A Reverie on Phia Sing
and the Royal Soups of Laos
(e-SoupSong 58: March 1, 2005)
Permit me to introduce Chaleunsilp Phia Sing, royal chef to His Royal Highness King Sisavang Vong, the last crowned monarch of Laos in Southeast Asia.
What a guy. According to eminent British diplomat and food historian Alan Davidson, Sing was "an extraordinarily versatile man, a sort of Laotian Leonardo da Vinci...the Royal Master of Ceremonies, at a court of many and beautiful ceremonies, a physician, architect, choreographer, sculptor, painter, and poet."
Davidson should know: he'd served as British Ambassador to Laos in the crucial years of 1973-75, as the kingdom braced itself for communist takeover. Davidson may have conducted his government's affairs in frenetic Vientiane, seat of Lao government, but when he sought beauty, culture, and ritual in this fabled "Land of One Million Elephants," he traveled 200+ twisting miles north to the royal palace at Luang Prabang.
In fact, as U.S. warplanes were finalizing their 580,000+ bombing missions over Laos's Ho Chi Minh Trail and American forces were beginning to withdraw in 1974, abandoning their 36,000 Laotian supporters to the Pathet Lao, Davidson specifically sought an audience with Crown Prince Vong Savang at the palace to...discourse on Lao fishes.
By chance, that day, he also asked about traditional fish recipes. The Prince hesitated, thought for a moment, excused himself and returned with two small notebooks. These were filled with recipes written in a special, antique palace script in royal chef Phia Sing's own hand. It was an incredible and unlikely find. And 25 years ago Davidson succeeded in publishing these recipes in a small facsimile and English edition. Thank goodness, as you'll hear.
I found this dusty old book in the new state-of-the-art Seattle library late last year. I fell in love with it. I photocopied most of it. I couldn't wait to find out more about this "Laotian Leonardo da Vinci."
In fact, I'm still waiting. A month of increasingly frantic research has turned up only the briefest hints and whispers. But let me tell you what I know--and what I imagine--about this exquisite man, his life, his food, and his soups.
THE LIFE OF CHALEUNSILP PHIA SING
Sing was born in 1898 in the tiny town of Luang Prabang, royal and religious center of the Luang Phra Bang kingdom. His country was misty, mountainous, tropical, and etched with rivers. Elephants trumpeted through its teak forests, joined by exotic big cats and sun bears, barking deer and primates. Fruit trees, brilliant flowers, bamboo, and wild orchids ran rampant. Everywhere you looked you found gilded Buddhist stupas, monks in saffron robes, hot weather, rain, and homes on stilts. But--yet again in its long and tormented history--by 1898 paradise was overrun, first by its Siamese neighbors then by the French, interrupting the reigns of King Unkham and King Sakkarin. Black Flag Chinese warlords and White Tai had just recently destroyed the old palace at Luang Prabang as they sacked the city.
When Sing was five years old, he would have watched 18-year-old Crown Prince Sisavang Vong be coronated King in this French protectorate in a stately and ritualized Buddhist ceremony. At age 6 he would have walked to the river and watched the new royal palace being built, France's gift to the young King. Lovely Haw Kham, or "Golden Hall," was set on the Mekong River, allowing official visitors to step off their barges and walk straight up into its rooms of art and elegance, filled with exquisite antique Buddhas.
It was a lovely place for a boy to grow up. I imagine he was immersed in the precepts of Theraveda Buddhism and spent time as a monk in saffron robes. He was mentor to two royal half brothers, Princes Souvanna Phouma and Souvannavong (later "The Red Prince") accompanying them to Hanoi in the 1920s to be educated at L'Ecole Superieure de Pedagogie. He was just 3 years older than Souvanna Phouma and likely was schooled along with his charges, who also became engineers and architects. In time he married a lovely woman and had children of his own, but always remained a close family friend at the palace, helping generations of royal children with their homework and nursing them when they were ill.
How and when did he take over the royal kitchens? How did he learn to orchestrate the elaborate rituals, the musical intervals, the Ramayana dance-dramas of the court? I don't know. But one thing is sure: he was always on call, every waking moment of the royal family's life. Preparing and serving three or four meals each day. Orchestrating prayers and obeisances. Arranging after-dinner entertainments. Overseeing royal audiences, ceremonial occasions, banquets, and the unending procession of annual ritual celebrations. And let's not forget nursing sick royal children and helping them with their homework.
I think Sing must have found it hard, in the end, when the beautiful life he had so carefully and so faithfully orchestrated for the court was swept away. King Sisavang Vong, absorbed in exquisite ritual, could not bring himself to take power when he was crowned King of an independent land in 1946. The royal family ruptured along political lines and broke apart. When Prince Souvanna Phouma threw his half brother out, the "Red Prince" joined Vietnamese communists and formed the Pathet Lao party inside Laos. The U.S. War in Vietnam brought money, goods, corruption, and death over the border on an almost unimaginable scale. When arthritic and ailing King Sisavang Vong finally died, leaving his son Savang Vatthana as the uncrowned King, faithful Phia Sing would have been the one to take charge of his grand funeral and arrange the musical accompaniment of flutes, xylophones, and drums--and he would have been part of the dignified little procession that wound through the narrow main street of Luang Prabang to Wat That Luang, carrying the old King's ashes in a royal pagoda.
