Citizens! The ancient kingdoms of Southeast Asia are redolent with legend and mystery – the ancient Cambodian Empire headquartered at Angkor Wat is just one example of many in the region! For example, the kingdom of Lan Xang Hom Khao (Kingdom of a Million Elephants Under the White Parasol), which existed for four centuries was in fact one of the largest kingdoms in Southeast Asia.
Today, it is known as Laos and one of the most prized cookbooks I own was the personal notebook of the last Royal chef of Laos in Luang Phrabang. More on Phia Sing shortly, but today I share one of his personal recipes – for Royal Laotian Salad, a favorite recipe of the King!
As to the Royal history of Laos – Lan Xang (1353–1707) was one of the largest kingdoms in Southeast Asia. As noted before, it was known as the ‘Land of a million elephants under the white parasol’ – the kingdom’s name alludes to the power of the kingship and formidable war machine of the early kingdom.
Due to Lan Xang’s central geographical location in Southeast Asia, the kingdom became a popular hub for overland trade, becoming wealthy economically as well as culturally. After a period of internal conflict, Lan Xang broke off into three separate kingdoms—Luang Phrabang, Vientiane, and Champasak.
In 1893, it became a French protectorate, with the three territories uniting to form what is now known as the country of Laos. It briefly gained independence in 1945 after Japanese occupation, but was recolonized by France until it won autonomy in 1949. Laos became independent in 1953, with a constitutional monarchy under Sisavang Vong.
Shortly after independence, a long civil war began, which saw the communist resistance, supported by the Soviet Union, fight against, first, the monarchy and then a number of military dictatorships, supported by the United States. After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the Communist Pathet Lao movement came to power, seeing the end to the civil war and the end of the monarchy.
Allow me to quote near verbatim from a fantastic writeup of Phia Sing at the great blog ramblingspoon.com:
In the early 20th century, Chaleunsilp Phia Sing was the royal chef at the Luang Prabang Palace. He died in 1967 at the end of a protracted illness. In his last months, he recorded the history and legacy of Lao cuisine, writing across the grids of French notebook pages.
His notes passed into the hands of the Crown Prince who, in 1974, gave Phia Sing’s remarkable hand-written recipes to Alan Davidson. Thanks to that exchange, we have today a bilingual book, Traditional Recipes of Laos, edited by Alan and Jennifer Davidson, translated by Phouangphet Vannithone and Boon Song Klausner, published in 1981 by Prospect Books.
This publication was no simple task. Each of Phia Sing’s pages in Lao was photocopied, but the lines of his original graph paper came through. So a fleet of hospitalized Lao refugees in London (following the Lao communist takeover) were employed to white out each unwanted line.
Phia Sing had one great wish: that proceeds from the publication of a Laotian recipe book would go toward a new shrine to protect the Prabang, the country’s most revered sacred object, a venerated statue that is paraded through Luang Prabang and washed in each new year’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 Laotian 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 – 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 Laotian cooking than I have ever encountered elsewhere in one handy spot.
I had come across some of Phia Sing’s recipes through Northern Illinois University. But now I have all 114 dishes. Of course, 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; I’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.
My copy of the original 2nd-edition cookbook is long out-of-print, but it is now back in print again after many years – you can buy it at Amazon here.
Many of Phia Sing’s recipes use ingredients totally unique to the Laotian jungle, and as such they cannot be made anywhere outside the country. This recipe for a grand ‘Yam Yai’ (mixed dish) was almost one of them, but I have substituted a far more available ingredient as noted in the recipe. I have also specified specific quantities of several ingredients that had no measurements in the recipe. Pre-shredded dried squid ( a tasty protein-rich snack, BTW) is available from Amazon here.
Citizens, as befits a royal recipe, there are no shortcuts here except where modern conveniences like ovens can replace charcoal fires for roasting certain ingredients. You will be well-rewarded for your efforts with a truly unique dish that is a genuine reflection of a country’s history and terroir. For a royal Lao feast, it would be a delicious accompaniment to Or Lam, amongst several other dishes.
Battle on – the Generalissimo