Burma: Rivers of Flavor by Naomi Duguid (Artisan Books)

Whether you call it Burma or Myanmar, the country that lies below India, adjoins China, and borders Thailand, is a huge collection of highly diverse ethnic groups, each with their own customs and cuisine. “A cultural crossroads,” says Naomi Duguid, in her latest compendium of recipes, photographs, and stories, Burma: Rivers of Flavor.

Duguid has spent decades traveling through Asia with her family, steeping herself in daily life and learning different forms of home cooking. She first went to Burma over thirty years ago and has spent time roaming around the country, leaving the cities to learn the flavors of the Shan, the Karen, the Rakhine. Her photographs are generous in showing who she met and what she saw; her stories are enticing glimpses of a place that remains largely untraveled. From monasteries to market towns, from the serenity of 15th century temples to the devastation left by Cyclone Nargis, Duguid goes there and takes us with her.

But the glory of her books lies in the food she shares through recipes—and her latest is perhaps the most accessible to the Western cook. In common with their Southeast Asian neighbors, cooks in Burma use fish sauce and chilies and a multiplicity of fresh herbs. But the preparation involved is much easier, with fewer steps involved than in many Southeast Asian dishes—and the flavors encompass the Subcontinent and China too, with a distinctive local flair.

“Classic Sour Soup” is made with a fish stock, tamarind pulp, and bok choi—but “in Mandalay,” Duguid tells us, “…when the tall kapok trees are in bloom, cooks add their velvety, faded-red flowers.” Not a flavor the average cook will employ but will yearn to taste—this is Naomi Duguid’s trademark, to make home cooks long to leave their kitchens and eat in other places.

Bland potatoes become incendiary when a Rakhine cook is finished with them—first she boils them and then tosses them in a fiery shallot oil that’s been pumped up with lots of chilies. It’s a potato salad that will spice up potluck picnics in an unforgettable fashion.

And she tells how to make the country’s most famous dish—mohinga, a fish soup that is far more complicated than most of the other recipes but so very much worth the time and effort that it requires. With her customary generosity, Duguid gives both the Rakhine and the Rangoon versions of this –and tells a story attesting to the regional loyalty toward this “classic breakfast food.” Apparently no region can stomach another’s mohinga, which makes at least one prospective eater want to embark on a mohinga tour of Burma.

Duguid’s new book is a smaller size than her earlier ones, which makes it easier to use in the kitchen—and it is certain to be used. Perhaps more than any other cuisine she has explored, Burma’s is the most user-friendly to the Western cook, with hearty cold-weather dishes of stews and chutneys as well as salads, crepes, and desserts for lighter meals.

But when her book is first opened, it will keep readers going from picture to story to recipe, exploring Burma for hours in the company of a woman who is eager to share it. Burma: Rivers of Flavor may be the cheapest ticket to another country that you will ever buy.~Janet Brown