THE DEATH OF PHIA SING AND THE ROYAL KINGDOM
It was Sing's last great effort. He fell ill himself and lingered on his sick bed for a number of years. At the end, he laboriously wrote his recipes into small French notebooks and begged his wife to get them published so the proceeds could pay to build a new palace shrine for Pha Bang, the solid gold, sacred Buddha of Laos. She immediately took the notebooks to the palace and told Crown Prince Vong Savang of her husband's dying wish.
In 1967, Phia Sing succumbed to death, just as American troops began systematically dumping herbicides on Laotian borders to destroy vegetation and improve the ground visibility of military operations. He didn't live to see the American withdrawal...nor the communist takeover...nor the abdication of King Savang Vatthana...nor the appointment of the "Red Prince" as first President of the People's Democratic Republic of Laos. He was spared the knowledge that King Savang Vatthana was imprisoned with his Queen, the Crown Prince, and another son in the infamous Camp 05 in northern Laos--and spared the sorrow that all met their deaths there in a squalid cave.
Seven tumultuous years ran their course after Singís death, while his notebooks quietly sat on a palace shelf. Then, as you know, they landed quite by chance in Ambassador Davidson's pocket in 1974. Only later did Davidson learn from Sing's widow of her husband's dying wish for the notebooks. You must publish them! Mrs. Sing insisted. In Davidson's words, "I received one of those unmistakeable 'you are the man' looks from her clear eyes, as she pronounced with great distinctness words which were translated for us as: 'If you succeed, then the soul of my dear husband will at last rest in peace.'"
And so it came to pass that the Crown Prince's chance gift of royal recipes to the Ambassador was the final legacy of the Kingdom of Laos, which passed from history with his last breath in that dark cave. And so it came to pass that the soul of Phia Sing at last came to rest in peace.
THE MANUSCRIPT RECIPE BOOKS OF PHIA SING, FROM THE ROYAL PALACE AT LUANG PRABANG
Can you put yourself into the mind of this "Laotian Leonardo da Vinci" on his deathbed, with his kingdom in extreme jeopardy and his spirit yearning to earn Buddhist merit by building a great shrine for the sacred gold Buddha? What dishes would Sing select that might earn enough money to build a worthy shrine? Having never used recipes in his kitchen, how would he write them? And what would the final book say about the man and the chef?
First, a few facts. The 115 recipes are pure Lao--no Frenchifications, despite nearly 60 years of occupation; no bowing to cosmopolitan tastes or foreign courts. No hors d'oeuvres, amuses bouches, separate courses, or desserts. These are classic Lao dishes meant to be set out simultaneously as a meal for family and guests to sample...in the right pecking order, of course, according to their rank order of prestige at table.
But these are by no means everyday Lao dishes. In fact, they are almost unbelievably rich for a poor country that has subsisted largely on sticky rice and chunky fermented fish sauce throughout its existence. Only a royal court could afford the magnificence of Singís meats, fish, and wild game in these recipes. And make no mistake: Royal Master of Ceremonies Sing orchestrated the recipes in his notebooks as if he were conducting a ritualized and hierarchical classic Ramayana dance-drama.
Each native meat, fish, and delicacy is presented in the full range of Lao preparations. Chicken (with all its innards) is fried, stewed, stuffed, boiled, grilled in banana leaf packets, steamed in banana leaf packets, and, of course, cooked into soup. So are fish, duck, eggs, pork, quail, beef, deer, small birds, water buffalo, and pig trotters--also with all their innards. Then, the importance and popularity of each preparation is appropriately ranked by frequency of mention: 21 dishes are fried in pork fat and sauced; 15, grilled in banana leaf packets; 11, steamed in banana leaf packets; 10 boiled; 9 stewed; 8 stuffed; and 7 minced raw. Likewise the important main ingredients are implicitly ranked by how often they appear in the recipes: pork (from little native black pigs), 51 times; fish, 32 times; chicken, 20 times; eggs, 18 times; water buffalo, 10 times; and incrementally less in the use of shrimp, duck, fish eggs, deer, pig trotters, beef, quail, squid, crab, frog, ant eggs, birds, and water snails. Many of Singís recipes feature just one main ingredient, but just as many fearlessly combine fish, fowl, and meat. All, however, draw from the same bag of seasonings--a tremendous uniformity of fish sauce, chilies, shallots, garlic, onions, cilantro, keffir lime leaf, lemongrass, ginger, galangal, coconut milk, and salt, as if the flavorings must be a consistent background to allow the performance of the main ingredients to take center stage. The garnish of choice? A sprinkling of black pepper, just as the dish is moving to the table.
Vegetables? Not that many of them: mostly small round eggplants, long beans, cabbage, greens, and mushrooms. Raw meat? You bet. Imagine the reaction of today's disease specialists to the ever popular lap and sa dishes: wild chicken, fish, and water buffalo minced and spiced right out of the wild; water snails, deer, shrimp, pork, fish, and beef too, but marinated in lime juice as well.
