Dr Cath Koa Dunsford
FOOD FROM NORTHERN LAOS – THE BOAT LANDING COOKBOOK
TEXT: DOROTHY CULLOTY
PHOTOGRAPHS: KEES SPRENGERS
GALANGAL PRESS: http://www.foodfromnorthernlaos.com
In this book, the little known cultures and cuisine of northern Laos are reflected in the recipes of its ethnic groups and Luang Namtha Province’s premiere eco-tourist lodge. Eighty eight dishes from Lao, Kmhmu’, Tai Dam, Tai Yuan and Akha are respresented in clear simple recipes translated for a wide range of audiences by the accessible and beautifully composed text of Dorothy Culloty. The stunning photography by Kees Sprengers of food preparation in village houses and also at the eco lodge ties the dishes to their indigenous settings.
Instead of reviewing this book traditionally, since I was originally asked to assess the draft text for publication, I have taken excerpts of the text highlights in that assessment report and offer them, alongside reflections since that initial reading, as an introduction to the reader who wants to further explore this exquisite culinary and cultural journey themselves through the book. As I was involved in giving feedback on the text before publication, this is the most ethical way I can represent that initial response to the text with any integrity.
The final production of this book is every bit as exquisite as the text and original photographs presented to me during the assessment process and Galangal Press can be congratulated on such a beautiful book which I hope may be a contender for book production awards as well as providing readers with one of the best cook books we have had the chance to assess or review over the past two decades [and there have been stunning ones like Ann Thorpe’s Kai Ora and Robert Oliver’s Me’a Kai – both best sellers in their genre area – see reviews : ]http://www.apwn.net]
While the book is primarily about food and centered around the Boat Landing Guest House and Restaurant, it is also an introduction to a wider cultural understanding of Laos through the people and their food. It is a passionate plea for the preservation of their unique cultural identities and also an insight into some of the tribal differences, reflected in the languages, spiritual beliefs, sense of shared communities and food, that make up the people of Laos.
The popularity of food programmes in all areas of the media - from televison and films to books - shows that people in the twenty first century are discovering other cultures and ways of existing through food and as such, this is a vital tool in educating other nations about various different cultures in a way that even the most apolitical people can take in the lessons.
Because Dorothy Culloty and Kees Sprengers each has a very astute political and cultural awareness, this underlines the book although the politics never ever intrudes on the text. It elevates this text from being yet another “coffee table” book to a real food and cultural experience which will be of interest to top chefs around the world now into all forms of “fusion” cooking to the many Western cultures currently falling in love with all forms of Asian food.
This book will also appeal to the health conscious who realise that this balance of ingredients, using meat and fish in small quantities in vegetable dishes rather than large slabs of often fatty protein in the Western diets, is much better for our health.
The book cleverly appeals to general audiences around the world because it honestly depicts a culture through its food and people while also hitting key markets in most media by appealing to the current rampant trends of interest in different cultural food traditions and how we can learn from other cultures in becoming more healthy and rounded individuals in our food, eating and lifestyle choices.
The quality of the writing is beautiful and very precise in terms of measurements and allowing us to understand extactly how a dish is prepared and made and this is enhanced by clear, exact and inspiring photographs of the food, the people and their cultural environments so that we gain a full picture of their cultural contexts.
Where this book differs from some other similar books is in the approach which honours with respect the local indigenous people and their cultural contexts while providing all the information and details needed for both professional chefs to use the book as well as novice cooks who may wish to try and adapt some of the recipes within their own cultural contexts.
Indeed, the book uses local traditions to encourage readers to experiment as the Lao people do, substituting one similar ingredient for another if they cannot find the original easily. Most Western cultures have ready access to quality Asian grocery stores these days, since the vast diaspora of Asian global cultures has impacted around the globe. Even here on the remote islands of Aotearoa New Zealand I have a choice of over 13 excellent Asian grocery stores within the nearest city to get essential cooking and preparation items and even seeds and tools for planting and harvesting Asian vegetables, which have become very popular in our Pacific fusion cooking, as indeed they have become in fusion cooking globally. Most fusion cooking today relies upon importing some Asian cooking ingredients or methods and it is here that a deeply authentic cook book like this can really become a best seller in the right marketing hands.
The time is ripe for this book because it began within a solar powered Eco-Lodge which was peopled by local Laos chefs, a symbol of modern aspirations world wide, and it has on every page and in every photograph, honoured the local people, their different local traditions, their languages, their recipes handed down from their elders through the ages and adapted to their current lifesyles. Beyond all this, it tells a vital story of survival. It is a narrative that honours local talkstory and traditions in both the words and pictures. It allows us as readers or lovers of food, an insight into local cultures at a vital time of transition, where their lifestyle and food and traditions have been captured and honoured before the invasion of modern western life has had a chance to destroy their existence and cultures in the name of “progress”, which is all too often defined in western rather than indigenous terms.
The Boat Landing Guest House and Restaurant has a Green Globe Certificate in eco-tourism as an exponent of traditional and authentic Lao cuisine, which is a huge achievement in itself. But beyond all this, we get to learn about cultures and hear narratives of people that few Westerners have really had a chance to know in such an authentic way. This book goes a long way in affirming that this could be possible, while also providing us with all we need to create a traditional Laos meal within our own homes or restaurants, or the means to adapt the recipes for some exciting Laos-Local food fusions.
Already I have imagined some of the “tongue numbing local basil” being substituted for the “tongue numbing” traditional Maori kai from the kawakawa trees in Mohala Organic Gardens here in our bay. Maybe our locally grown holy basil and kawakawa could be mixed for a Kiwi version of a Laos dish? From this book, I suspect the local Akha, Kmhmu’, or Lue women might approve of such an invention!
