A few years ago I had a request from a client, Kees Sprengers, to help him color profile his Imac and introduce him to Lightroom 2.xx. He didn't request hands on instruction with the camera and after requesting and receiving several of his images I understood why. This man knew his way around a camera! During our workshop we discussed his goals of writing a book on some topic concerning Northern Laos. Late last week via post I received a copy of his new book "Food from Northern Laos, The Boat Landing Cookbook!" I spent a few hours reading this book and immediately knew I wanted to share it with you in this column.
Yes, this is a photography column and I’m reviewing a cookbook. Stay with me a bit and I’ll explain. First, the book is heavily pictorialized with some of the better images you’ll see of northern Laos and the images really give you an insight into the Lao people and their culture. Second, the writer, Dorothy Culloty, has done a great job in the opening chapters with the historical background, and throughout the book you get more of a family story telling feeling than you would from your typical cookbook. So to me, this is much more than just a cookbook.
Much of Kees Sprengers photography take place inside dark living quarters with no artificial lighting, and many of these by necessity are high ISO captures which press the capabilities of modern photography equipment. Because he documented this project over a seven year period he’s went through several cameras, from a once popular Sony point and shoot, to Canon’s latest EOS 5d Mark II. If I have a criticism at all, it would be that I wished he’d have included his exfil data in captions so interested photographers could take note.
The opening section explains much of their history in Laos, and how they came across the Boat Landing Guest House and Restaurant and became part of their family. The Boat Landing is in the Luang Namtha province and is literally where the boats must land/dock because they can go no further as the river shallows out and the journey now becomes overland.
Above is the Boat Landing Guest House and Restaurant which prides itself as a type of ecotourist destination. You’ll enjoy reading about the Boat Landing in the book and the history of the family who runs it. The family is quite large and much effort was made to allow their guests the most comfort, with the least impact on the natural landscape.
Throughout the book you’ll see detailed pictures of the completed dishes and the ingredients to make them. The section on ingredients is very impressive. Detailed pictures will help you identify ingredients by sight, while different names are listed with ways to know the small differences which would prove helpful as well. Often sourcing ingredients, especially for foreign dishes, is a major chore. Their in-depth guide on the ingredients will make the sourcing of ingredients much easier.
Nothing is sacred in this book so you’ll find how the local insects are used for seasoning in sauces or grilled as snacks.
Cooking implements can be another obstacle, but here they’ve provided great pictures of what the locals use, and talk about modern kitchen substitutes and techniques so you can be sure to complete your recipe.
From history, to culture, and ingredients to recipes, you’ll find this book as much of an encyclopedic resource as any available. Anyone familiar with Asian recipes knows original recipes don’t make use of the standard measuring spoons and cups but instead use pinches and dashes and palm measures. The amount of work that went into converting the local portion sizes to western measures had to have been huge, but it’s been made easy for the reader with clear measures and definitions.
As you hit the recipe section you’ll find them in order of dipping sauces, stews and soups, stir fry, stuffed, steamed, grilled, salads, rice, sweets and drinks. Everything is here! This has got to be the most complete work on Northern Laos recipes available anywhere!
Many of the pictures show attractive prepared dishes full of freshness and color you rarely see. Looking at the prepared dishes you instinctively know these are healthy natural foods which would benefit anyone’s diet. You almost feel like you can reach into the image and pop a vegetable into your mouth and taste it.
It’s close up and detailed pictures such as these which will prove extremely helpful in finding the right ingredients. The grocery stores in the west often mislabel or misidentify Asian ingredients and I’ll never forget many years ago when my Korean mother-in-law visited my small ranch in Oregon and immediately went into the surrounding forest and came back with a basketful of ingredients to use for Korean cooking.
I was baffled, “this is Oregon” I said. And she’d just look at me like I was the most clueless individual alive and patiently explain how much of Asian produce grows wild and not in the neat cultivated rows we westerners associate with our own produce. “You must learn to eat what the land provides naturally” she’d tell me. Of course this makes sense, anyone traveling throughout a rural South East Asian countryside has seen this many times, but perhaps haven’t put the pieces together. One day I’ll dig out the images I have of her blackberry wine making process and tell you how we enjoyed an unlimited quantity of fine wines and how she financed her trips overseas.
Cooking aside, my favorite part of this book, and the reason I kept picking it up over and over again is for pictures like the one above. Wonderful compositions with a true feeling for the cultural landscape. How do I know? Because I’ve also spent nearly a decade of my life in SEA areas and the images help me feel at home.
I’ll be sharing this book with my children. They’re not interested in Northern Lao food in the least, but it’s been my experience when they visit SEA countryside’s and observe children their own age working all day in rice fields or cutting the heads of fish, that they tend to adopt a different perspective on their own life. You’ve read my experiences with my son at the Mae La Refugee camp and Safe Haven Orphanage and other such places, and I’m 100% convinced its helped provide a perspective responsible for his hard work at school and his natural kindness and respect for others. Food From Northern Laos will help do the same for your children.
Thank you to both Kees and Dorothy for allowing me to be one of the first to appreciate their new reference book on Northern Lao foods. I’ve enjoyed the book and my Thai wife is eager to try some of the recipes. I can also think of a few friends and family who will appreciate a copy for Christmas. A quick scan of the barcode using my new HTC Desire Android phone reveals the book can be purchased from Amazon at this link. You can also order it directly from their website here.
No review would be complete without at least one legitimate criticism and I’ll admit I had to look hard and I’m probably nitpicking, or perhaps it’s my old eyes, but I do wish the print was larger.
Note: During the process of writing this review I wanted to know more about the sweat and hard work that goes into a project of this scope, about the publishing choices and other decisions necessary. And more, what would make a middle-aged couple from New Zealand spend 7 years of their life in such a rural environment. So I asked them over for an interview! You can read that next week. ;o)
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