Threads of Taste: Chef Naomi Duguid on the Taste One Acquires Through Travel

Cookbook writer, world traveler, photographer and Southeast Asian food expert Naomi Duguid’s latest book, Burma: Rivers of Flavor, will first engross you with its exquisite photography and evocative writing, then send you into the kitchen to prepare dishes like chickpea soup with lemongrass and ginger, lima beans with galangal, and standout tomato chutney.

Once you’ve cooked your way through this lovely book, be sure to check out Duguid’s six other works (co-written with Jeffrey Alford). Each is more than just a cookbook, immersing the reader in the cultures and peoples of a place using narrative, history, photography, and divine recipes.

Duguid spoke with me about Burma: Rivers of Flavor, the Burmese political situation, her work in Southeast Asia, and shooting with a digital camera.

Despite writing you wanted to “keep the army out of the kitchen” in your new book, given the incredible changes in Burma recently, that must have been a tremendously difficult task. How did you keep the army out?

When I began the project I had rules for myself. First, do no harm. Don’t include people’s names. I wanted to pull the book together in a way that wasn’t whining, but showing the dignity of people in their homes, as themselves, as whole people despite the oppressive regime.

In the kitchen, people are themselves. The generals are not there; the other stuff disappears, and people ignore the situation.

Are you pleased by the changes you see coming out of Burma? Are there things the world at large may be missing?

The changes began after the manuscript was turned in. It’s a momentous shift. Rather than dwell on the past, the people of Burma want to move forward to the options of tomorrow. They do not want to be victims of circumstance. When I went back last February, the gusto for changes was amazing to witness.

I had to keep amending the history section (at the back of the book), but it was all positive changes. My editor, Trent Duffy, and I had to settle on a last possible date when we would stop tweaking the history section.

Some people are blithe about Burma. Okay, that’s over now. But Kachin State was attacked by the Army in November. There are 80,000 internally displaced persons in Burma. Some places are acting as post-Colonial states, which is distressing for those who want to idealize oppressed peoples. But sometimes we all act badly in certain situations.

My job is to see what is—not to linger over what I think. Sometimes we have to work with approximate information when there are so many layers we will never get to. I’m just trying to get it right.

Why Burma?

Because I had a clue about the neighborhood, a clue about the political currents. I wanted to see the layering of seeing things over time, the ways things resonate. You return to a place, and delve in and delve in.

Your writing and photography have taken you all over the world, yet it’s clear you have a special affection for Southeast Aisa. What is it that draws you to this part of the world?

It actually started with Hot Sour Salty Sweet. We had two young kids (Dominic and Tashi, now adults) and needed to go to a place that was good with kids. We’d wanted to do a breakfast book, but there was no interest from our editor. And we each had deep histories with Southeast Asia.

Beyond The Great Wall was a happy accident. There were the Olympics (in Beijing). And we had depth and understanding of the area. I get a lot of people asking me when I’m going to do a Latin America book, but others, especially Diana Kennedy, have depth in that area.

I’ve noticed in earlier works that you are friendy with fellow Canadian cookbook author Jennifer McLagan. Her latest book, The Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal, discusses offal in depth. None of your works include foods Western eaters might find challenging—hearts, feet, eyeballs, and so forth. Does this stem from personal aversion, or is it a nod to the Western reader, who may be less inclined to explore what McLagan calls the odd bits?

Well, I got the chicken liver recipe in (curried chicken livers). That was familiar enough. And the fish laap involves grinding up the fish bones and adding them to the dish.

I’m asking a lot of people by taking them far away. You need to start with the possible. I want to entice people, to let them know it’s doable. Meat, fish, and fermented foods scare people. They lack confidence about meat and fish flesh. I was happy to get shrimp paste and soybean disks into the book.

Things do change. Pork belly is widely available know, whereas ten years ago it was virtually unknown in the West.

There is also the issue of availability. A lot of people don’t have a butcher—they shop at the supermarket and their meat all comes packed in styrofoam and plastic wrap. It has to be doable for them.

Speaking of aversions, your earlier works often make humorous note of your revulsion for crunchy foods. Yet Burmese cuisine is filled with peanuts. Have you overcome your aversion, or do you acknowledge it as personal idiosyncracy when collecting recipes?

