Ant Egg Soup, The Adventures of a Food Tourist in Laos, by Natacha Du Pont De Bie, Hodder and Stoughton, 2004, 342pp.
Patricia gave me this as a solsticial gift, and it is much better than that Cambodia book that I read a while back. Ms. DPDB is intrigued that there is only one Laotian cookery book: Traditional Recipes of Laos by Phia Sing, who cooked for the king, at least until the communists starved the whole royal family to death in a cave. She gets some advice from Alan Davidson, who wrote Fish and Fish Dishes of Laos, and off she goes for a few months.
The food sounds great. A lot of it comes from the Mekong. Fermented fish sauce is a basic ingredient. The giant catfish is supposedly delicious, but endangered. Instead we can try the river algae, Kaipen (good deep-fried in peanut oil). Flavors are smokier than Thai/Vietnamese cooking, and there are more ingredients from the jungle. Ms DPDB eats anything, though the big flapping arteries in pig lungs put her off slightly. Her search for fresh, nutty-flavored ants' eggs provides the minimal narrative drive. The rest is just interesting travelogue, with lots of beautiful experiences with butterflies and waterfalls, and ugly experiences with other Westerners or with the occasional official (this was a near-rape). Americans can feel guilty about the Hunt brothers' market manipulation, which led to heirloom silver being melted down. And they can feel much guiltier about all the unexploded bombs (esp. cluster bombs) near the border.
Laotians eat many forms of salad. This one interested me (the book has numerous recipes):
Raw Green Bean Salad This is an excellent dish for summer. Make it for lunch as a side dish, pack it into a picnic basket or just eat it as a light snack. It is Rachel's and my favourite recipe. 1 large clove garlic. peeled 1 bird's-eye chilli 1 heaped teaspoon rough salt 1 level dessertspoon brown sugar 2 tablespoons unsalted peanuts 0450 g (1 lb) raw green beans or long beans. topped and tailed. cut into 2.5 cm (1 inch) pieces 1 tablespoon fish sauce 3 flavourful medium tomatoes. quartered. or 8 cherry tomatoes, halved juice of one lime (or more. to taste) Pound the garlic, chillies. salt and sugar in a pestle and mortar until they are a rough paste. Add the peanuts and pound to break them up (not too fine). Add the bean pieces and fish sauce and pound them until they are bruised so the flavours infuse. Add the tomatoes and pound a few more times. Squeeze on the lime and serve immediately.
If you want to eat Laotian food in London, the author recommends Soun Vannithone's cooking at the Front Page Pub (Richmond or Pimlico). You can hear Ms. DPDB cooking Beef Laap here.
Though the book is long, and the writing can be sloppy occasionally, I recommend reading it if you are planning on (or dreaming of) going to Laos, which sounds like a great place to visit for the people as well as the food and scenery.
Ewan was the first to write: mmmmm big flapping arteries.
Paul wrote: Is there any ethnic food of the old world that the tomato has not come to influence?
I replied: It's amazing, isn't it! The author points out that chillies are another new-world plant that were completely adopted in Asia.
P wrote: I should have asked for raw green bean salad yesterday!