THE LIFE OF A PROP buyer for film sets changed course when a Lonely Planet guide told her that just one English-language cookbook on Laotian food existed. Where others would see good ingredients, Natacha Du Pont De Bie saw a recipe to make a living as what she calls an epic eater and traveller. Three years later, her endearingly curious travel cookbook, Ant Egg Soup, begins: 'I'm not a chef and I'm not a journalist. I'm just a greedy romantic who was transported by an idea and went to discover more.' She spent five months travelling in Laos, documenting her culinary experiences and the culture before returning to England and having two children with her partner, Giles, a film director, while writing the book. 'I basically turned my hobby into a book,' says Du Pont De Bie in the cafe of central London's Royal Institute of British Architecture - where Tibetan campaigners keep silent vigil outside, directly opposite the Chinese embassy. 'I find food is a conduit to discover people and culture. I get very interested in people's cooking and you find out all about them and often get invited into their house. You just see a side of the country you're visiting in a way that you never would otherwise. It is a fundamental of life, food and sex. I like travelling, I like eating, but I don't consider myself a gastro.' When she embarked on her project, her only competitor in the English-language Laotian cookbook market was Traditional Recipes of Laos, a translation of the book by Phia Sing, the cook to the royal household of Laos. His recipes were written in two small exercise books and handed to the crown prince as Sing lay dying in 1967. The late publisher Alan Davidson was given a copy just before the communist takeover in 1975. Sing's book contained everything from the rural fare of cured fish, laap, to fresh deer prepared as a salad. Du Pont De Bie fears no food, thanks to a 'cast-iron' stomach and a regular dose of grapefruit seed extract, an antibacterial agent to eliminate any bugs. 'I never had a problem with food,' she says. 'I like everything, and the food of Laos is very clean and fresh. Lao people are obsessed with freshness. If something is slightly wilting they just don't want to eat it. And they wash everything. They're very fastidious about that, running water. 'Ant egg soup was the extreme end of wild foods. The more I travelled around Laos, the more I realised wild food was the main ingredient of many things, including in towns. It's seen as better, more natural. In Laos you can go a mile away from the town and you're in deep countryside. People go out picking their own plants and there are a lot of pheasanty-type birds they like to shoot. Fish is the main dish and there are millions of rivers and streams everywhere.' Her first effort at writing is erudite and imbued with the same fairness and honesty that shows in her face. It chronicles not just the food but the friendships, culture and sights - from wats to mountain caves, four-metre-long catfish prowling the river beds and the superb coffee of the Bolaven Plateau, a confluence of the Mekong River. Add to this the mountaintop women's business co-operative and various holy festivals and you have a rich picture of life in Laos. The book is interspersed with detailed descriptions of cooking practices and recipes, including ant egg soup, frog stew, fish dishes and papaya salad. After spending much of her childhood travelling with her mother and sister to places such as Hong Kong, Thailand, Bali, India, Vietnam and Malaysia, Du Pont De Bie describes Asia as a second spiritual home. 'I'm interested in all areas of the world, but I have a great love of Asia,' she says. 'Laotians are the Italians of Southeast Asia. They are so ebullient and fun, warm and lovely. 'My mother informed me to do what I do today. She still travels and eats a lot. When I was in Hong Kong at 13 my mum and sister and I toured the restaurants, going down these little alleys. I don't know how she found them. They were tiny places where we'd all be crushed on to one table. I remember we had chicken with 100 cloves of garlic, or was it a thousand cloves of garlic, and then we all went back to the one little room and packed it out. The person came in to clean it the next morning and nearly fainted because we'd been farting garlic and burping garlic all night.' Now living in her late mother-in-law's cottage overlooking woods near the northern edge of Dartmoor in the Devon countryside, Du Pont De Bie is already planning, with Giles and their daughters, Xanthe and Saskia, a follow-up, setting aside winter to investigate another country. 'We decided we'd leave the grimness of London and move into that house. People still believe in being Devonian - that's why Devon is so fabulous. And it is amazing what ingredients are available everywhere now. I cook Laotian food all the time. I had laap just this morning. It's very easy to do and very good to use your leftover chicken on. 'All cooking is ingredient-led - if lemongrass and galangal come from certain places you're not traditionally going to find them in Britain. But with globalisation I could almost say ingredients like that are part of English cuisine now. In Laos the main difference I found was the interesting use of wild herbs and wild fish and the lack of dried spices. They didn't really use dried, powdered spices at all. They use paa-dek, which is made of unpasteurised, fermented fish. You can buy it very easily in London and Exeter and everywhere. I often shove it under people's noses. It just lifts the food.' Her journey through Asia culminated in Hackney, London, where she had a chance encounter with Crown Prince Soulivong, the exiled heir to the royal throne of Laos who fled Laos in 1981. His grandparents, the king and queen, and his father died in a re-education camp in his homeland. Soulivong, 41, lives in France and refuses to become involved in Laotian politics. In a community centre for refugees, Du Pont De Bie chatted with him about his recollections of Phia Sing and the food of his homeland. 'My heart stopped when I walked in that room,' she said. 'I'd been wanting to interview him since I came back, but everyone was saying it's impossible to get to him and he won't give interviews. 'I was at the VCL [Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laos centre]. It's like a big wooden shack in South Hackney that's used as a meeting place for those communities. They run a good noodle bar at lunchtime. 'Phia Sing died the year I was born and I was interested in discovering people who had actually eaten this food and would know him, or anyone who had lived in the palace at the time,' she said. 'But I hadn't been able to find anyone when I was in Laos who had eaten in the palace. Most of the royal family had to flee. Many of them went to France and America. I have friends who are part of the royal family, second cousins, here. They were too young to remember anything like that. 'But the prince had a very good memory of the cook. Phia Sing was like a Renaissance man. He didn't just cook, he was everything. He was the kind family friend. The prince remembered him helping him when he was ill, he remembered him helping him with his homework, things like that. 'Some things are worth preserving, but Laos is very much as it has always been. I would hate to think it could ever be any different.'