By Anita Malhotra
World traveller, writer, photographer and cook, Naomi Duguid is equally at home exploring the culinary offerings of countries like Thailand and Tibet as she is recreating them in her Toronto kitchen. She has co-authored six award-winning travel cookbooks (with former partner Jeffrey Alford) that explore the cuisines of Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, Europe and Africa through photographs, recipes and stories. Two of the books, Flatbreads & Flavors (1995) and Hot Sour Salty Sweet (2000), were honoured with the James Beard Foundation Cookbook of the Year award and Hot Sour Salty Sweet has just gone into its eighth printing.
Duguid has recently completed work on a new book, Rivers of Flavor – Recipes and Travel Tales from Burma, which will be published next fall. Anita Malhotra interviewed Duguid, who was at her Toronto home, via Skype video on November 5, 2011, a few days before she left on the latest of many trips to Thailand and Burma.
AM: You have many interests – food, travel, writing and photography. How did each of these develop?
ND: I’ve always assumed that the whole world was out there to be explored or dreamed about. I was a reader as a child – still am. My grandfather had been to India as a young man, so the larger world was there. I remember going to England when I was 10 with my mother and brother because my father had a business trip, and my mother said to us, “Now, the people in England won’t be curious about you and your lives, but you have to remember to ask them about how they think and what they do.” It was a very good lesson for travel – I’ve never forgotten. When I was 17, I lived in France for a year, and then I did my third year away at the London School of Economics. I like being a traveller, wherever I am. I’m a person who likes to not know what’s around the corner and to move forward towards the corner. And it turns out that travel is one way of doing that, but I can also do it walking or bicycling the streets of Toronto.
AM: What about your interest in food? Does that date back to an early age?
ND: The things I’ve done the last 25 or 30 years arise out of travel, but my undergraduate degree was in geography. I really like to understand how things work – how things work for people emotionally and how things work in a geeky, practical way like, “Where does the rain fall?” and “What grows?” So food, of course, is, “How do people live? What do they grow? What do they have, what don’t they have? How do they make do? How do they work around the problem of a shortage of water or a shortage of fuel?”
AM: Did your writing and photography start with your travels as well?
ND: I used to work as a lawyer, and the law can actually ruin your writing. You’re writing clearly but there’s not much charm or grace to it, so it takes recovering from. So I would say I learned on the job. And photography – I got my first camera the day before I went on a trip to Ladakh in 1978. And it was just immediately comfortable. Some of the shots from that first trip were in Mangoes & Curry Leaves. So I learned by doing and also by meeting photographers on the road who said, “Oh, you might think about this, or you might think about that.”
AM: How did your first book, Flatbreads & Flavors, come about?
ND: Jeffrey and I had met and we’d read that the pass between China and Pakistan was going to be open to foreign travellers in the spring of ’86, so we thought that’s a trip we could make. We got bicycles, travelled to Western Tibet, and then we went to Kashgar and Xinjiang in Western China. It’s a vibrant country – all those oases. Those Turkic peoples – the wheat growers and others – flatbreads are their basic food. That’s where the idea came from. It was like, “let’s do a book about flatbreads – this basic, staple food.” The Roman armies marched on it, you know. And then it was how to go from there to the actual book. So we started writing articles for food magazines and we self-assigned some travel. I went to Soviet Central Asia, and Jeffrey went to Yemen, and then we felt we knew enough to put in a proposal, and we were lucky enough to sell it. We got an agent, and everyone thought it was a very weird topic. Then it became mainstream. Flatbreads started to be in breadbaskets because the book came out, and chefs would come up to us and say, “This is so great because we should have thought of this but we didn’t.”
AM: How do you travel in these countries and research your recipes at the same time?
ND: The main thing is to not move quickly – to stay somewhere and hang around. I’ve got a book on Burma coming out next September. Starting in on it was a reminder of what it’s like to arrive in a place that you don’t know very well. So I might go to a town in Burma and then poke around in the markets and just walk and take pictures of the food. I become familiar to people because they see me the first day and on the second day and I’m still there the third day, so they relax. So I’m eating things, and I might ask somebody, “What do you put in this?” or “Is there this in that?” I would never ask for a recipe.
I think that just stopping and watching the daily patterns and occasionally being able to be in conversation with people, gradually things seep in. I don’t take notes out in the street – only back in my room, because there are many places people are going to think you’re a tax collector or a spy if you’re taking notes in the street. And the camera is also a note-taking device. Then I get back home and try to figure out how to do that thing.
AM: Can you give me an example of how you might recreate a recipe once you get back home?
