In the early 20th century, Chaleunsilp Phia Sing was the royal chef at the
This publication was no simple task. Each of Phia Singâ€™s pages in Lao was photocopied, but the lines of his original graph paper came through. So a fleet of hospitalized Lao refugees in
Phia Sing had one great wish: that proceeds from the publication of a Lao recipe book would go toward a new shrine to protect the Prabang, the countryâ€™s most revered sacred object, a venerated statue that is paraded through Luang Prabang and washed in each new yearâ€™s ceremonies. At the time of publication, there was no way a shrine would come about. So instead, book proceeds have gone toward helping Lao refugees.
And we, the interested cooks and readers of the world, get a treasure: 318 pages of recipes and insights into the Lao kitchen. Phia Sing begins with Lao eating habits and attitudes toward food (much is medicinal in nature; and ginger, central to many dishes, bears ritual significance, representing gold).
He continues with a glossary of cooking terms (eg, nian is a verb meaning to make something into a homogenous sticky mass â€“ I love it. Every language should have a verb such as nian), descriptions of kitchen tools, types of rice, terms of measurement, sketches of ingredients, the Lao and Latin names for edible plant and animal species, and simply more downright useful information on Lao cooking than I have ever encountered elsewhere in one handy spot.
I had come across some of Phia Singâ€™s recipes through Northern Illinois University. But now I have all 114 dishes â€“ versatile, dynamic. Of coruse, not a single recipe is altered or amended for anything but a Lao kitchen. Many recipes call for padek, water buffalo parts, giant catfish roe, flat-bottomed spring onions (phak boua lai leui) grown by the Kha people, and numerous other ingredients I will never find at home in New Mexico.
On the other hand, the Laos have long been open to experimentation and some dishes call for the French additions of butter or tomato paste. Reading Phia Sing gets my creative brain working; Iâ€™m envisioning all sorts of new concoctions to try at home. Thank you, Phia Sing.
Though he could not build a shrine for the Prabang, I hope he would take comfort in knowing, when I last saw it a few years ago, the statue was duly honored in a ceremony that drew thousands.
And I hope Phia Sing would also take comfort in knowing his cuisine is alive and well in cities and villages across