EACH time the Canadian photographer and writer Naomi Duguid traveled to Myanmar from 2008 to 2011, researching the country’s food traditions, she knew she had to cram in as much eating and learning as possible.
“I had to assume that every trip might be the last,” she said, alluding to the country’s long epoch of military rule, during which contact between ordinary citizens and outsiders was risky. If she had been caught in her usual research mode — lingering for days in outdoor markets, photographing street food and ingredients, learning from home cooks — she could have been branded a journalist and barred from the country. But having documented the food of Thailand, China, Laos, Cambodia, India, Pakistan, Tibet, Malaysia and Singapore, she was determined to “complete the journey” in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.
“The country had become a black hole” since the first time she visited, in 1980, she said. “But food is the last refuge for people under siege.”
She could not have assumed, or even imagined, that by the time her new book, “Burma: Rivers of Flavor,” was finally published last month, a democratically elected government would rule the country, the activist Daw Aung San Suu Kyi would be freed from house arrest and elected to Parliament or the country’s longstanding barriers against outside influence (there are few Internet connections and no McDonald’s or Starbucks in Myanmar) would begin to soften. To her surprise, the book is now a timely, as well as absorbing and gorgeous, guide to a cuisine that has remained relatively unknown and untouched.
For fans of Southeast Asian cuisines like Thai and Vietnamese, discovering Burmese food is the adult equivalent of finding a new playground, right in your neighborhood. The familiar profile of hot, sour, sweet and salty is there, but in new combinations and with new cornerstones: crisp-fried garlic and shallots, Indian spices, edible tea leaves, sweet-hot red chile powders and dark, smoky palm sugar.
“Our food is not as famous in the world as Thai or Indian,” said Thataw Tabun, one of the organizers of an annual Burmese food fair in Queens that is avidly tracked by New Yorkers who love Southeast Asian food. “But our aunties are just as good cooks.”
[pullquote]For fans of Southeast Asian cuisines like Thai and Vietnamese, discovering Burmese food is the adult equivalent of finding a new playground, right in your neighborhood.[/pullquote]
For the festival, strings are pulled and heaven and earth moved to bring in ingredients like preserved tea leaves, baby ginger and fresh roselle, a tangy relative of the hibiscus, with green leaves that are steamed or fried with chile powder. Mr. Tabun, who is in his 30s, lived in Yangon until he was a teenager, and like most of the community here, uses “Burma” and “Burmese” when referring to his native country and culture. The name comes from the largest ethnic group in the country, the Bamar, but there are many others, including the Kachin, Shan, Chin and Rakhine, all with distinct cultures and cooking styles that reflect the mixed topography of the land.
Myanmar sits on the eastern edge of the Indian Ocean, streaked top to bottom with wide river valleys — the Irrawaddy, the Sittaung, the Salween — where most of the population lives. Its long coastline stretches up from Thailand and curves back to Bangladesh.
But its bulk is in the north, wedged between India and China. Many Burmese dishes carry the scents and flavors of both. In a stew, you might find the okra and turmeric of Bengal; in a salad, the tart vegetables and dried shrimp of Yunnan, the part of China that borders Myanmar. Everywhere, crisped shallots and garlic, bracing turmeric, tangy lime, crunchy roasted peanuts and chile pastes infuse the most basic dishes with wild contrast and crunch.
“Thoke — you could call them salads — are the dishes that leap out to me in Burma,” said Ms. Duguid, 62, as we sliced round, deep-purple Asian shallots during a recent cooking session. Since she has produced authoritative books on Southeast Asia, western China and the entire world’s ways of cooking rice and flatbreads, when she finds something distinctive, it is likely to be very interesting indeed.
“Salad” turns out to be an accurate but inadequate translation of thoke, just as “sauce” is inadequate for “salsa” when it comes to Mexican food. Thoke are lavishly seasoned combinations of raw and cooked vegetables, fresh herbs, chopped nuts, toasted seeds and often a single rich ingredient like pork cracklings or dried shrimp. “The Burmese want a little bit of everything in each bite,” she said, explaining why thoke ingredients are cut small and always tossed together with the hands.
