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Burma: Rivers of Flavor Hardcover – September 25, 2012

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Author Interview with Naomi Duguid

Why did you title the book Burma rather than Myanmar?

"Myanma" was historically used only for the small central area where the dominant Bamar population lived. It's a name that excludes the huge outlying areas where the Shan, Kachin, Karen, Chin and other peoples are the majority. In 1989, the government--then a repressive military regime--decreed that the country's official name would change from Burma to Myanmar since "Burma" was seen as a relic of colonial times. Now that political climate has relaxed, you hear people using both terms, but for more than two decades, people were punished for saying "Burma" instead of "Myanmar."

What are the staple ingredients of Burmese cooking?

The flavor staples are shallots, turmeric, limes and freshly squeezed lime juice, roasted chopped peanuts, fresh greens, chiles (though not in punchy, hot quantities usually), fish sauce, shrimp paste, shallot oil, chile oil, fresh herbs, and more. The staple foods are rice and noodles, vegetables, fish, and chicken or meat.

How does Burma's cuisine reflect its culture, its patterns of daily life?

Sharing borders with China, India, Thailand, and Bangladesh, Burma has been an Asian crossroads--and a place of fascinating layers of food culture--for centuries. The main meal of the day, served at noon, centers around rice. It always includes salads and curries served family-style and shared. This way of eating lunch sums up a lot about Burma. People eat together and share food. There's no rigid order of courses or dishes; and you can adjust the flavors of what you are eating by dabbing on a chile sauce or squeezing on a little lime juice. In other words, there's conviviality, generosity, and flexibility. And now that the political situation in Burma is improving, the inherent good-humored joking and intense discussions that people thrive on are once more happening in tea shops and out in the street, rather than behind closed doors.

What is a typical day of eating in Burma?

Breakfast and snack options are wonderfully enticing, most of them available in tea shops or at street stalls. They include a flatbread with savory cooked beans on top; the national noodle dish mohinga, rice noodles in a light fish broth with crispy toppings and a wide range of condiments; other noodle dishes, with rice noodles or egg noodles, and a topping of some meat and herbs; and simple rice, lightly fried with peas and topped with a little meat or vegetables.

Lunch is the main meal. Each person has a plate of plain rice and a small bowl of soup, and then shares in the array of other dishes on the table. There is meat and/or chicken curry, a fish curry or small fried fish, a vegetable curry, a salad or two--Burmese salads are inventive and loaded with flavors and textures--and several spicy pungent condiments, as well as a plate of raw vegetables and another of steamed vegetables, which serve as a kind of non-spicy break from the bigger flavors of the curry. The meal finishes with a little fruit or some palm sugar.

Sweets are eaten as snacks in the afternoon or evening rather than as "desserts" at the end of a meal. In the evening, people eat noodle dishes or a light meal of rice, soup, salad, and chile sauce. At any hour, they can seek out street foods of all kinds, including savory crepes or deep-fried snacks.

The country has many ethnic groups and thus many cuisines; what are the main ones--and are there any common factors?

Salads are one of the glories of the cuisine no matter where you are in Burma. They're flavored with fried shallots, roasted peanuts, lime juice, and more. Noodle dishes, often served with a broth and a wonderful array of condiments, are another common thread. In all the food there's a subtle dance and balance between tart, salty, and sweet, with a touch of chile heat. (More chiles are used on the West coast, but they're generally on the table as an optional condiment rather than as a dominant fiery taste in cooked dishes.)

Central Burmese cuisine, also referred to as Bamar, has a lighter touch than central Thai--less sweet, less chile heat, more fresh vegetables on the table. For the main meal of the day, there are a whole set of small dishes on the table: a vegetable curry, a meat curry, a fish curry, a salad, and several condiments, as well as plain steamed and raw vegetables. Shan cuisine employs salt rather than fish sauce, lots of fresh herbs, vegetables cooked with meat in succulent curries, inventive noodle dishes, and salads flavored with toasted sesame seeds along with lime juice and sliced shallots. Kachin cuisine, from the far north, is light, includes lots of fresh herbs, and subtly balanced flavors in both the meat and the vegetable curries.

What is the dish from Burma that anyone and everyone must rush home and make tonight?

The Lemongrass Sliders (p. 192) are a great and easy introduction to the possibilities in the book, and so are many of the salads. The Ginger Salad (p. 48) is one of my favorites. For those who like chile heat, my favorite condiment, Tart-Sweet-Chile-Garlic Sauce (p. 36), is another good place to start.

You've been traveling in Burma since 1980; what changes have you observed?

In the eighties Burma was a country that had been closed off from the rest of the world. There was an old-world charm to that, but also a lot of suffering and poverty.

