I think Ant Egg Soup: The Adventures of a Food Tourist in Laos by Natacha Du Pont de Bie (Hodder & Stoughton, 2005) originally ended up on my TBR as part of a reading challenge that fell to the wayside when the pandemic hit, but I was still looking forward to reading it. No matter how hard we try, we all have gaps in our education and knowledge, and I realized that I knew almost nothing about Laos, other than…it was a country in Asia? (Southeast Asia, to be exact, which I thought, but wasn’t entirely certain of.) So this was definitely something I needed to read!
Natacha Du Pont de Bie is a lifelong foodie, and around the turn of the millennium, she became interested in Laotian cuisine and decided to take off to Laos, travel around the country, and do her best to eat like a native. While her travels occasionally led to unsafe situations (heads up for a brief attempted sexual assault; she fights him off), the vast majority of her time was spent getting to know the warm, generous, welcoming people of Laos, their beautiful green country, and their fascinating food.
She had barely stepped off the plane before she was sitting in a restaurant eating raw water buffalo. She learned that various forms of salad are served with most meals in Laos, that most families grow their own vegetables or at least their own herbs, and fish is eaten in some form at almost every meal. She ate frogs (not just the legs!), drank turkey blood, and finally, finally, after ages of searching, was able to consume ant egg soup (apparently, ant eggs taste kind of nutty). Along the way, she learned about the politics and history of this one-party Communist nation and experienced its natural beauty.
What a neat book! I had known almost nothing about Laos, and I knew even less about the food eaten there (more noodles than I thought. If pressed, I would’ve thought that rice would have been more common, but it turns out a lot of people can’t afford rice. So many people in Laos live in fairly dire poverty and there’s almost no infrastructure at all- almost no roads, and most of the country didn’t have electricity when Natacha was there. I can’t speak to conditions nowadays, almost twenty years later). Accidents, including plane crashes and bombs and landmines from what Americans refer to as the Vietnam war finally detonating, were common, and Natacha had a few near-misses. Western policy has badly affected and still continues to affect living conditions in Laos, something I had read about briefly before, but was deeply sobering to read about again and in more detail.
It struck me again while reading this how lovely it is for someone like me to read travel memoirs. Laos, with its lack of infrastructure, is likely someplace I could never go, what with my terrible back and my occasional difficulty getting around. I could never hike the trails Natacha hiked or visit the sites she did. Traveling for more than six hours on terrain that gave her problems and caused her pain would do me in. It’s not a chance I could take. So I very much appreciate being able to armchair travel via accounts like this one. It’s not quite the same, but it’s the next best thing for me. It’s nice to tag along, even in literary fashion.