Fruits are used in thoke in their sweet-sour state: often pomelo, the cousin of grapefruit, or tomatoes, which as in most of Southeast Asia are used when still small and streaked with pale green.
Our cooking session ended up completely dedicated to gyin thoke, a lively ginger salad that can have as many as 20 ingredients, each contributing an element of contrast and surprise. In Myanmar, it would be made with shavings of young ginger; Ms. Duguid has come up with an excellent workaround with shreds of sushi-style pickled ginger.
“Obsessing about authenticity has become this competitive sport,” she said. “Cooks in Burma, or anywhere, will always use what they can get their hands on and what tastes good.”
Ms. Duguid’s work, both in her new book and in six previous books with her former husband, Jeffrey Alford, has more in common with anthropology than with usual notions of food and travel writing. In “Flatbreads and Flavors,” they reached around the world to find kinships among pita and pizza, tortillas and tandoor breads. In “Seductions of Rice,” they managed to explore all of Asia (with a few detours to the Mediterranean) by diving deeply into every place and every way that rice is grown, polished, processed and eaten.
“When I look at her books, I despair that I am just dancing over the surface of these cuisines that I am trying to explore,” said Dave Cook, who writes the Eating in Translation blog and has traveled extensively in Asia. “She goes deep.” Her books always include thorough discussions of geography, ethnography, religion, history and agriculture, along with descriptions of spices and aromatics and recipes so alluring that you can almost smell them on the page.
The photography is just as evocative. Her images of Myanmar’s ancient Buddhist temples, its monks and markets, and especially its women, who do most of the selling and cooking of food, connect the written word to real people and real food. In her books, a rusted tin can of glowing fresh chiles or a pile of shallots, carefully arranged by a teenage girl with a saucy grin, can tell you as much about a curry as the recipe.
But, she said, she has always been careful to keep a safe distance between herself and the people she photographed or interviewed. “Wherever we went, our mantra was first, do no harm,” she said, referring to the many places she had worked where, simply by asking questions or taking pictures, Westerners could bring trouble. “And the second was, keep the generals out of the kitchen,” she said, meaning: keep the work focused on food, even when politics, ethnic clashes and boundary disputes threatened to enter the picture.
After more than 30 years of near-constant travel in turbulent places like Tibet, Bangladesh and Myanmar, Ms. Duguid is convinced of the importance of food in the lives of ordinary people in extraordinary situations. Inside their homes, at their stoves and tables, is often the only place where people feel safe. Mr. Tabun, while declining to comment on life in Yangon under military rule, said the city’s residents could always find comfort in a morning bowl of mohinga, a rich, aromatic breakfast soup that is often called the Burmese national dish.
Even in politically turbulent places, as a lone woman who looks like any other Western tourist with a camera, Ms. Duguid said her presence in a food market generally went unnoticed. But the key for making real contact with cooks has always been to not ask questions too soon. “I try to hang around and not need anything from anyone for as long as possible,” she said. “After a while, people seem to decide that I’m harmless, either because they think I am a lunatic, or because I have this wide-open peasant face.”
Now, Ms. Duguid divides her year between Toronto and Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, which was her base for research trips to Myanmar. The two regions share a dish, a rich coconut-milk chicken curry with springy egg noodles, called khao soi in Thai and kout swe in Burmese, that is a touchstone for lovers of Burmese food.
“That balance of rich and tangy and spicy gets me every time,” said the New York chef Sara Jenkins, who recently cooked an all-Burmese dinner at her restaurant, Porsena, although her culinary grounding is strictly Italian.
One appetizer was a dish of tiny dried anchovies, as slim as spaghetti, fried crisp and dusted with garlic and chile powder. “They tasted Italian as much as Burmese to me,” she said. “That’s the fun of getting out of your comfort zone and into the world.”