CHIANGRAI TIMES – Sales of a modest cookbook by a Klong Toei slum resident have boomed after British celebrities gave it a plug – because of its eye-catching name. “Cooking with Poo” garnered global headlines after it won the Diagram Prize in an international contest for the oddest book title.
Saiyuud “Chompoo” Diwong came up with the book with the help of Australian supporters who live in Bangkok’s biggest slum and concoct small business schemes that have benefited “Poo” and her equally underprivileged neighbours.
The title is essentially a gimmick for a very worthy cause – a joke that can’t help but catch the eye on the cover of an attractive 112-page collection of basic Thai recipes.
It’s likely that the Australians would have had to explain to Poo why they were giggling about the proposed title. Poo is English schoolboy dialect for excrement – not a kitchen ingredient of choice. And English schoolboy humour is a stock in trade in British show business.
(Poo is short for Saiyuud’s nickname Chompoo, so it has a hard “p”, unlike Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s nickname Poo – “Crab” – whose “P” sounds more like a “b” to foreign ears.)
So when the book’s title won the Diagram Prize, some big names in the UK were delighted to repeat it – over and over. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver shared the cover of the book in an online instagram in late March and top British comic Stephen Fry boosted made comments about it on Twitter – where he has no fewer than four million followers. The book was mentioned in the Guardian newspaper too.
Launched at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Bangkok in the middle of last year, the book has sold steadily – more than 6,000 copies so far – despite sales relying primarily on private orders over the Internet. Bookstores are only just starting to take an interest.
“Cooking with Poo” owes its success to lots of good ingredients – it’s a quality product, full of nice colour photos and beautifully laid out. It’s also been marketed with clever promotional work. It’s cheap for farang here and overseas – Bt500 plus postage – and it directly helps some of Thailand’s poorest citizens.
And then there’s the double entendre of the title.
Poo began publicising her cookbook with a range of interviews and media appearances during a tour of eastern Australia last June and July.
One of the brains behind the book is Anji Barker, a former Melbourne resident who moved to Klong Toei with her husband Ash about a decade ago. The Barkers are members of a group called the Urban Neighbours of Hope, which backs small business schemes to help residents in the slum earn a better living.
Helping Hands Projects include a handicraft initiative and the cooking school and catering service run by Poo. “Helping Hands Thai Cooking School was started by Poo as a way to use her gift of cooking to earn a fair wage,” Anji writes in the book’s introduction.
“Poo has built quite a reputation for herself among tourists and the expat community in Bangkok. She is famous for making very simple, reproducible Thai food that’s adjusted for the foreign palate. (If you’re Thai you may not like these dishes, but you can always add chilli and pla ra!)
“Poo started cooking out front of her house 10 years ago,” Anji explains. “She would sell up to 100 dishes per day and make enough for her family to live on and occasionally save a little. When the cost of rice doubled a number of years ago, she found that she could no longer make a living selling from her house. She approached me to find her a job outside of the slum.”
Anji and her associates decided on a cooking school and Poo “started small with people who knew us well and were willing to be our guinea pigs”. Within a few months the classes were so popular that Poo and Klong Toei Handicrafts (another employment initiative – www.Handicrafts.org.au) joint set up a facility they could share in what had been a burnt-out shack.
Demand continued to grow, so Poo expanded a few doors down the soi and now takes 10 people per class instead of two or three. She’s also developed a catering business that employs many people.
Anji points out that Poo even serves as mentor to people running nine other businesses in the slum. Poo’s husband Kare started a van hire-and-tour service. The couple has done well enough to take days off and enjoy holidays with their two sons.
“We sold 100 books online last night and are now looking at a third print run,” says Anji. “There are also talks with bookshops. All the publicity has been really good for business!”
Poo has her own website and remains constantly on the go, but she’s struggled with the flurry of media attention. The prospect of a live interview with the BBC on April 5 was scary for a lady with limited confidence in her English. Anji, knowing Poo had been “a bit tense” during a live interview in Australia last year, agreed to join her for the BBC session.
Poo is nevertheless delighted with the book’s success. “Before, we felt like no one cared about us here in the slum, but now we know people do care and are interested in our lives,” she says.
“And they are encouraging us to keep going and help others. Lots of jobs have come as a result and we can help more people. It’s allowing us to give new opportunities to many people, so I’m really excited!” – By Jim Pollard