In 2001, while she was studying for her architecture degree at the University of Melbourne, she opened a restaurant on Smith Street in Fitzroy where, together with her mother and grandmother, she cooked family recipes. After finishing her degree, she became a registered architect and has worked at a range of Melbourne architectural studios, including her own architecture and textile studio in Carlton.
Eat Lao, her first cookbook, features a variety of Lao soups, salad, relish, and sweets recipes from her family. It’s an ode to her Lao heritage, her grandmother’s knowledge, and their shared love for food and cooking, its pages enriched with her own line drawings and imagery of her beautiful handwoven artefacts.
I wrote Eat Lao because I had a desire to reconnect with my Lao heritage and to record the memories of my childhood. As my grandmother’s health began to decline, I felt an urgent compulsion to record the recipes my grandmother cooked for me during my childhood. These recipes bring me so much joy that I wanted to share them with others. Lao cuisine is not particularly well-known but is absolutely delicious. I hope these recipes introduce the tastes of Laos into new kitchens throughout Australia.
The pitch to the publisher was to celebrate the uniqueness of the Lao food tradition. Each recipe, like the scent of a signature perfume, evokes memories of a certain moment in time.
The main thing I learned writing it was how the things that I do in my day-to-day life, such as being with family, cooking, handweaving textiles, architecture, and more are so intrinsic to my life and fill me with joy. I really relate to the words of John Lennon when he sang, ‘Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans’. I’ve been so fortunate to be able to fill my time with the things I love. This book, and the recipes it contains, has been yet another labour of love.
If you take one thing from this book, it should be to trust your intuition. Don’t overanalyse the recipes or feel the need to follow them to the letter. Use your own judgement and learn to trust your instincts. Cooking should be fun, so try to enjoy the process.
I never dreamed I’d be a good cook or be able to handweave cloth. I did what brought enjoyment to my life, and I trusted the process to get me there. Be guided by the recipes and don’t be daunted by them. The methodology should be a sounding board for your own instincts and ingenuity.
I’d love it if you tried the dill and lemongrass braised chicken. This is a quintessential Lao dish full of aromatic flavours, a staple in my family.
Add your own twist to the recipes to make them your own. In the lemongrass grilled chicken, for example, you could try substituting the chicken for tofu.
If you’re a relatively new cook, give the chicken larb or the beef salad a try. These dishes are easy to prepare. Try adding a little seasoning at a time, tasting as you go, to get the balance right. Lao food is about achieving a balance of flavours, and this is a foolproof way to begin to trust your own intuition.
If you’re looking to extend yourself a bit more, meanwhile, try the steamed fish parcel or the Lao pork sausage. There’s a little bit more technique required to prepare the ingredients and to balance the seasonings with these, but the extra effort is worth it, and the final result is absolutely delicious!
When I’m weighing up buying a cookbook or a book about food for myself I… I am a person who likes stories, and it is important that a book has an authenticity to it that allows me to connect with the author and the food. Elizabeth David does this particularly well.
The books I refer to most often when I’m cooking are Elizabeth David’s Italian Food is an absolute joy to read. It brings me comfort to know that a copy lives in my home, as it is the embodiment of living a good life with good food. I refer to it for inspiration. It encourages honest, instinctual cooking that requires you to use your imagination as well as your practical kitchen skills.
When you’ve finished reading Eat Lao, I hope you’ll taste something deliciously different and appreciate the uniqueness of Lao food. It is so incredibly moving for me to know that people with be cooking from my grandmother’s recipes and that her food will continue to bring people happiness for years to come.
Sam Sempill’s Eat Lao (RRP $48, Melbourne Books) is out now through great Victorian book stores like Readings.