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Review: ‘Burma’ at a Culinary Crossroads

Once in a great while, a little-known cuisine gets itself introduced to the English-speaking world via a well-written cookbook, and life for those who love to eat and cook changes for the better.

This usually has a lot to do with how sublime that cuisine is — a cookbook can crystallize whatever innate qualities make a particular food culture unique and unforgettable.

But what really matters is how much the writer loves that cuisine, how much she understands the people who make it and how much she is willing to submerge herself in this completely foreign approach to food. And no one does this better than Naomi Duguid, whose most recent book, “Burma: Rivers of Flavor,” opens the long-locked doors to Myanmar and allows us to partake of its exciting food.



"Burma: Rivers of Flavor," by Naomi Duguid

"Burma: Rivers of Flavor"

By Naomi Duguid

Artisan Books, Workman Publishing, 384 pages

» Buy the book

Long isolated from the rest of the world by the ruling military junta, Myanmar has been moving toward democracy over the last two years. (Duguid writes that Myanmar, the country’s current official name, refers to the homeland of the dominant ethnic group. She prefers Burma, which she says includes the entire country.)

Much like the award-winning cookbooks Duguid co-authored with ex-husband Jeffrey Alford, this one moonlights with equal aplomb as a travel guide, a history book, an ethnographic study, a photographic essay and a guide to understanding a culture totally foreign to the West. Short chapters — often not more than a page in length — succinctly describe the intersection of Duguid’s personal experiences with the history and heritage of a remarkable people.

Several of Duguid’s cookbooks with Alford, such as “Seductions of Rice and Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet,” also cover Southeast Asia. However, “Burma” is her first solo effort and the first one to concentrate on a single cuisine — to write it, Duguid lived in and traveled extensively through Myanmar — and she has managed to stick the mat here with a 10-point landing. And while the duo’s previous tomes are brilliant, cooking from them is seriously cumbersome because of their bulk. “Burma” is easier to handle and feels much more like a true cookbook, albeit one with beguiling pictures and stories about this secluded land. If Duguid’s photographs are to be believed, the Burmese are some of the most charming and beautiful individuals in the world. Their expressions are open and welcoming, and some are just flat-out endearing, such as the woman balancing a huge pumpkin on her head and a little girl shyly looking up at the camera with pale smears of thanaka paste on her face acting as a sunblock.

What’s stunning about this book is that the reader so easily gets sucked into another world, another time, another way of life. … even with the most cursory reading. And yet, the beautifully written essays and affectionate photos are just the superficial layers of this book, which is a cookbook, after all. Some of the dishes are glorious reinterpretations of what can only be interpreted as transmogrified newcomers to the land, such as an Indian-influenced semolina cake (page 276) and the very Chinese sticky-rice sweet buns with coconut (page 286); while others show startling originality, such as the herbed catfish laap (page 150), seasoned with a rainbow of aromatics and savory touches; or the banana flower salad (page 57) that cooks the mashed main ingredient to magnify its suggestion of artichokes and then balances that with crunchy seeds and nuts. Burma is clearly home to a cuisine so good that “delicious” seems like faint praise. Exquisite? Astonishing? Unforgettable? Words fail.

I write about Chinese food for a living, and I first picked up this book because Duguid and Alford have proved to be such consistently wonderful writers about the foods and culture of Asia. Once I cracked open the covers, though, something quickly struck me: The food of Burma was key to understanding heretofore hidden culinary treasures along China’s border with Southeast Asia. Whereas another one of their books, “Beyond the Great Wall,” looked at what is eaten by ethnic non-Chinese in the country’s landlocked regions, “Burma” takes us into a singular country that nevertheless shares many cultural and dietary roots with the minorities who live along China’s southern edge in the tropical highlands.

I lost count of the many “aha!” moments I had as I read this book with ever-increasing hunger and fascination. As Duguid described the taste and the method for preparing the Burmese fermented soybean discs called tua nao, I started to draw a connection over the long, snaking, mountainous border Burma shares with China’s Yunnan province, where they have similar dousu balls used to make a heavenly bean sauce full of crunch and chilies. I was stunned by the simplicity of this connection — the discs even appear in a photo in “Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet.”

Whatever their points of origin, the foods in “Burma” are alive with sparkling flavors and pungent aromas, and suggest a subtle web of influences undulating throughout the region. A dish of Burmese rice noodles called khaut swe looks for all the world like a bowl of hefen as served in Guangxi, its touch of five-spice powder sending a sly salute to China, while the curry in a plate of chicken speaks of an Indian chef somewhere upstream who introduced a spectrum of warm aromatics to the local cuisine.

With a complex past interwoven with the tastes and history of its many neighbors, Myanmar has a cuisine worth knowing, and Duguid has written a book about it that is truly worth treasuring.

Top photo composite:

Author Naomi Duguid. Credit: Laura Berman

Cover of “Burma: Rivers of Flavor.” Credit: Courtesy of Artisan Books

Zester Daily contributor Carolyn Phillips is a Chinese food wonk and illustrator who has a cookbook to be published by McSweeney's in 2014. In addition to Zester Daily, you can find her on her blog and as @MadameHuang on Twitter; her food writing can be found in places as  disparate as Lucky Peach and Pork Memoirs.