Jeff (Alford, Duguid’s ex-husband) likes crispy, crunchy foods. I prefer softer foods. But it’s not the food I dislike, it’s the sound it makes. Hard wheat biscuits, or burnt toast. Grains more than rice.

The only food I haven’t knowingly eaten is snake. I don’t need to. When I try things, it’s not about me. I try to see what someone else sees in the food. Why is it delicious? What is the thread of taste that makes it possible to eat this particular food? I try to learn that thread.

As a child I hated pickles and olives. When I was nine, I decided to try to like pickles. What was there to like about them? When I first tasted real olives, instead of canned ones, it was like, oh! I understand now!

I have a good friend in his seventies who has always hated coriander leaf. One day I took him out to my garden and had him pick it fresh, and taste. He liked it—right out of the garden, it didn’t have that soapy taste. Now I understand, he said.

You mention making the transition to a digital camera while shooting the photographs in Burma. How are you finding digital photography? Likes? Dislikes?

Digital photography simplifies everything. No more lugging film and always worrying about it. It’s a treat. I have three (camera) batteries, so I am always charged.

But I do miss film. It’s stupid and retro of me, I know. You get attached to film, though. But I have this desktop Mac now, and it’s amazing to see the photos. I don’t like fixing them, though. None of them have been fixed or digitally altered. Just like when I shot film. What you get, you get.

On a broader level, you have traveled to places many Westerners are frankly fearful of. You visit places of political unrest. It’s hardly as if a tall white woman can slip around undetected. How are you able to do this? Further, you make many friends whose names are dangerous to mention in the acknowledgements section. How are you able to cope with what you witness?

Food is the main entry point. It is so ordinary. It makes me dull and ordinary, too. It takes everyone to an everyday level.

I went to Myitkynia in February 2009. Things were pretty tight there. But I stayed at a YMCA, which was a gossip hub, and I rented a bicycle from the restaurant owner next door.

Each day I had my morning routine. I’d eat at the market, then take pictures of things like shallots. I’d ride the bike around town.

People got used to me as the middle-aged lady who took pictures of shallots. I used the camera as a notetaking device, as I certainly could not take notes. The camera was an excuse for hanging around. It was silly in a way, but created a harmless identity. I was a midde-aged tourist, eating, photographing, chatting. People could slot me into an identity.

As an adventurous eater with a less than adventurous digestion, I’d love to know how you deal with eating street foods in Asia. Earlier books mention purifying water and avoiding uncooked fruits and vegetables. Yet Burmese cuisine is bursting with fresh foods—it must be impossible to avoid the plethora of fresh vegetables. And they look far too tempting to pass up. What advice would you share with travelers about health and food safety?

The only place you really have to be careful in Southeast Asia is Nepal. Giardia is epidemic in the water there.

Take a lot of acidophilus. Look for small restaurants with open kitchens or street vendors. Don’t eat at big places where you can’t see the kitchen. Who knows what they’re doing in there?

In Mandalay the main meal is in the middle of the day, and the food is prepared freshly and consumed immediately. It isn’t hanging around. Cooks are careful not to waste; that’s an issue, too. In India, when you get tea on the street, it comes in clay cups that are shattered after one use. People are concerned with pollution, sanitation, and caste, so they won’t share cups.

I had a friend who led tours through Mexico, and people invariably got sick. She consulted a doctor, and they realized people were eating tepid soups. Make sure everything is boiling hot, the doctor said, and she has, and nobody has gotten ill since.

Go places that are crowded. Crowds are always a good sign.

When you are at home in Toronto, do you find returning to Western food and eating styles difficult? Do you miss certain foods? Do you eat much Western food?

I don’t miss food, but I haven’t had rice in three days, and I miss that.

Traveling on a book tour is difficult. The airport food is tasteless, just glue in a plastic bag. At home I eat rice four days a week, maybe dal or a Thai curry. I live in downtown Toronto, and am surrounded by all kinds of food I am still new to: Ethiopian, Vietnamese, Thai. You can never get to the bottom of it.

Intrepid travellers should investigate Duguid’s Immerse Through program, which allows visitors to cook with her in Thailand. In February 2013 Duguid will lead a few lucky travellers through the Burmese cities Rangoon, Inle Lake, and Bagan.