Phia Sing’s personal collection of Lao recipes has just been republished in a new and fine edition by Tom Jaine of Prospect books. It is a seminal work and would make the most fabulous and unique Christmas present. Here’s a link to buy it, go on, you know you want it. Traditional Recipes Of Laos
A few years ago I read a sentence in the ‘Lonely Planet Guide’ stating that there was only one book in print on Lao cuisine written in the English language. For someone, like me that was just too tempting.
This was like a food-tourist equivalent of a whodunit: a real treasure hunt. I had to find that book.
The lone cookbook was called “Traditional Recipes of Laos” and was printed by Prospect Books, a tiny publisher of culinary academia and rare recipes. I placed my order and within a week I had it in my hand. A slim, cream paperback, exquisitely illustrated with delicate pen-and-ink drawings. It was a real find, for it contained the recipes of the late king of Laos’s chef, Phia Sing – the recipes of the royal court of Laos!
The book was fascinating. The forward included essays on Lao eating habits, culinary equipment and “unusual ingredients – illustrated and explained”. The recipes had intriguing titles, like ‘Deer prepared as a salad’, ‘Pickled fish roe cooked in banana leaf packets’, and ‘Sour wild chicken soup’.
As I relayed my excitement to the ladies at ‘Books for Cooks’, they told me that the owner of Prospect Books was none other than the ex-ambassador to Laos, Alan Davidson. He’d started the publishing company when he retired from the diplomatic service in 1975 and was one of the world’s foremost authorities on food, particularly fish and fish cookery. He had just finished compiling ‘The Oxford Companion to Food’, an encyclopaedic work which came out in 1999 to great acclaim.
So, that’s how I found myself knocking on Alan Davidson’s door in Chelsea. He had just arrived home from his office and greeted me, wearing a floral-patterned sun hat and carrying a bright orange patent-plastic shopping bag full of papers. A silver Buddhist medallion glinted at his neckline. Aged about seventy-five, with thick grey hair and a wicked expression, he reminded me of an absent professor. His appearance however, belied a mind like a bear-trap. As I got to know him over the coming months I noticed that he remembered every word I ever said to him. Sometimes he lost patience with my occasionally dreamy approach to life.
We sat down to tea in his living room and in his distinctive cultured drawl, he began to tell me the extraordinary story behind the book.
“Ohhhh, I was in Luang Prabang, and as a matter of courtesy I called on the Crown Prince. We were having a bit of a boring conversation when I mentioned the book I was writing, ‘Fish and Fish Dishes of Laos’. [Davidson subsequently published this - a catalogue of Lao fish species that included a score of recipes, in 1975.]
Well! He became all at once, interested and interesting and said ‘One moment I’ve just remembered something.’ He brought out these two French notebooks with lots and lots of Lao writing. ‘These are the notebooks of Phia Sing, the man who was the tutor to the royal princes and the royal Chef.’ Said the Prince. ‘He was also the court choreographer, Master of Ceremonies and attended to many, many other things. When he died he left behind these recipe books. In fact there were three, but I can’t find the other one. If you would like to borrow them you may.’
Alan looked at me conspiratorially from under his lashes.
“Mmmm, please, I said, I was convinced there must be fish recipes in them and there were. So I photocopied them and gave a set to the national library (I hope they still have them) and then returned the original notebooks to him.”
As he poured me some more tea and I noticed that he wore a watch on both wrists and his cuffs were shaggy with ‘good luck’ cotton strings tied on during the mysterious Lao ‘Baci’ ceremony.
“So then I called on the widow of Phia Sing.” He continued. “She was a very charming and dignified lady. She, in effect, determined we would become publishers by saying that if we could get the notebooks published, then Phia could rest in peace.”
He laughed and raised his eyes, “She was intonating that Phia could NOT rest in peace unless this happened. It was his DYING wish.”
This chance encounter with the Prince and the notebooks became an act of preservation, soon after this conversation, the communist party – the ‘Pathet Lao’ took over the country, dissolved the monarchy and the original books were lost forever.
Alan Davidson published a translation of the notebooks in 1981, giving the proceeds to the Laotian political refugees fleeing from the country’s re-education camps, thus ensuring the only written record of royal Lao cuisine available at the time.
I wanted to know more about Lao food and grilled Alan many times about what made it unique. He was extremely kind and helpful towards me but even though he has lived there, written a book of Lao fish species and edited Phia’s recipe book he would not be drawn into any detail unless I referred specifically to fish. Instead, he encouraged me to go and find out for myself.
I did, and then wrote my own book about the adventure – Ant Egg Soup (which you can also buy, to make it a set!) I became friends with Alan who was one of the most interesting and entertaining people it has ever been my pleasure to meet. I also befriended Soun, who drew the exquisite illustrations that pepper the translation of Phia’s book and who taught me some delicious recipes of his own. Happy days.
Prospect Books was founded by the late Alan Davidson and his wife Jane Davidson in 1979, at the same time as their journal of food history Petits Propos Culinaires. Since 1993, Prospect Books has been owned by Tom Jaine. Prospect Books continues to publish books only about cookery, food history and the ethnology of food. It is one of the very few British publishers to specialise in this field and produces four to eight books a year. Petits Propos Culinaires is published three times a year and contains articles, sometimes extracts from books or reprints, as well as reviews of current publications.