Judy Ink - the food blog of Judy Schultz
BURMA: Rivers of Flavor by Naomi Duguid
Tuesday, 28 August 2012 14:24

Naomi Duguid effortlessly evokes a sense of place. As an author, and a Canadian food writer, this woman is a national treasure. 

With five terrific books already under her wing, this time she's off to Burma. It's a country that has long been a question mark, stuck between Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent, with China to the north. Although Burma has recently become the destination-du-jour, until recently it was all-but-inaccessible to the average traveller. Beginning in 1980, Duguid managed to be there, finding her way into the kitchens of ordinary people, and through their kitchens into their culture.

Food is always the reliable back door to any culture, and Duguid takes the reader along, by bike, boat, truck and on foot, through the traditional wet markets, into the kitchen, finally to the table.

Many of the dishes are less exotic than one might expect: new potatoes with spiced shallot oil involve tomatillos — nothing tricky here, just oceans (okay, rivers) of flavour. Often the flavour in main dishes involves fish, or fermented fish paste, or dried shrimp powder, and for some cooks, these essentials of Burmese cuisine will be acquired tastes. I urge you to give them a chance. 

Easier to love (how could we not?) are the sweets, the street-side treats made with rice flour, the crepes with coconut, bananas, sesame seeds, sweet palm sugar. Try the Deep Forest Monklets' Sticky Rice Cake, but first read Duguid's note that a monklet can be as young as five. Burma's Buddhist culture permeates this book and its food, and is shown great respect by the author. So are the pre-Buddhist beliefs, the animist spirits and their shrines.

It takes a huge amount of skill for a writer to pull off a trip into the spirit of a mysterious place, working only through its food culture. It annoys me that Burma will soon be over-run with package tours producing instant experts on the country and its people, who will come home and boldly announce that their guide took them to some mysterious corner "where tourists never go."  

Duguid includes a fascinating chapter on the country's history, Burma Over Time. Her stories of what, who, where and how are wonderful. The photographs are exquisite. Along with Duguid's five other books (written with Jeffrey Alford), this one deserves a place on your bedside table for seriously delightful reading. 

Last Updated on Wednesday, 05 September 2012 10:00