Cookbook brings the flavors of Burma to Western kitchens

Published: Wednesday, Sep. 19, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1D

For decades, Myanmar's military dictatorship has isolated the Southeast Asian country, also known as Burma, from the world.

Now, with the relaxing of restrictions, the release of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and a democratic election, the country is re-emerging. Tourists are flooding in to see its legendary ancient sites – and to sample its cuisine.

Talk about timing.

Award-winning cookbook author Naomi Duguid is coming out this month with "Burma, Rivers of Flavor."

"I feel lucky to have seen this change," Duguid said by phone from her home in Toronto. "It's remarkable to see adults laughing in the streets."

While Burmese remain cautiously optimistic that these changes will last, Duguid is charging forth with the one thing we can all share: food.

She's written six superb travelogue cookbooks, including "Hot, Sour, Sweet, Salty," which she co-wrote with her former partner, Jeffrey Alford. Duguid is often described as a cultural anthropologist who cooks and takes photographs.

Travel for her previous books took her to Burma several times, starting in 1980, but her intense focus on Burmese food started with the first of seven trips in February 2009.

Duguid writes about wandering around Burma's culturally distinctive areas, such as Inle Lake. She travels without a translator. She gathers her food stories and recipe fodder by hanging out for several days at a town's markets and street stalls. She watches, tastes, takes pictures, but makes notes only after returning to her hotel.

"Writing anything down made the Burmese nervous," she said.

Duguid developed her recipes in her Toronto kitchen by experimenting until she got the right taste with a recipe that would work in a Western kitchen.

In addition to food, Duguid writes about cultural traditions and encounters with people. These essays appear throughout the book along with mood photographs of life scenes, such as monks in monasteries, farmers in their fields, and faces, lots of faces.

In the back of "Burma," Duguid tucks a short history of the country, a detailed glossary and a bibliography. She said the recent changes in Myanmar necessitated four last-minute rewrites of the history section.

Throughout her book, Duguid uses the old names for the country and its cities. To avoid confusion, she includes a country map with the old names.

Burma sits at the crossroads of India, Thailand and China. Its many ethnic groups have created a distinct blended cuisine that varies regionally. The national dish is mohinga, a delicious fish soup with rice noodles. Duguid explains how the dish changes with its region and offers three mohinga recipes. However, in Burma, few housewives make mohinga. They prefer to get it from the boiling cauldron of a street vendor or restaurant and take it home.

Burmese foods burst with flavors. The salads sparkle with bright, fresh herbs and spices. The curries are straightforward, and the myriad condiments could keep a prep cook busy all day. All of it is within reach of the home cook with Duguid's well-written recipes. She introduces each one with a personal story. Many recipes appear with luscious photographs. They will make readers yearn to get chopping, sizzling and tasting.

Burmese build their meals around lots of hot, fluffy rice. Even if there is only one curry – meat, fish or eggs – there are always accompaniments, which usually include chilies, cilantro and fried onions or garlic. Rice is missing only when noodles are served, such as with mohinga.

In Sacramento, Burmese native Min Min Thaw occasionally makes mohinga for her family. She says it reminds her of home in Rangoon, the former capital city now known as Yangon. Thaw said she usually makes meat curries and stir-fries vegetable dishes to serve with jasmine rice.

Burmese dishes rely on pantry items to be made in advance, such as fried shallots. The food prep calls for lots of chopping, a chore done in Burmese kitchens by family members.

Duguid suggests a few tools, such as a mortar and pestle and a spider, a metal net used to scoop fried foods from hot oil. To her credit, she's not a purist. She offers shortcuts and substitutions, such as a food processor for chopping.

I prepared a dozen dishes from Duguid's book, including several salads and Mandalay noodles with chicken curry. All were good. The eggplant salad and chicken salad were exceptional. The lemon grass sliders, a riff on Burmese meatballs, are terrific.

Some of Duguid's recipes are long and involved. Those that appear here are simpler and use easy-to-find ingredients. Some appear verbatim from the book; others were simplified.


Naomi Duguid will launch her national book tour Saturday in Napa. She will make three appearances in Northern California.

• 1 p.m. Saturday at Copperfields, Bel Aire Plaza at Highway 29 and Trancas Street, Napa; (707) 252-8002; Duguid will talk and give a cooking demonstration.

• 6 p.m. Monday at Omnivore Books, 3885 Cesar Chavez St., San Francisco; (415) 282-4712

• 7 p.m. next Wednesday at Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera; (415) 927-0960

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