Then came the military crackdown of 1988 and more than twenty years of real fear and oppression. That was the vibe when I started work on this book in early 2009. Though people might have a sense of fun and ease in the privacy of their own homes, they were cautious and serious out on the streets and wary of being seen talking to a foreigner.

Now that has changed, in a dramatic and wonderful way, and very quickly. Late in 2011, with reforms and a relaxation of censorship from the top, people lost their fear. They suddenly became confident that Burma was truly emerging from the black hole of oppression. Now there is laughter and open discussion in tea shops and on the streets.

In researching and writing the book, I wanted to celebrate the richness of the food cultures of Burma and the vibrancy of individuals. I decided that there was no room for the army in the kitchen, so I put all the history of bad times at the back of the book.

I've seen the start of a dramatic long-overdue transformation over the last year. But there are still huge issues in Burma: attacks by the army on the people of Kachin State (a place rich in resources that shares a long border with China); unresolved conflicts in many border areas; and real questions about who is going to benefit from the exploitation of the country's natural resources.

The world has realized Burma's geopolitical importance, especially givens its rich oil and gas reserves. No wonder foreign companies and governments now want access. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has been calling for a freshly negotiated political agreement among all the ethnic communities, including the majority Bamar people, and she is also asking that investors focus on building capacity in Burma, from education to roads and services. She's right on. Let's hope the world listens.

What do you wish more people knew about Burma?

At the very least, I hope the book encourages people to learn where it is. Its critical keystone location between India and China and Thailand means Burma will be a big player in Asia. And I'm hoping the book helps people learn about the country's different cultures. The Bamar are the majority people, but a quarter of the country is non-Bamar, made of a number of distinctive cultures. I use food as the medium for explaining them, and so, for example, the Shan and Kachin recipes are a delicious introduction to those cultures.

Your book is studded with stories of individuals that shed light on daily life in Burma. How did you meet and cook with people without speaking their language?

The language of food and markets is a language of gesture. Because it was important until the recent reforms to give people time to get used to me, I would go to smaller places and hang around, sipping a tea in tea shops, pedaling around on an old bicycle, taking photos of shallots and fish and anything else that caught my eye in the amazing markets. And gradually, after several days in a place, I would become a familiar sight so that people would start to connect with me, open up a little.

The wonderful thing about a place like Burma, where food is made in the street and kitchens are often open air, is that there are endless opportunities to watch and learn as people cook, and to taste and eat at all hours. There are a remarkable number of older people who speak beautiful English, and many young people are eager to practice their English, once they feel relaxed enough to approach a foreigner. I also found that small guesthouses were places where I could safely ask questions about foods I'd encountered.

Where in Burma would you send people who want to explore its food?

Rangoon/Yangon has lively markets with foods from all the regions of Burma so it's a great place to start sampling the country's rich culinary traditions. But I think that food in smaller centers is that much closer to home cooking. So I'd send you to Bagan to see the ruins and to eat lunch under the tree in Old Bagan. I'd send you to Inle Lake to eat Shan food at the market in Nyaungshwe and to visit the villages and floating markets on the lake and to check out a couple of wineries. And farther afield, there's sleepy, beautiful Mrauk U in the far northwest, a great place to get a taste of village life and to explore the ruins of a bygone age. If you have more time, then Hpa'an and Mawlamyine on the Salween River are fascinating places, with spectacular Buddhist temples in lovely settings.


“Duguid is part anthropologist, part brilliant cook, and her recipes simply work in American kitchens. Many dishes in Burma will seem entirely fresh to palates already familiar with Thai or Vietnamese food. . . .  Duguid has mastered the arc of flavor development. She writes with deep, local, friendly authority.” ―Cooking Light


“Simple, distinctive home cooking.” ―Food & Wine


“Duguid’s well-written recipes . . . will make readers yearn to get chopping, sizzling, and tasting.” ―Sacramento Bee


“This stunning book is part cookbook, part culinary anthropology, and, throughout, a feast for the eyes." ―Celebrated Living


“A treasury of Burma’s cuisine . . . . Duguid’s portrait of Burma’s rich food heritage contains vivid glimpses of the people who create it along with cultural insight and a dash of travel advice.” ―Publishers Weekly, starred review (Burma is one of Publishers Weekly's Top 10 Cookbooks for Fall)


“Satisfy your taste for adventure with Naomi Duguid’s Burma: Rivers of Flavor. Part cookbook, part travelogue, Duguid introduces the salads, stews and meats of Burma and explores the culinary crossroads between China, India, and Southeast Asia.” ―Greenwich Time


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Artisan; 1st edition (September 25, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1579654134
  • ISBN-13: 978-1579654139
  • Product Dimensions: 7.9 x 1.4 x 10.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (88 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #102,716 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Cynthia C.C. on November 2, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is spectacular. I have spent many years cooking from other books written by Naomi Duguid, and was worried that her fairly recent divorce from Jeffrey Alford (her longtime co-author) would end the string of phenomenal cookbooks. I am so pleased (selfish though this may be) that Naomi has written a book that rivals any of the previous.