And how were all these exotic ingredients measured in Sing's careful recipes? Youíre going to love these: A "rice bowl" of jelly mushrooms. A "soup bowl" of sliced cabbage. A "considerable amount" of chopped spring onions. Minced three layer pork, the quantity "the size of a henís egg." One piece of sting ray, "the size of a manís hand." One "large soup bowl" of fish eggs. One piece of fish, "four fingers wide." One piece of deer meat, "the size of the palm of a hand." "A handful" of shallots. "A fistful" of green algae. Pork "the size of a betel nut." Things like that.
THE SOUPS OF PHIA SING
You didnít think you were going to get away without an analysis of Sing's 20 odd soups, did you? Twenty of them--thatís a lot, some 19% of total recipes, including all the sauces. But appropriately so, of course. Soup was and is served with every proper Lao meal, ordinarily one of some 5 dishes. And Sing pulls out all the stops: 8 fish soups, many cooked in pork broth, some with vegetables; 5 chicken soups, one with dried squid and jelly mushrooms (I tried that first. Um, "interesting") and one with cabbage and eggs (not bad); 4 vegetable soups in pork broth; and assortment of others with duck, beef, and deer. They run a balanced gamut, of course: sour and sweet, clear and chunky, piquant and bland.
Without further ado, I invite you to try Phia Sing's Recipe #69: Keng Jeeg Kai. It's a simple, tasty chicken soup, fragrant, rich, oniony, and with a delicious tang. It makes an excellent lunch; itís guaranteed to cure what ails you if you're suffering from a headcold or flu; and, above all, itís really good to eat.
KENG JEEG KAI, or
Shredded Chicken Soup
(for 6-8 people)
3 pounds of chicken parts
8 cups cold water
6 whole scallions
12 sprigs cilantro
2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
1 large onion, peeled and chopped very fine
4 shallots, peeled and cut into pieces lengthwise (Lao shallots are quite small, so you're basically cutting big American shallots to resemble the "handful" that's called specified)
6 small garlic cloves, peeled (if large, cut them into pieces lengthwise, like the shallots)
Fish sauce (nam pla or nuoc mam), to taste (try 2-3 Tablespoons)
Salt to taste
Garnish: freshly grated black pepper and thinly sliced green parts of scallions
Put the chicken pieces, water, scallions, cilantro, and salt in a large pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer until the chicken is tender, about 20-30 minutes. Strain the soup, replacing the broth in the pot and skimming fat as necessary. Discard the scallion and cilantro and reserve the chicken, letting it cool until it's easy to handle.
Bring the broth back to a boil and scrape in the onion, shallots, and garlic. Cook, covered, over medium low heat for about 20 minutes, until the shallot is tender. Meanwhile, strip the skin off the chicken, and the chicken off the bones, and shred finely. When the soup is done, add the chicken, stir in the fish sauce, and taste for saltiness. You can add more salt or fish sauce, to your taste.
When ready to serve, pour into a serving bowl (or individual bowls), garnish with freshly ground black pepper and sliced green scallions, and carry to the table.
I wish you could have been reading over my shoulder as I propped up book after book in front of me to try to penetrate Phia Sing's extraordinary and vanishing world. One in particular sticks in my mind: Het Bun Dai Bun: The Sacred Rituals of Luang Prabang. It was filled with black and white photographs of young Buddhist monks dressing themselves in the morning and being ordained; families celebrating the birth of a child; festivals of boats and lights and Pha Vet and harvests; rites of night and for the dead. That's the essence of what I take away from my inquiry into Phia Sing: a gentle man, exacting chef, and artist who lived his life to bring ritual and beauty into a chaotic world. What does Het Bun Dai Bun mean? It means "whoever does good, the beautiful or the right, will receive the same gift in return." That's my lesson for the day.
p.s. One day late! So shoot me. It's been a busy month--trips to Paris and the Chicago opera...but those are different stories.
SPECIAL OFFER: Still stands. If you've been sweet enough to buy my Exaltation of Soups, I'd love to send personal inscriptions on these cute postcards my publicist gave me. Just email me at email@example.com ...and the cards will be in the mail....
Resources: Hans George Bergers' Het Bun Dai Bun, Laos: Sacred Rituals of Luang Prabang; Jane Bickersteth and Joshua Eliot's Laos Handbook; Outhine Bounyavong's Mohter's Beloved Stories from Laos; l Colin Cotterill's The Coroner's Lunch; Joe Cummings' Laos; Brett Dakin's Another Quiet American; Alan Davidson's "The Prospect Behind Us"; Dr. Tom Dooley's Three Great Books, including "The Edge of Tomorrow" and "The Night They Burned the Mountain"; Vicky Elliot's Berkeley Chef Shares Delights of Laotian Cuisine; Grant Evans, A Short History of Laos, "The Raw and the Cooked"; ; Joel M. Halpern's Government, Politics, and Social Structure in Laos; Oden Meeker's The Little World of Laos; Martin Newman's A Taste for Travel; and Phia Sing, Traditional Recipes of Laos.
NEXT MONTH: Test Your Skills: Soupsong Crossword Puzzle on the Boil!