Ant Egg Soup by Natacha Du Pont De Bie (Sceptre Books)



If you believe that one of the main reasons to travel is to find new things to eat and if your favorite souvenirs are recipes from the countries you explore, then Natacha Du Pont De Bie is going to be your new best friend. She's the kind of woman who goes to a country simply because she's intrigued by its food, "a tourist with an inquisitive nature and an empty stomach."

Discovering that there was only one book in print written in English about the cuisine of Laos, she tracked it down, found the man who published it, Alan Davidson,and learned that he as the former British Ambassador to Laos had been given a collection of royal recipes by the Crown Prince, shortly before the monarchy was dissolved by the Pathet Lao. That was enough to send Natacha to Laos, and in 2000 off she went with her copy of Traditional Recipes of Laos, determined to meet people who would show her how different contemporary Lao cooking was from that which had been set before the King.

Arriving in Vientiane just in time for lunch, she throws herself on the mercy of the man who stamps her passport in the airport and is immediately taken to eat raw laap. This may not be the most conventional introduction to Lao food for the beginner but Natacha loves it, telling both the reasons why and how to make it in kitchens far from Laos.

There are far too few books about traveling and eating in Laos, and for that reason alone this book stands out. But to recommend it on those grounds alone would be unfair to Natacha. She's a traveler who wants to go everywhere, eat everything, talk with her mouth full, peer over shoulders in every kitchen--and then tell stories about it all. She's not averse to drinking too much Beer Lao, or even more disastrously lao-lao, but is up the next morning to see what's for breakfast (coffee, bananas, rice balls, baguettes, honey, chili sauce, sticky rice and home-made papaya jam greet her during her first Lao hangover.)

She's the kind of woman who's never met a market she didn't like, and her journey through Laos is studded with descriptions of markets and how to cook the food that's sold there. And she's clever enough to go with people who can show her food that won't be found outside of Laos' national borders--like a sliver of wood called sa-khan that's put in stews and tastes "faintly metallic with a mere trace of clove" which,she says,"made the inside of my mouth tingle and zing" and gives plain water the flavor of lemon. Ant eggs have a mild, nutty flavor that prompts her to call them the "caviar of Laos" and she tells how to cook them, if you can find them frozen or canned. Or better yet, just follow in Natacha's footsteps and eat them in Salavan on the edge of the Bolaven Plateau. I certainly plan to--and I'll probably be there in the company of my battered and travel-worn copy of Ant Egg Soup.