Burma: Rivers of Flavour – An interview with Naomi Duguid


14 Nov Burma: Rivers of Flavour – An interview with Naomi Duguid

Burma cover photo

Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing Naomi Duguid about her award-winning book Burma: Rivers of Flavor (Random House ©2012). In April, the book won the IACP award for Culinary Travel, and just last week was awarded Gold by Taste Canada —The Food Writing Awards in the Regional/Cultural category. It was also shortlisted for a James Beard.

By now, many reviews of Burma, are floating about the Internet via blogs, Amazon and Good Reads. What can I possibly add to the conversation? How about Naomi herself? While the travel tales, photographs and recipes are intriguing, the story of how Naomi wrote the book despite travel restrictions and people living under totalitarian rule is equally fascinating.Naomi Duguid, author of Burma: Rivers of Flavor

I’m going to let Naomi do the talking. Below is an edited transcript of our interview. I hope you find her answers as fascinating as I did. As always, there’s a recipe at the end.

Messy Baker: You’ve had a lot of successful travel books. What sets this book apart?

Naomi Duguid: It’s a lovely, splashy looking book. Burma’s been on people’s minds. It’s nice that it’s had the attention it’s had. When I handed the manuscript in, Burma still was in a complete lockdown. The changes happened after I handed in the manuscript. Luckily, books take a long time to get designed and published. In the 15 months between handing in the manuscript in June 2011 and when the book came out in October 2012, there was a chance to rewrite the history section at the back. Luckily I put the history section at the back rather than all the way through. I was able to go back twice after handing in the manuscript. I feel lucky to have been concentrating on the country before, so I could really appreciate the enormity of the change. When people go from being afraid to not being afraid, it’s so big you can’t really comprehend it.

MB: You said the Burmese army wasn’t invited into the kitchen in this book. How did you get invited into the kitchens?

ND: In a military totalitarian state like that, people are very cautious, and they know that if they’re talking to a foreigner, especially outside the main city, they know that someone is going to report it or they will be questioned afterwards. So, my biggest ingredient was time. I would just hang around in markets and eat things and take photos of garlic — ordinary things — and they’d get used to me.

A lot of cooking happens out in the street, out in the market, so there is really a chance to see a lot of things out in a neutral space. It was just a matter of putting in time. I then ended up with friendships and so ended up in kitchens. Some of the places I stayed were really small — there was a story of a family guest house in the book. It wasn’t an easy, open-book situation as I had in Mexico and other places because of the political constraints placed on people. And that’s where the changes were very big. Now people are more relaxed, not as nervous, more prepared to chat about things. It’s a different vibe in the street. It’s making it a much more accessible place, at least for outsiders.

MB: You said that in 1980 you could only get a travel visa for a week. How much time did you spend there?

ND: By the time I started work on the book in 2008, the visa was for 4 weeks – 28 days. The important thing is not to rush around. So, I haven’t been to every town in Burma. I’ve actually set foot in every province except the 2 closed ones. But it was a decision to plop down in one place rather than move around a lot, so that people had time. I recommend that whatever you’re going.

MB: You said Internet cafes were few and far between. Tell me about the logistics of travelling with a camera, taking notes about stories, recipes and ingredients.

ND:  A camera is a great note taking device. I could take pictures of people’s technique in the market, for example. First of all, you can’t take notes in public in a totalitarian state. You don’t want to look like a journalist or tax collector. So that [overt note-taking] is not an option. Again, time really helps. You see how the woman pours the batter into the pan, and watch again, and then eat some and then take a few more photographs. Those things are a real reminder and corrective when I’m back here. “Oh, that’s what that thing was! I didn’t even notice it at the time.” We don’t see everything in our view. We might not notice something on a shelf that turns out to be critical. “Next time I go back I need to find out what that is.” So the photographs are really important for me.

Then I have a notebook that I would leave in my room — I would never take it with me — I might then take a tiny little notebook and use it if I’m in a situation where it feels safe with somebody and I’m obviously writing down the language for a word. “What do you call this?” They can see I’m taking down vocabulary and relax. But mostly it was the camera.

MB: So when you got back to your room with your camera and little notebook, would you do a “brain dump” into the big notebook?

ND: Absolutely. There is also these layers of accumulation. I don’t trust what I see one time. It’s a layering when things start to get familiar. I felt like I was working on having eyes to see. I had eyes to see at the beginning in the sense that I was familiar with most of the vegetables and ingredients because of my work with Northern Thai, Bangladeshi or Chinese cuisines. So in that sense the markets weren’t a big puzzle to me, but even so, with people working with ingredients differently, it takes times for the eyes to see.

What we need now is insider cookbooks, too. It’s useful to have outsider cookbooks to give people confidence. “She’s telling me that I’ll like it and I trust her because she’s from North America.” That’s what happens with my books. But I just had a note from a friend in Burma who knows a young woman who’s family runs a restaurant and wants to write a cookbook. I wrote back and told her how to go about it. She’ll have an insider’s view, which is valuable. People might be ready to take her book on because they have a sense of Burma now.

MB: You tested recipes with North American ingredients. How authentic are they? Did you adjust for the North American palate at all?

ND: No, except as I write at the beginning about the fermented shrimp paste, ngapi, I liken the amount called for to garlic. When North Americans not of Mediterranean heritage first ran into Italian or Greek food they weren’t used to much — if any — garlic in their diet. A little garlic tasted like a lot to them. As they became more accustomed to garlic they were able to take on more. The issue is about perceived intensity. Now people don’t think it’s too intense to eat pesto sauce, which is raw garlic. But they would have found it too intense 40 years ago. So what I did with this shrimp paste is try to set it at an intensity Burmese people will get with 3 times as much. As you come to know these, you’ll want to increase the shrimp paste. I deliver the impact. Otherwise, it really is what someone from Burma would make if they were here.

