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Cookbook author Naomi Duguid crosses Burma’s flavour frontier

Naomi Duguid, author of a new cookbook called Burma, Rivers of Flavor, prepares the dish West Coast Mohinga at her home in Toronto.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Naomi Duguid, a hard-travelling Canadian writer and photographer who has co-authored some of the most influential international cookbooks of the past two decades, had misgivings about her most recent project.

Where Hot Sour Salty Sweet, the best-selling, multi-award winning guide to the foods of Southeast Asia that she published in 2000, or her 2005 India book, called Mangoes and Curry Leaves, were all researched in relatively open countries, she had to lie each time she sought a visa to travel into her latest subject. Burma (also known as Myanmar), ruled by a military junta, was "a black hole," she said.

She applied through a travel agency in Chiang Mai, Thailand, always as a tourist, with "cook" listed as her profession. Each time she got a visa, she expected it would be her last.

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Duguid hung around in food markets and tea shops, not just in Rangoon and Mandalay, but north, in Myitkyina, and in Dawei, to the south, on the Andaman Sea. She gawked at the stalls filled with citrus and lime leaf salads; clear, tart soups; batter-fried bananas served with lime wedges, and sticky rice doughnuts dipped in palm sugar syrup. She observed quietly, taking pictures, acting like a tourist. She had to be careful to never seem too eager, to pull out a notebook, or worse, to ask her subjects' names. On one trip she realized that she hadn't seen adults laughing together in public since she arrived in the country.

And for the first time, Duguid was working without her long-time partner. Late in 2008, while the book deal was in negotiations, she and Jeffrey Alford, her husband and co-author of more than two decades, split up. "He took off," Duguid said in a long interview at her home in Toronto, where she lives with their two sons. (Alford is now living in Northeast Thailand and working on a novel, according to his blog.)

Yet in spite of all this, Burma, released this week in Canada, is a rare thing in an era when it sometimes feels there's little new or surprising in food: It is a book of genuine discovery, a transportive and hunger-stoking look into what may be one of the world's last great but little-known cuisines. And the book is a triumph not just of perseverance and intelligence but also of timing, because Burma today has quite suddenly become a different Burma from when Duguid first visited for the book in February, 2009. The country has opened up considerably, and taken important steps toward democracy. "This remarkable thing has happened," Duguid said. It isn't a black hole any more.

She dresses like a traveller. As she walked the few blocks west from her home to Kensington Market, Duguid, who is 62, and imposing at 5 foot 10, wore a wide-brimmed felt hat and a weather-beaten Patagonia jacket she's owned since the 1980s. There was a frayed white blessing thread from Thailand on her wrist. We were going to cook today. She needed shallots, coriander, meat, fish, fresh rice noodles from the noodle shop.

She prodded at overgrown-looking greens and knobbly vegetables, describing each one and its uses as she passed them; she bought a bag of dried, coral-coloured shrimp at a herb shop, then sesame seeds in another store. We passed the second-hand shop where she buys much of her clothing. She'd rather save her money for airfares, she said.

Duguid was working as a lawyer in Toronto in 1985 when she took a leave of absence and flew to Hong Kong. Within a few weeks she decided to leave her law job. She and Alford met on a rooftop in Lhasa. They spent much of the next few years travelling. When their first book, called Flatbreads and Flavours, was published in 1995, it won the James Beard Foundation award for cookbook of the year.

The couple traded off the travel for their five subsequent books, one of them jetting away for three or four weeks while the other stayed back in Toronto with their boys. Many winters, they pulled their sons out of school for extended trips. "It was a partnership that worked well for a long time," Duguid said.

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Back in her kitchen, we started with a soup made from chickpea flour simmered with water until it was thick and glossy. Duguid spooned the soup into a pair of rice bowls, then tossed a handful of coriander on top. She pulled roasted peanuts, shallot oil, glowering red sweet-and-sour chile sauce and a dusky palm sugar syrup from a collection of Burmese condiments she keeps in jam jars on her counter, and we stirred them in. The dish, which took less than 10 minutes, was sweet, sour, hot, salty, deeply umami and a dozen other refracted flavours and sensations, and yet it was somehow balanced and comforting, too.

We made a simmered fish dish called mohinga: snapper cooked with shrimp paste and galangal, set over rice noodles with tamarind, red chile paste, toasted chickpea flour and more of those jam-jar condiments. Duguid cooked quickly, without measuring, without ever fussing over details. She abhors the old kitchen prejudices: that some people are born to make pastry, some people aren't natural cooks. That's one of the great qualities she brings to her books, over and above her curiosity and her ability to bring a far-away place into three dimensions: her gentle coaching. The food seems strange, but anybody can make it. She empowers cooks in a way that few other authors do. Eating with Duguid that day felt like discovering a lost world.

Last November, she flew back to Burma after several months' absence. In the course of a year, Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy leader, had been released from her extended house arrest, and the national government had loosened many of its most repressive policies. As Duguid rode a bicycle down the street, strangers now shouted, "Hi! Hi!" she said – something she had never experienced before. She saw women laughing in the markets.

"It was like the whole country decided not to be afraid," Duguid said.

And one of the certainties that Duguid had at the outset of the Burma book – that she'd never be allowed back in once it was published – has now been upended. She's planning a trip back to the country this February, when she intends to lead a street food tour there with Immerse Through, a culinary immersion organization she runs in Chiang Mai.

After that, she needs another book project. She's been thinking a lot about Iran.

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