Bounded by India, Bangladesh, China and Thailand, the nation of Burma has been one of the lesser understood crossroads of Asian cuisine.
After traveling, eating and cooking in Burma for more than 30 years, Naomi Duguid has produced a work that transcends cookbook status. "Burma: Rivers of Flavor" serves as an incisive primer to a complicated, vibrant nation and its delicious food.
Perhaps best known for authoring with Jeffery Alford "Hot Sour Salty Sweet," which explored the Mekong River's path from Tibet to Vietnam, Duguid works by immersing herself in the daily life of people whose food she's trying to share.
Her cookbook delivers more than recipes. It delves into how Burmese dishes and culinary practices came to be, into not only what Burmese eat, but why. Duguid's text is illustrated compassionately with her photographs of Burma, showing quiet domestic scenes more than postcard highlights. (Richard Jung photographed finished dishes.)
Starting with foundations of Burmese cooking, like sizzling turmeric in peanut or untoasted sesame oil to start dishes, or using toasted chickpea flour to add texture or thicken sauces, Duguid conducts thorough seminars on the departments of Burmese cuisine.
Many people make up Burma – Shans, Karens, Chins, Bamars – and its cuisine's complexity reflects Burma's kaleidoscope of ethnicity, all in a nation the size of Texas. Even among chicken, there's Kachin chicken curry, rubbed with fragrant spice paste and steamed in its own juices, and Shan chicken in a garlic sauce tart with lime juice and cayenne.
A chapter on soups includes the clear, slightly tart broth Duguid calls "an essential part of the central Burmese rice meal," plus versions from elsewhere in the country. Vegetables, an essential part of the Burmese diet, are explored through Napa cabbage, potatoes, tofu, pumpkin, eggplant, okra and curries like Golden Egg Curry.
Beef and pork are stewed, stir-fried and curried, and Duguid flattens out a Shan meatball to make it easier for a Western kitchen, and delivers Lemongrass-Ginger Sliders.
A seafood chapter introduces Fluffy Lemongrass Fish and Kachin Carp Curry with Fresh Herbs. Rice, the dietary staple, is a condiment as well as running the spectrum from porridge to fried rice.
In noodles, Duguid tackles "mohinga," a fish noodle soup that Burmese will debate over regional variations the same way Buffalonians debate wings.
As "Burma" offers a compelling glimpse into the dishes and foodways of a beautiful country, it's sure to transport readers looking for ways to explore exotic flavors without leaving home.