MB: How did Burma change you?

ND: Because the Burmese people were suffering so much it made me aware of my freedom. I’m free to be myself. Being unfree and fearful? I knew of this some from traveling in Tibet, but in Burma it was more in my face. And then when things changed, seeing the people’s bodies look more relaxed, seeing them engaged, getting into arguments in a coffee shop — it was a remarkable thing.

MB: So they wouldn’t have felt comfortable enough to have an argument with a friend in a coffee shop before?

ND: People didn’t. I noticed it in ’98/99. I had a short trip there and I remember looking around a tea shop and realizing people were mostly sitting in ones and twos. If you sit with three then one person can inform on the other two. It was as if before everyone was concentrating on colouring inside the lines. And when things eased up it was a real change in the feel. That doesn’t mean things are wonderful for everyone, but it does mean they’re free to read newspapers, talk amongst themselves, There’s just a freer, easier feel. Tea shops are louder now. There are more conversations. It’s much livelier. You just can’t imagine what it’s like to have public constraints on conversation. If you haven’t seen or lived it it’s hard to imagine. And then to see it change!

MB: How many trips did this book take?

ND: I made a couple after I handed in the manuscript that continued to inform things, so if you count those as well, I guess… (silence as she counts) I think it’s eight trips for the book.

MB: How long were the trips?

ND: Most were 3-plus weeks. I wouldn’t usually stay to the end of my visa. I tried to go from Chiang Mai (Thailand) so I wasn’t jet lagged. I hit the ground running, as it were. I imagined each trip was my last because they might refuse me a visa. So until 2012 that’s how I felt. I felt lucky each time to have a visa, so I picked places I thought were least accessible and ones I couldn’t learn about at a distance. So I started with farthest away places and worked my way down. I didn’t get to Began, which is where most people go on their first trip to Burma. I didn’t get there until very late because I thought, “That can keep.”

MB: You didn’t use guides. Did you think they would take you on an inauthentic experience or somehow interfere?

ND: Again, it’s the totalitarian state thing. If I turn up with someone else, then people are not going to talk to me. And I don’t want a media relationship. I’m not a journalist, I’m not a reporter, I’m not trying to find out every single fact. All I’m trying to do is be present and communicate the things I learn, give some emotional and cultural sense of the moment.

MB: The recipes are so diverse. Do you have a favourite?

ND: I love the one sauce, tart-sweet chile-garlic sauce. I keep a jar of it on hand. I think the salads are genius. The Kachin recipes are unusual.

MB: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you would like to cover?

ND: People have a reflex away from things they don’t know. None of the ingredients [in the book] are hard to get. None of the techniques are difficult. It’s a matter of giving things a try. That’s why I think the salads are a good idea. It’s a simple thing. You can buy fish sauce, you can buy rice, you can buy miso in a health food store, you can buy limes. Maybe dried shrimp is hard, but there’s got to be a Chinese grocery store someplace near you. It’s just a matter of deciding to do it.

And with that, here is the tart-sweet sauce Naomi mentioned to get you going. It took me all of 15 minutes to make. It’s hot. It’s sweet. It’s incredibly addictive. I can see a jar of this having a permanent spot in my refrigerator door.

Tart-Sweet Chile-Ginger Sauce -- TheMessyBaker.com

Tart-Sweet Chile-Garlic Sauce
Recipe type: Condiments
Cuisine: Asian
Prep / inactive time: 
Cook / active time: 
Total time: 
Serves: Makes 1¾ cups
A standard hot sauce on tables in Burma, this condiment for every occasion is hot, tart vinegar, and a little sweet. If possible, make it at least a day before you first want to serve it, because when you make it the sauce will seem watery, but it thickens and the flavors blend after a day. I reach for this sauce whenever I am eating rice or noodles, and I drizzle it over fried eggs. It's also a great complement to grilled meat and deep-fried snacks. Once you have a stash of it in your refrigerator, you'll never want to bother with store-bought Sriracha or other commercial hot sauces again.
  • 1 cup chopped dried red chilies
  • ¾ cup water
  • ¼ cup coarsely chopped garlic
  • ¼ cup fish sauce
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • ¾ cup rice vinegar, or substitute apple cider vinegar
  1. Break chiles in half, break off the stems, and empty out: if you wish, discard some or all of the seeds. Place the chile pieces in a small pot with the water. If your garlic is somewhat dried out and harsh-tasting (in the winter months) add it too. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce the heat, and simmer for 3 to 5 minutes, until the chiles are softened and have swelled up a little. If your garlic is young and fresh, add it for the last minute of cooking.
  2. Combined chilies and garlic with their liquid, the fish sauce, and sugar and a food processor, and process to grind to a coarse paste;:scrape down the sides of the processor bowl as necessary with a rubber spatula. Add vinegar and process again.
  3. Transfer to a clean, dry glass jar and store in the refrigerator, preferably for at least a day before using. It will keep in the refrigerator for several weeks.
This recipe is excerpted with permission from Burma: Rivers of Flavor by Naomi Duguid. Published by Random House Canada ©2012.

  • Mardi (eat. live. travel. write.)
    Posted at 06:46h, 15 November Reply

    Great interview – you managed to ask questions I don’t think I have seen the answers to before!

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 17:09h, 15 November Reply

      Thanks, Mardi. Naomi was very generous with her time. This allowed me to ask questions based on her responses, not a prepared list of questions. So often we get 15 minutes with an author and can’t really dig into the topic.

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