From October 27-28, the Texas Book Festival will take place at the State Capitol in Austin. A number of talented, award-winning culinary authors will be attending the literary gathering, including Naomi Duguid – contributing editor of Saveur magazine and author of the recently released "Burma: Rivers of Flavor."
Duguid spent many years traveling to remote regions in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and China and has won the Cookbook of the Year Award twice for "Hot Sour Salty Sweet: A Culinary Journey Through Southeast Asia" and "Flatbreads and Flavors: A Baker’s Atlas" from the James Beard Foundation. "Burma: Rivers of Flavor" focuses on stories, flavors, ingredients, and recipes from all throughout Burma – also known as Myanmar. Duguid spoke with TEXAS MONTHLY about her newest cookbook and the cultural and culinary dynamics of Burma.
Tell me about writing Burma: Rivers of Flavor. What are some of the requirements and difficulties of writing about a genre of cuisine that is so far away from where you live?
The most important thing is to understand how people in Burma view the food they make and eat. What do they love about it? What is essential? Then, I need to figure out how to make it in a North American kitchen and figure out what dishes are most likely to appeal to North Americans.
I know that this book chronicles many years of traveling to and from Burma. Tell me how you've seen Burma's cuisine evolve through the years.
I always see myself as a beginner rather than an insider, so I can't say much about how the cuisine has evolved. It's true, however, that as the country develops there will be more prepared foods and fewer women cooking traditional big lunchtime meals for their families.
Every country and state and has a unique relationship with food. In Texas, I'd say foods like barbecue and Tex-Mex serve as a sense of pride. How does Burma's food reflect or represent the culture and lives of the Burmese people?
People in Burma vary enormously, in their economic situation and also in their culinary culture. There are central Burmese, Shan, Kachin, and other peoples – all of whom have their own cuisine. For central Burmese, I'd say tea leaf salad, laphet thoke, and a wonderful everyday noodle dish called mohinga have a national status. But everyday Burmese who have the choice [usually] eat a main meal at lunch that is centered on rice and is full of diverse and wonderful dishes. For me, that should be the thing Burmese people take the most pride in.
Burma is ethnically diverse, so there is naturally going to be a lot of diversity in the food. What are some of the main culinary threads you see throughout Burma, however?
There is a huge emphasis on fresh vegetables, used as a condiment, relish, and also as a simple snack in the midst of the main noontime rice meal. There's also a lovely flexibility and light-handed approach to salads.
I always like to ask authors about the stories behind writing a book. Would you tell me a story behind one of the recipes in the book?
I learned the magic rice balls from a friend of a friend in Rangoon. I spent a noontime meal at her house, and we cooked together and made a number of dishes. The magic rice balls, which are made of a rice dough wrapped around small chunks of palm sugar, were amazing. We also made a light bean soup with vegetable tendrils in it. She took me out into the garden and I picked off the growing tendrils of a number of vines and plants and added them to the soup. It made me realize that there is a lot more to the vegetable kingdom than we are aware of in the Western world.
I'm interested in any book or cookbook projects you have at the back of your mind. Is there a book you have yet to write that you plan on doing in the near future?
I am still so entangled with Burma and all that is going on there, so I have not yet imagined myself engaged elsewhere. Ill let you know when I have found my next project!
If you're interested in taking a cooking class with Duguid, she will be hosting a “Seasonal Supper” cooking class at Central Market's Houston Cooking School on October 25 and Central Market’s Austin Cooking School on October 28.
(Other culinary authors included in the Texas Book Festival lineup are Jane Morgan, Jesse Griffiths, Scott Roberts and Jessica Dupuy, Robb Walsh, Bill and Claire Wurtzel, Hugo Ortega, Bruce Aidells, and Liz Gutman and Jen King.)
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