Ant Egg Soup: The Adventures of a Food Tourist in Laos

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 May, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 May, 2004, 12:00am

Ant Egg Soup: The Adventures of a Food Tourist in Laos

by Natacha Du Pont De Bie

Sceptre $145

Natacha Du Pont De Bie is not the smug tourist who goes to a third-world country professing eagerness to experience the out-of-the-ordinary, only to head to McDonald's or Starbucks at the first opportunity, and to haggle with the 'natives' over the smallest denomination of dong, riel or kip. As the title of the book suggests, Du Pont De Bie travels to eat. She goes in search of new and exciting dishes, and nothing proves too strange or exotic for her to taste.

Born in France, Du Pont De Bie was bitten by the travel bug when very young, journeying with her mother and sister to exotic places, including Marrakesh (when she was only five), Asia and India. So, when she reads Traditional Recipes of Laos, by Phia Sing, chef to the Lao royal family, which was edited by the late, great food historian Alan Davidson, Du Pont De Bie knows she's found the perfect combination of her interests. She changes her plans to go to Vietnam and heads off on her own for a five-month trek through Laos. She writes about her adventures in various towns - from tiny villages off the beaten tourist track to larger places such as Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Each chapter ends with recipes for the dishes she's just described.

Du Pont De Bie is curious and observant, describing what she sees with passion. She writes in as much detail - but with disgust, not passion - about some of the foreign trekkers she encounters: the ones looking for drugs and bargains, who don't realise or care about the poverty of the people they exploit.

Although the scenery is beautifully described, the Lao people and their food really hold the writer's interest. She's a sensitive traveller, attempting to blend in as much as possible and taste everything, so she doesn't offend her generous hosts. She samples dishes most tourists would eschew: raw meat laap, the larvae of silk worms and, of course, the ant egg soup of the title. Because Du Pont De Bie expresses such interest, the villagers open their kitchens to her, and she comes away with recipes for Vandara's paradise chicken and Lao tomato sauce, Miss On's spicy beef, Soun's Vientiane-style Or with pork and So Pon's green papaya salad.

She does have a difficult time with some traditions: breaking the legs of live frogs and stringing them together so they can't escape; and animals who see their companions killed, knowing they're the next to die. But she tries not to be judgmental. 'In Laos, they have a different attitude to animals than in England. It's a rural country, and they take the farmyard view that animals are workers or food producers.'

The book could benefit from tighter editing. In one recipe she writes in the instructions about chopping lung meat, but it's not listed in the ingredients. In another, she mentions a person named Rachel - several chapters before the character is introduced. Despite these small faults, Ant Egg Soup is an excellent reference for food tourists - and armchair food tourists - in search of something a little more adventurous than the books on a year in Provence or Tuscany that normally crowd the travelogue shelves.

Susan Jung is the Sunday Morning Post's food and wine editor and a former chef.