Burma: Rivers of Flavor, Chiang Mai, Cuisine Canada, culinary anthropology, George Elliot, IACP, Immerse Through, James Beard, James Beard Foundation Award, Les saveurs du Canada, Middlemarch, Naomi Duguid, oolong tea, Rangoon
Dear readers and tea lovers everywhere,
Welcome to a regular feature of our blog, ‘Afternoon tea with …. people of note’
Today, we’re delighted to take tea with Naomi Duguid, traveller, writer, photographer, cook, friend and mentor. We’re thrilled Naomi was able to stop by, virtually speaking, between travels to Thailand and parts of old Persia – more about that later. Naomi is often described as a culinary anthropologist because she sifts and blends her passion for food, culture, people and history so successfully in her cookbooks. More than tasty recipes and pretty pictures, her books have heft – intellectual, culinary, and yes they are also big. Her abundant curiosity defines her cookbooks as she explores foods in situ – discovered, described, tasted, discussed, bought, cooked, photographed and eaten in local villages with local villagers.
Her latest book Burma: Rivers of Flavor celebrates the food cultures of Burma. It won the 2013 International Association of Culinary Professionals Culinary Travel Cookbook Award. Considered the gold standard among cookbook awards, these awards promote quality and creativity in writing and publishing – the ne plus ultra of culinary literature. She is also the co-author of six award-winning books of food and travel: Hot Sour Salty Sweet: A Culinary Journey Through South-East Asia, winner of the James Beard Cookbook of the Year award; Seductions of Rice, winner of Taste Canada Cookbook Award; Flatbreads and Flavors, winner of another James Beard Cookbook of the Year Award; Home Baking, another Taste Canada Cookbook Award; Mangoes and Curry Leaves; and Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Stories from the Other China – won the 2009 James Beard Award for Best International Cookbook.
So many awards reflects so much passion. Congratulations, Naomi! So let’s begin with a cup of oolong tea brewed to perfection and steeped only briefly as Naomi prefers her tea weak. Her Ladyship (that would be me) pours two dainty cups of oolong and we start our virtual interview.
Did you ever think you would be Naomi Duguid, Culinary Anthropologist, when you were growing up?
I didn’t think in those terms at all! Three of my four grandparents came to Canada from Europe; both my grandfathers were in the First World War and my father in the Second for six years, in fact he met my mother – a Canadian physio in England and they married in London in 1948 – so Europe was very much part of the family conversation. When I was 10 years old, my family went to England so that my brother and I could meet the people my parents knew during and after the war. What I do remember very vividly is my mother telling us on the Empress of England, while crossing the Atlantic, “it was our job was to be interested in the people we met”. For me, I think this advice was seminal.
So your curiosity took flight at a tender age?
Your cookbooks deal with food, people, culture. What’s the trigger for this trinity?
Books – especially cookbooks – need context in order to make the content ‘breathe’. Some people will relate to location photographs, others to the recipes and pictures. I feel very strongly that a cookbook cannot ‘breathe’ , cannot relate to the wider world, until there is a connection between the food, the people and their culture. I use personal experience stories to bind my cookbooks. I am really interested in food as a way to understand the world – everyone thinks about food; everyone does something with food. I’ve taken the most basic tool we have – food – to understand and appreciate the broader world.
You took a leave of absence from the legal profession to travel. Your plans were return to the law?
Yes; I was about to make partner and I thought I should take a leave to travel first. I got a five-month leave of absence, my partnership was protected. But after three weeks of travel, I knew I wasn’t going back. I only have one life and I felt travel was a call, not a push. Travel is one of my passions.
Ever miss the cut and thrust of the law?
I practiced employment and labour law; I was using my brain to make arguments; I still make arguments – I just changed hats! Nothing is wasted.
I get the sense you’re in love with Southeast Asia; when did this affair begin?
I first visited Thailand and Burma in the 80’s. And growing up, I read a lot about this part of Asia, because of the British connection so all Southeast Asia was a real place to me, a place that I could see in my mind’s eye. There isn’t a country or place that I love more than others. I’m comfortable anywhere my curiosity gets a workout. There are a million things to learn, especially about other people’s food.
You started a niche travel service.
Yes, ‘Immerse Through’. It’s about immersing small groups of people to really look at things, and to engage with what they’re seeing. Food is the easiest thing to engage with. So we look at food, shop and cook and talk about food. We discuss menus and meals but I don’t give out recipes; I hand out money and send people to the market to buy food and to engage with the vendors. We learn how to prepare food the local way and cook using traditional village braziers. Each day we go to a different market and repeat the experience and learn more about local foods. This way, the mind and the body have memories.
What gave you the idea for this concept of food travel?
For me, immersion is associated with travel, with crossing borders and engaging with people and with their culture wherever I am, and with making myself vulnerable. I immerse myself through food and people. I have spent the last twenty-five years travelling, researching, writing and photographing to make cookbooks come alive, so food traditions, traditional foodways are what turn me on.
Who typically attends your trips?
Every year is different; chefs, foodies, people looking for a more authentic travel experience. Many strands come together and we always have fun. The next trip to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand is 01 – 07 February, 2015. Following that, I’ll be travelling to Rangoon with a small group on a food-focussed trip to Burma.
What are you working on right now?
Persian World – that’s the working title of my current book project. I’m interested in the regional culinary legacies of Iran, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iraqi Kurdistan… as a mater of fact I’m off to get my visa for Azerbaijan after our tea.
Do you have a publication date?
2016 – the autumn.
Like all your books, I’m sure the photography will be sumptuous.
Thank you! I do all the location photography; a professional photographer hired by the publisher does the food photography.
How do you celebrate big moments?
Eating with friends.
Chocolate ice cream or vanilla?
Neither; mango sorbet.
If you could dine with any fictional character it would be …
Dorothea from Middlemarch.
What’s you guilty pleasure?
Staying up reading in bed until ridiculously late hours.
Best advice you’ve ever received …
At 17, I spent a year in France. My father told me time and money are both in short supply but time is in shorter supply.
Quickest mood boost …
Doing something physical out of doors, on my own or in the company of my two boys.
Favourite Canadian city ….
Who would play you in the movie of your life?
Meryl Streep would make sense.
What you appreciate most in your friends?
Intelligence and good humour.
Your idea of happiness?
Your idea of misery?
Grief, possibly ….
Your favourite virtue?
Respect for others.
Your defining characteristic?
Bon voyage! And we’re looking forward to Persian World.