ND: In Home Baking there’s a recipe for Portuguese Mountain Rye that comes from the highest village in Portugal – Sabugueiro. There’s a stone house in that village that’s got an oven and a couple of long tables and nothing else. I went there and luckily they were firing the oven up the next day. The woman whose house I found a room in ended up being one of the women who fired up the oven. At the end of an incredible day, I sat with the woman in her kitchen eating the bread she’d made the night before. I had watched her make it, but how would I check the taste and the balance once I got home? Well, with the bread was a soup, a cheese and a local honey. So I bought some honey and cheese so that when I got home and was making the bread for the first time, I could taste how the bread went with the honey. And it worked. I got it right the first time.
It’s almost like a science experiment – you’re just trying to problem-solve. Sometimes the ingredients are not the same – a tomato here is not the same as a tomato in Thailand or a tomato in India. So what you’re wanting is the same balance. What would a person from there do if they were here and making that dish?
AM: Tell me about your upcoming book.
ND: The book is called Rivers of Flavour – Recipes and Travel Tales from Burmaand it’s being published in September of 2012 in Canada by Random House Canada and in the United States by Artisan Books, and it has stories and photographs and recipes and a map. I think the thing that people are going to find easiest as an entry point are the Burmese salads. They’re kind of brilliant. But it’s not difficult food. It’s very straightforward – it’s a rice-based culture. And I think people will find it interesting to see how different it is from Thai food.
AM: Why did you choose Burma?
ND: It’s kind of the keystone, if you think about the geography. It lies between China and India, it’s part of Southeast Asia, but it’s quite distinct. And so it was really interesting to me. And it also felt important politically to make this place that’s been so cut off be a real place to people. So the book is not full of stories of political oppression. I want to have the place breathe on its own because even though people may be afflicted by the lack of rule of law and other traumatic things that have gone on in the country, they’re still living with dignity. They’re still taking care of their children. They still have an extraordinary food culture. And now, in these last few months, the political situation seems to be loosening and improving. Hopefully that will continue and more people will go and visit Burma to see for themselves what an interesting, culturally rich place it is.
AM: Do your books have a political agenda?
ND: Beyond the Great Wall is overtly political just because it’s talking about issues of cultural appropriation in China, but all the books are political. I’m not out there on a barricade, but I try to work against our natural tendency to pigeonhole other people or other cultures. We need to categorize things, and the most basic version of that is there’s us and there’s the others. I see all these books as tools for helping make the “other” less “other.” The stories can do that for some people, and then if they make the recipe, maybe the story echoes with the recipe and gives them more dimensions. And so it’s no longer just a place they’re never heard of on a map or a place they think is weird and foreign.
AM: Tell me about your “Immerse Through” culinary tours in Thailand.
ND: If you really stop and pause, you can get huge cultural insights through food, so we kind of immerse. I’ve got a close friend in Thailand and she and I are the bridges. Her mother teaches village-style Northern Thai cooking for two days, so people are doing hands-on cooking using local tools – cleavers and knives and mortars and pestles and cooking over charcoal. And we go to the market each day with a shopping list, and I’m there encouraging and helping them. Then we go up north for two days, and we’re cooking this time at a farm, making Shan food. And by the time they get back to Chiang Mai for the last day, people are full of confidence and knowledge. It’s really phenomenal. So for me it’s exciting to see them understanding the culture from the inside, because when you get a grip on the food, you also understand a lot of other things.
AM: How has travelling changed you?
ND: I think I always was appreciative, but it’s made me more knowledgeably appreciative about what other people manage to do in their daily lives. It’s not just “other people have it worse” – it’s the reminder to be grateful for what you do have. Also, it’s to think that those people are still living with dignity even with problems that are mountains. They still are themselves – they’re not victims. Everyone has a dignity and a capacity for creativity and engagement, whatever their circumstances. And so for me it’s just a constant reminder to never take anything for granted and always to look for that something special, and try and make a connection with that something special with people that I encounter.
AM: Is there one memory of all your travelling and writing and learning that stands out?
Duguid: I always want to be able to tune back in to the sense of thrill and excitement every time I get on a plane, so I try and tune back into my 17-year-old self going off to France, and the feelings I had when I got there. There were some letters from friends who’d started university, and I remember reading them and having a little moment of homesickness, thinking, “Oh, have I made a terrible mistake? I’ve stepped out of the groove, what am I missing?” I had this ten-minute pause, and then that was it, and I’ve never been homesick since. And so that first memory of that homesickness, and then thinking, “That was a good little bounce I got off that!” I’m still up there.
More information about Naomi Duguid can be found at immersethrough.com.