Passable Interview: Naomi Duguid

One of the last things I said to Naomi Duguid was, “Thank you.”

And then I told her this story:

In 2001, I had my first bowl of pho at a Vietnamese restaurant. I had been a vegetarian for about a year or so, but my friend at the time convinced me to try the savoury Vietnamese beef noodle soup. My knowledge of Vietnamese food was cursory at best. I knew about the use of lemongrass, the eating of spring and salad rolls and that was about it.

This was unlike anything I had ever eaten. It was simple, yet sophisticated.

For about six months, I frequented that restaurant almost every weekend. It was winter and it had been cold in the city and a big bowl of warmth was the perfect way to forget the snow outside. But then I couldn’t afford to go out every week or so for pho. And then the restaurant burned down. I needed my fix. I would make the soup myself.

That is how I ended up buying my first copy of “Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet”, by Duguid and her former partner, Jeffrey Alford. The book was, like that bowl of soup, a revelation. I didn’t know that cookbooks could be like this: an exploration, both personal and anthropological of food and the people who make it. I learned not only about Vietnamese food, but Thai, Cambodian, Lao, as well as all the various peoples who make up Southeast Asia.

One of the countries that Duguid touched on lightly in that book was Burma, also known as Myanmar. For many people, Burma is a place that is veiled in mystery, both gastronomically and politically. It was almost like a forgotten part of Southeast Asia. But Burma came into the news in 2010 with the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, and slowly but surely, things came to change in Burma’s social and political climate. They still are.

You could almost argue that Duguid’s most recent book, “Burma: Rivers Of Flavour”, is riding a tide of perfect timing, both in its creation and publication. A few years ago, Duguid and her writing partner, Jeffrey Alford, split up. “It was evident that Jeffrey wanted out of the relationship and didn’t want to be doing more cookbooks and all of that,” she said over the phone in Toronto. “So, I wanted to do something manageable in terms of scale.” Manageable for Duguid meant writing a book about a place she wanted to discover more of: Burma. “It seemed like it made sense now that this partnership had come apart, so I said I would do it. I wanted a project for me.” Duguid joked that the offer from her publishing company had been a bit low, but that the money didn’t matter. “I think they expected me to turn it down, but I said, ‘No I need this project.’ so I said I would do it,” she recalled.

Doing it meant travelling into Burma on multiple occasions, about eight or nine trips over the past few years. Duguid had spent time in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, much of it making food of the Shan people, an ethnic group that live in Burma and parts of Thailand and Laos. The Shan are one only of the ethnic groups living in the area, as well as the Karen, the Chin and more. Duguid’s “Hot Sour Salty Sweet” had made mention of certain Karen dishes, as well as Shan, but “Burma” digs deeper into the cuisines of the country.

But that’s how Duguid works: she digs deeper than just the recipes. Her previous works with Alford examine peoples and places that most people would discount as culinarily uninteresting. “That first book, “Flatbreads and Flavours”, was so out of the box, it was sort of a gamble for the person who brought it to our publisher,” she said. “It was full of stories and in places where a lot of people didn’t know where they were. In 1993, Tajikistan was not exactly on everyone’s map.” But that book put Alford and Duguid on the cookbook map. It changed the way readers and publishers looked at cookbooks. “[The book] sort of happened and it won a big prize and people said, ‘Oh, maybe this is a new era in cookbooks.’” It was. That “big prize” was a James Beard Award, and it wasn’t the first one the duo won. But Duguid says that, “We just did what we wanted to do.”

What Duguid wanted to do was write about the food of Burma, and the people that live there. “The Burma book is just trying to understand, give glimpses into how people are living or what they are doing in the country,” she pointed out. “I think it affects the taste of the food if you can visualise the place.”

The taste of the food is another thing that Duguid likes to talk about. She doesn’t believe in trying to convince others that her recipes are definitive.*

“People want to feel like they can nail a dish. They have this ambition to encapsulate of a place or a cuisine in a little two-sentence thing that sums it up. My feeling is that you can never do that. To try be reductive is a terrible thing. That’s the difference between a lot of the writing about places and food and what I like to do. I don’t want to say I’m an expert. I can’t say that every pho is made “this way” and who would want to? You can make pho this way and it seems to be in the genre and it is a way that you prefer. You can make it all your life and become expert at it, but you won’t be an expert at everything. We can’t have it all. So it’s interesting that when I started the book, at various points we tried to say we’re not experts, and that the first few times you make something it won’t be shaped perfectly, and that’s fine. You’ll get the hang of it. But people who have made it all their lives, is a whole other level of expert. We can’t all be concert violinists, but we can have a nice time playing the violin. There is this confusion when writing about food, that if it isn’t perfect, then you don’t want to do it. Then people are afraid to try in doing things like baking bread, etc., or are worried if it isn’t like the people on television. It’s like a misplaced ambition. The fact is that home cooked things are made from the heart, and they have value. I just try and transmit a sense of a thing. The recipes aren’t about creating product, it’s about empathetic reconstruction”

Duguid and I went on to talk about other things, including the use of fish sauce (she jokes that there is a “fish sauce line” across Thailand, geographically separating those who use it, and those who don’t) and writing about the chefs who make street food in Thailand for Lucky Peach. We talked about politics in Burma, (she says she didn’t want to write about politics in the book because, “What’s my small little predictable story, in comparison to life there?”) and an upcoming trip to Nova Scotia.

And then after the interview was really over, I told her the story about how I fell in love with pho. And the books she wrote. And food and the people and places they come from. She suggested I travel to Southeast asia. And I will, someday, god willing. And when I do, I will seek out so many things, and hopefully make them once I get home. My own little empathic reconstruction of a place and time.

*I was going to edit this quote into a more formal fashion, but I felt that Duguid contextualised what she had to say so well, why not let her.