The incredible flavours of Burma

The celebrated food writer Naomi Duguid rarely travels with either a translator or a fixed itinerary. Rather, she’d prefer to go where her eyes and taste-buds lead her and plunge into situations, hoping that with a little persistence and patience she will make herself understood and understand what people are saying to her. Over the years she has travelled over swathes of Asia, meeting people, eating their food and working out the central role it plays in their lives.

Her most recent focus has been on Burma, for centuries a crossroads between India, China, and South-East Asia, but whose food has long been eclipsed by that of its neighbours. The recent flurry of democratic reforms and the release of political prisoners such as Aung San Suu Kyi, means that her upcoming book ‘Burma: Rivers of Flavor’, could hardly be more topical.

While Burma has for decades been a place of hardship and where ordinary people often struggle to secure sufficient just to survive, for the visitor it can be a place of memorable meals. [A couple of my own stand-outs include eating deep-fried frogs in the Irrawaddy Delta while covering the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in 2008 and having a fabulous, fragrant pork curry on route to Aung San Suu Kyi’s constituency before the recent by-elections this spring.]

Yet while Ms Duguid’s book will apparently include 125 recipes that she has gathered during eight field trips to Burma, she stresses that she chooses to focus on food in order to tell a wider truth about a place and its people. “Food is the last resort,” she said, speaking from the UK, where she had attended the Oxford Food Symposium. “It’s an entry point…that everyone shares. It’s absolutely vital. If you ask ‘Where does that come from,’ you learn a lot.”

The former lawyer points out that in a country with essentially no refrigeration and minimal electricity available to ordinary people, food is cooked in the morning and the main meal of the day is eaten for lunch. A layer of oil – too greasy for some foreign tastes – is added to curries and stews to protect the food after cooking is completed. “Food can give you an insight into other things that are going on in a country. You also get a sense of what the people are like – for instance their generosity,” added the writer, whose most recent visit to Burma in February, included a trip to Kachin state where the armed forces are still involved in a violent crackdown against ethic rebels.

The recent changes in Burma, overseen by President Thein Sein, and the lifting of sanctions by the West, presented her with the challenge of writing about shifting events. The transition – partial, and the eventual outcome of which remains uncertain – meant the Canadian writer was obliged to rewrite a section on the country’s political contexts several times. She said she also wanted to ensure the lives of the people she met were not framed solely by the “black clouds” that have rained on the country for so many years. “That would be like writing about Bangladesh and only talking about the challenges the people there face,” said the author, (below) whose book is to be published by Artisan and released in the UK in October. “My goal was to do no harm.”

Her willingness to immerse herself in the culture of a place has previously served her well. For her 2000 book, ‘Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet’, which she completed with her then partner, Jeffrey Alford, she travelled the length of the Mekong river, collecting recipes and meeting local people. She employed a similar technique in South Asia for ‘Mangoes and Curry Leaves: Culinary Travels Through the Great Subcontinent’.

Ms Duguid, who spends much of her time in northern Thailand, is planning to take a group of food-orientated travelers to Burma next year. Already she has in mind a couple of traditional food-stalls at the market in the centre of the one-time capital, Bagan. “It will just be an introduction,” she said.

So could the faltering move towards democracy provide a boost to Burmese food. Could it become as ubiquitous as the cuisine of Thailand? Ms Duguid is unsure. “All of these things depend on intermediaries,” she said. “The ideal thing would be that there were people from Burma writing about their food for foreigners to understand. [But while] I will get things wrong, I also understand my audience. Restaurants also require people who know what will work well.”

By Andrew Buncombe

Source: The Independent