beuk, and some of the best notes collected on this amazing fish I've seen so far.

Davidson also provides recipes from Laos, but also, helpfully, a few sample recipes from Burma, Thailand and Vietnam that allow you to really see the variation. Some of the dishes such as Pa Ten, or jumping fish are not going to be easy to prepare in the U.S., while others are very, very specific about the fish that can be used, such as Mam Pa Kor which requires the Pa Kor usually found in mountainous areas:

The latest edition has a number of corrections from previous editions, so I'd recommend paying attention to these. Davidson also provides a number of excellent anecdotes from his experiences collecting these recipes that are often quite humorous and insightful. 

Officially, it might seem pricey at $27, but you can find editions within $19, plus shipping and handling. I'd consider it well worth adding to a personal library of Lao books, especially with Traditional Recipes of Laos.

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