The best books on Lao cuisine and food culture

Natacha Du Pont de Bie Author Of Ant Egg Soup: The Adventures Of A Food Tourist In Laos
By Natacha Du Pont de Bie

Who am I?

I’ve been fascinated by Lao Food for more than two decades. When I first went to Laos, the communist regime had closed the country for years but the isolation had kept the food culture in stasis, uncontaminated by outside influences. It was virtually unknown outside the regional area and deserved to be better known and celebrated. Lao cuisine is a remarkable synthesis of a thousand years of history, culture, and, as the French would say ‘terroir’, that unique context of land and farming practice that results in regional flavour. I love that authentic food, and I admire the beautiful country, and the friends I have made in my exploration of both. 

I wrote...

Ant Egg Soup: The Adventures Of A Food Tourist In Laos

By Natacha Du Pont de Bie,

Book cover of Ant Egg Soup: The Adventures Of A Food Tourist In Laos

What is my book about?

Natacha Du Pont De Bie is no ordinary tourist. She'll trek for hours or even days in search of a good lunch. Her obsession with food is such that, while others are lying comatose on the beach or cycling up mountains, she'll be down at the local market, elbow deep in produce, grilling people on where to find the best indigenous restaurants and cafés and jotting down recipes.

Ant Egg Soup chronicles a gastronomic pilgrimage to Laos by an intrepid author who went the extra mile to find authentic and exciting local cuisine and learn about its little-known food culture.

The books I picked & why

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Traditional Recipes of Laos

By Phia Sing,

Book cover of Traditional Recipes of Laos

Why this book?

In 2000 I read a sentence in a guidebook stating that there was only one book in print on Lao cuisine written in the English language. The lone cookbook was called Traditional Recipes of Laos and was printed by Prospect Books, a tiny publisher of culinary academia and rare recipes. It was a real find, for it contained the recipes of the late king of Laos’s chef, Phia Sing – the recipes of the royal court of Laos! This book sent me to Laos to find out more and write my own book.

The story behind the publication of the book was extraordinary. The king’s chef had handwritten his precious recipes in two small exercise books, which on his deathbed in 1967, he gave to the Crown Prince for safe-keeping. In 1974, Alan Davidson, the British ambassador to Laos and respected food academic, happened to be chatting to his Royal Highness when he mentioned his difficulty in finding written sources of Lao fish recipes for a book he was writing on fish species when the story came out. He borrowed the books and photocopied them before giving them back. This chance encounter with the Prince and the notebooks became an act of preservation, soon after this conversation, the communist party – the ‘Pathet Lao’ took over the country, dissolved the monarchy and the original books were lost forever.

Alan Davidson published a translation of the notebooks in 1981, giving the proceeds to Laotian political refugees fleeing from the country’s re-education camps. He thus ensured the only written record of royal Lao cuisine available today.

Food From Northern Laos: The Boat Landing Cookbook

By Dorothy Culloty, Kees Sprengers (photographer),

Book cover of Food From Northern Laos: The Boat Landing Cookbook

Why this book?

This is a cookbook documenting northern Lao food preparation, Lao ingredients, and Lao recipes by a couple, Dorothy and Kees, who worked in Laos as volunteers. They met with many people I knew and wrote about including the family who ran The Boat Landing guesthouse. This is an extremely well-researched book on the food of the Luang Namtha district, which includes excellent photography, precise recipes, ingredient explanations, and a clear glossary. The recipes are authentic to the core so you might not be able to source many of the ingredients outside Laos but it’s an important book for anyone interested in Lao cuisine.

Fish and Fish Dishes of Laos

By Alan Davidson,

Book cover of Fish and Fish Dishes of Laos

Why this book?

This is a reprinting of Alan Davidson's study of the fish cookery of Laos. It contains a catalogue of species, as well as a collection of recipes. This book is an invaluable companion to have in hand while you peruse the markets in Laos or the regions around it. However, like his seminal work The Oxford Companion to Food, Davidson’s meticulous empirical approach to research and his indomitable knack for finding an amusing anecdote makes it an excellent armchair read too.

Plants and People of the Golden Triangle: Ethnobotany of the Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand

By Edward Anderson,

Book cover of Plants and People of the Golden Triangle: Ethnobotany of the Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand

Why this book?

A superb, illustrated coffee-table book describing the Hill Tribes and their relations to plants from cultivation and marketing, to nutrition and spiritual use. Though not specifically about Laos, many of the tribes are in Laos too and they cross borders. An important book for the conservation of tribal knowledge and food culture.

Hawker Fare: Stories & Recipes from a Refugee Chef's Isan Thai & Lao Roots

By James Syhabout, John Birdsall,

Book cover of Hawker Fare: Stories & Recipes from a Refugee Chef's Isan Thai & Lao Roots

Why this book?

Many children of Lao refugees, who fled the communist take-over in the ’70s, are now coming of age and sharing their take on Lao cooking across the globe. Hawkers Fare details the story of James Syhabout who earned his spurs as a chef at hallowed restaurants such as The Fat Duck and El Bulli before opening his own Commis in Oakland and gaining two Michelin stars of his own.

Though known for fine dining this book is a homage to his Lao roots and his journey of discovery into his origins as the son of refugees who came to the US with nothing but their ability to work hard. He tells their story and returns to Laos himself where he picks up the flavours of his mother’s homeland with the scrupulous nose of a super-chef. It includes recipes that are both authentic but, unusually, measured out with pinpoint accuracy in both imperial and metric measures. James still has his Michelin starred restaurant but he has now opened Hawker Fare selling Lao-Issan street food, evolving Lao cuisine further with the addition of amazing cocktails!

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