Naomi isn't a celebrity chef. She doesn't dash off a cookbook, and then trade on name recognition for sales. She truly immerses herself in a culture, for years and years, living amongst the indigenous people and learning from them. Her resulting cookbooks include not only truly authentic recipes, but stories and photos from her time spent in those places. This cookbook, like the others, is a great glimpse into another culture.

Though the cookbook is authentic, the recipes are entirely accessible. They don't contain numerous hard-to-find or expensive ingredients. They are also quite easy to prepare for anyone with an average knowledge of cooking. The most unsual things you might have to do are to fry some crispy shallots or whirl a handful of dried shrimp in a spice/coffee grinder (or food processor).

I cannot wait to roll up my sleeves and cook, and cook and cook, from this lovely book. The recipes I've made so far are fantastic, and I plan to make many more.
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This book reminds me why I still like to buy cookbooks in paper versions, even though I've collected more recipes online than I will ever use and already have many more cookbooks than I need. Unwrapping a new cookbook and flipping through it, backwards and forwards, checking out the recipes, photos and other illustrations, putting in markers for what I might try, going back to change them when I find something better, and putting a tick next to the successes that will be cooked again will always beat copying a new online recipe, no matter how good it is.

Previous to buying this book, I knew some of Burma's history (especially during WW2) a little of its oppressive past (with the longterm house arrest of Aung-San-Suu-Kyi) and had a vague idea only of its geography and cultural mix. I had no idea about its food and bought the book on a whim, thinking I might holiday there before the place becomes over-ridden (with tourists just like me.)

Having now read it, and cooked five delicious dishes, I think Naomi Duiguid should be paid a heap by the Burmese Tourism Agency, if such a place exists.

Duiguid provides an excellent selection of delicious recipes. (I've no idea how authentic they are but notice other reviewers with local expertise seem to give them thumbs up.) She also includes some great photos of various locations and extra info for travellers gleaned from her many trips to the country, making the place sound like a great holiday destination.

I notice that David Lebovitz, in his fabulous food blog from Paris, only days ago gave this book a positive and even glowing commentary, including a couple of recipes from the book for his readers to try. That can only be good for Duiguid and for Burmese tourism.
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By Zaw on September 26, 2012
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From a Burmese native, this book is spot on and Naomi capture Burmese cuisine perfectly. I only wish there were more photos of the finished products of each recipe.
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I loved what another reviewer said earlier: "Buy shallots." Yes! And you'll be so glad that you did!

First, it's worth noting that this book is gorgeous. Everything about the design--the layout, the photography, the fonts, everything--is just visually stunning and inspiring. It's almost worthy of being a coffee-table travel book. However, that description alone doesn't do the book justice because the recipes are amazing. Granted, I've tried only four of the recipes so far, but every single one is a winner so far. I'll be sure to add a comment to this review if I later try a recipe that isn't great.

I'm a vegetarian. This is not a vegetarian cookbook. However, I really appreciate that the author provided vegetarian options and suggestions wherever possible. Thank you!

What I've made so far:

* Paneer in Tomato Sauce: SO GOOD. I cannot believe how tasty this is. The recipe calls for paneer, but I instead used extra-firm tofu that I pressed the heck out of first. Even my omnivorous husband agreed that this was one of the best tofu dishes I've ever made for him. We both can't wait to eat this again.

* Perfumed Coconut Rice: Quite possibly the most delicious rice I've ever made at home. YUM. I will come back to this recipe again and again, I'm sure.

* Shallot Lime Chutney: Beautiful, light, and vibrant. A clean, bright accompaniment to the heavier main dishes. Next time, I will make this spicier than the recipe called for.

* Semolina Cake: I was surprised by how much this cake really did taste like halvah, even though it contains no sesame. It was unusual and delicious.
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I've cooked one dish from here. It was a beef and potato dish, which the author said she made with eggplant instead (and I had an abundance of eggplant). I used pork, since one of my guests has heart palpitations from beef. Oh, and it turns out I was out of shallots, so I had to use onions instead. It was amazing. I never thought eggplant could actually taste good.

This book could be called Shallots instead of Burma. You need a lot of shallots. The recipes are all well suited to cooking in a Western kitchen, but still feel like what I'd imagine food is really like in Burma. I really don't know if they really are like Burmese food, but I trust the author. You will need to probably visit a specialty store (or the internet) because the main ingredients are not 100% megamart safe, but the bulk of the items are available easily.

And you will need lots of shallots.

Also, her other books are all awesome as well. I heartily recommend all of them in addition to this book.
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