While most Westerners may may lump all Laotions or Laos cooks into one group, the book clearly differentiates between the different local cultures within Laos, their languages, their traditions, their religions and their different food traditions. This is inside knowledge that few books provide with such clarity, honouring the local cultures and their traditions, so that we understand and can acknowledge their huge contribution to their traditional food recipes and the modern food fusions we may make from their Laotian traditions, always honouring the people in the process.
Both text and photographs document the changing traditions from the original traditions to the current adaptations. This documentation of the transition[s] means that this book has a value way beyond its food narrative. It becomes an authentic and vital record of cultural and food traditions in Laos which may one day be of benefit to modern Laotians who want to return to their past traditions in villages where this has been replaced with Western “progress”. This is a gift or taonga that is immeasurable to the people.
Already, the use of bamboo and traditional woods and tools of construction have started to be replaced by modern methods and plastics. The sheer beauty of the photography in this book reminds us of the traditions we all once knew, that our ancestors lived through, before unsustainable practices began to rob us of our sustainable futures.
In this book, author, cultural historian, social activist and foodie Dorothy Culloty manages to pull together a beautifully and evocatively written yet precise book honouring local food traditions and ingredients, and is able to translate these successfully into measurements [which few of the local people use] and usage for a Western professional or home audience. Alongside her, professional photographer Kees Sprengers brings alive the local traditions and cultural tools of food creation with inspired and utterly beautiful photographs that have a life outside of this book in photographic art exhibitions as well as informing and inspiring the book itself.
This is a rare combination that makes this book not only a useful, exciting and practical cook book for professionals and home cooks alike, but also a work of art depicting cultures at a stage of transition which may never be quite the same again. Through this book we gain insight into unique cultures on the brink of change. We are challenged to ask ourselves not just whether we can adapt and cook these recipes but whether we can help cherish and sustain these cultures before they become devastated by the impoverishment of Western economically driven politics of business growth and government. One way of learning to understand traditional cultures in a less voyeuristic way than mainstream tourism is by supporting and staying in eco lodges of the quality and sustainability of the Boat Landing Guest House and Restaurant.
This cook book not only teaches us a huge amount about traditional cultures, languages, spiritual beliefs, food growing, foraging and cooking within regions of Laos, but also provides us with a narrative of hope for a way forward where we can all work together to honour and preserve the best of traditional indigenous cultures and foods and adapt these in our modern fusion cooking while also honouring the people who inspired their creation in the first place.This book is a rare and unique offering which could well become a popular cult book.
Whether you live in Ponsonby, Auckland and want to know how to use those beautiful male flowers of the banana plant rather than ditching them for the bananas themselves or whether you live at Mohala Organic Gardens, Tawharanui and realise that the chilli wood is in fact pepper wood and derives from the piper genus that also includes indigenous kawawaka and perhaps could thus be substituted in a recipe, this is a book for you. Whether you cook professionally in London, Melbourne, Toronto or New York and want to cook food from Laos or whether you want to include Laotian food in your fusion recipes, whether you want a unique insight into winning Masterchef or whether you simply love a strong cultural or travel narrative or learning about other cultures, this is a quality book for you.
Rather than being limited by being conceived at the Boat Landing Restaurant and Guest House this book has gained from this conception to open itself to other local cultures and traditions and has earned the respect of the indigenous people to become a rare and unique cook book that gives back to the cultures represented as well as providing global readers with terrific recipes which can be used locally and narratives that have wide interest for a general audience. Wherever you come from, this is a book for you.
I hope these comments urge readers to go out and buy this book and experience both a culinary and cultural journey of vital importance in supporting and nourishing the exquisite food of Northern Laos and enjoying preparing the foods anywhere in the world and keeping this tradition alive by doing so. You will be rewarded on so many levels through this experience. Check out the following website for further information and to purchase the book: http://www.foodfromnorthernlaos.com
[c] Dr. Cathie Koa Dunsford, 2010
Dr. Cathie Koa Dunsford [Te Rarawa, Nga Puhi Maori/Hawai’ian, Croatian & Pakeha ancestry] is author of 24 books in print and translation in USA, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Germany and Turkey, including the Cowrie eco-novel series featuring strong indigenous tangata whenua and issues of Kaitiakitanga from the Pacific region http://www.spinifexpress.com.au , http://www.amazon.com and
http://www.uspbookcentre.com Cath Koa is co-founder of Mohala Organic Gardens in Matakana, a community sub tropical and herb garden which makes herbal pestos for the Matakana Smokehouse and runs organic gardening courses in the community. Cath Koa was also Kaitiaki and Kaupapa Consultant for Rainbow Valley Farm, 2005-10. She was one of 28 chefs chosen globally to cook for athletes, officials and royalty at the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch. Dr. Dunsford is director of Dunsford Publishing Consultants, which has brought 192 new and award winning Pacific authors into print internationally: http://www.dunsfordpublishing.com Cath Koa Dunsford is recipient of two literary grants from Creative New Zealand Arts Council and was International Woman of the Year in Publishing in 1997. She has taught writing and publishing courses at Auckland University since 1975. She is on the Board of the Asia Pacific Writer’s Network and recently taught workshops at Artspeak Pasifika, 2010, funded by CNZ, NZ Arts Council. Cath Koa has performed her work at the Frankfurt, Leipzig and Istanbul Bookfairs. She was recently keynote speaker on Kaitiakitanga, International Oceanic Conference on Creativity and Climate Change, University of the South Pacific, Fiji: (http://www.usp.ac.fj/index.php?id=9020 A documentary of her work has been directed for Maori Television by Makerita Urale. She tours the world performing from the books with traditional Maori waiata and taonga puoro.
This review may be reprinted in whole with all author and book details intact so long as the review author is credited and biography retained intact.