Robert Carmack is the best kind of traveler: a hungry one! The veteran cookbook author and food stylist launched the popular “Globetrotting Gourmet” food tours in 2000, focusing on the many interesting — and delicious — destinations around Asia. Several times each year you can find him wandering around the streets and markets — and dining at restaurants and food stalls — of some of the region’s most vibrant cities. Carmack, a native of the US Northwest, moved to Sydney, Australia about 25 years ago, where he lives with partner and food tour co-host Morrison Polkinghorne. He has written several cookbooks, as well as contributed food articles to travel guidebooks from publishers such as Lonely Planet and Things Asian Press.
Coming up next month, from June 2-12, Robert and Morrison will lead a tour to Thailand, focusing on the country’s Northeast Isan (or Isaan, or Esarn, etc.) region. That tour will culminate in a weekend “Isan Food & Wine Masterclass” at Khao Yai. Later in the year, in November, the Globetrotting Gourmet will visit Myanmar (Burma), a country populated by incredibly friendly people with many amazing sights and a surprisingly eclectic cuisine. Between meals and travels, I asked Robert about the upcoming food tours and his culinary views.
Give us some background on the Globetrotting Gourmet. What inspired you and Morrison to start the tours?
When I was first commissioned to write Thai Home Cooking (Periplus) I approached the task by locating Thailand’s top food locations, cities, cooks, chefs and regional dishes. Naturally, it also introduced us to some stunning restaurants and interesting, out of the way, hotels as well. When the book came out so many friends commented, “Oh, I wish I could travel to where you go, eat what you eat.” So “foolishly” we believed them, and offered our first food tour to Thailand. It was an immediate sell out! Today we structure our tours as if I am researching a new book. And we include all levels — from top restaurants to humble hawker stalls. And our clients regularly say “this is a group tour for people who don’t do group tours.” We consider that a compliment. Also, I want to stress: cooking classes are just one small part of a food tour. Eating, learning about the ingredients, and market visits are all equally important.
You have an Isan Food & Wine Masterclass scheduled in June. When many people think of Isan food, grilled chicken and sticky rice come to mind, as does the ubiquitous spicy papaya salad, Som Tam. What are some other Isan treats that warrant attention?
There’s an old saying that that larp (also spelled larb and laap), a minced or chopped meat “salad” represents true Isan character: The dish is full of spice, rich in diversity, and deceptively simple. It’s also an unlikely blend, but a welcome treat. Add lime, mint, coriander leaf, cilantro and lemon grass, and you have close to the ideal. But here again, the Isan temperament comes into play: adaptability. In Bangkok locals prefer their larb tart and tangy, while closer to the Lao border it’s much less so, and even slightly bitter by the addition of bile duct. Locals grind toasted sticky rice to lightly bind and add crunch, and prepare the same with ground beef, chicken, turkey, chopped fish, even offal or mixed meats. And my favourite: laap dip. In my book, this is a better steak tartare than France’s Raymond Oliver or Britain’s Jamie Oliver could ever whip up!
You also have a food tour to Myanmar scheduled in November. You’ve been to Myanmar many times. What is it about Myanmar that you find so appealing?
Definitely the friendliness of its people. Perhaps that is why I like Isan, so much as well. Of all the countries in Asia I regularly travel to, Myanmar, Lao, and Isan people are definitely the friendliest. It is a natural trait, with no underlying manipulation on their part. In Myanmar they stretch their smile like a Cheshire cat –– and it is so natural, so unaffected. People often write that Myanmar is a “time warp, a land where time forgot.” I never see that side of the country. Instead, I see a national pride. Nor do I see it as a poor country. Indeed, it is a rich land bountiful in natural riches. A poor economy, admittedly, but not a poor country.
Myanmar has many annual festivals. Which one is your favorite?
We’re organizing our next tour over the balloon festival in Taunggyi, near Inle Lake. But honestly, in Myanmar they are all so colorful, so natural. We took one group a few years ago to the festival in Kakku, which is a 1000-year-old “orchard of stupas.” The place is so remote, it wasn’t even discovered during the colonial period, and afterwards the military government failed to know of it until a National Geographic reporter went in on his own. I prefer the water festival in Myanmar over Thailand’s. If you don’t want to get wet, you can largely sit aside on chairs undercover and watch the locals dance under hoses. It is great!
Many people dismiss Burmese food as being too oily or complain there isn’t much variety to the cuisine. How would you respond to those criticisms?
When I go home and replicate my Myanmar recipes, everyone raves about how delicious they taste. Particular recipes, such as lemon— or tea leaf salads are world class, and its curries are deceptively simple, more like a tasty American stew, not buried under an avalanche of spices as in India. While travelling within the country, you do encounter a certain repetition of flavors. But this is no different than in the US, England, or Germany. In fact, I often compare Myanmar cuisine to Greek; basically the same ubiquitous flavor ingredients: oil, lemon, garlic, onion, tomato.
You are touring the wine vineyards in Khao Yai as part of your Isan Food Tour. Myanmar also now has vineyards near Taunggyi in Shan State. Have you been there? If so, how is their wine compared to that of Khao Yai?
We’ve included visits to Ayetharyar winery in Taunggyi, both for tastings and meals. I welcome seeing local wine industry developing in all countries. In my own case, I grew up in America’s Pacific Northwest during a time when there were only fruit wineries in Oregon. Now they produce some of the world’s best pinot noir. What I fear for Myanmar, just as I do in Thailand, is that unacceptably high taxes will severely restrict its acceptance. In many ways, Myanmar’s less spicy, less sweet cuisine is more adaptable to wine than Thailand’s, but recently the government, through the prompting of Ayetharyar, began imposing a high 50% wine import taxes, and there are demands to increase this to 100%. Local wineries may consider this a form of protection, but in reality it only stops wider consumption. As for Khao Yai wines, there is no comparison to a decade ago when the world first tasted Chateau Loei in the north. I have drunk some stunning bone dry roses from Khao Yai, and top red and dry whites. Where I think the wines especially excel is in pairing with Thai dishes, while not in trying to emulate European styles solely.
Do you think that the spread of globalization will eventually dilute the quality of the native cuisine in Southeast Asian countries? Or is food fusion just an inevitable consequence of merging cultures and modern day lifestyles?
Food is fluid, and so are tastes. American flavors, especially commercial brands, are much sweeter today than when I grew up. Overseas Thai restaurants tend to cook for their local public first, which I do think is a mistake. But that is the Thai nature: to be unfailingly polite, and provide what they think a guest prefers. A Western chef would be much more arrogant and egocentric in what he serves. As for fusion, I think the Asians do it best: incorporating Asian and Western flavors, and generally a Western cooking technique. By contrast, I suspect most Western chefs don’t really understand Asian ingredients. As Chef McDang writes in his wonderful book Principles of Thai Cooking: vegetables will have different flavor when grown in a different part of the world. This is exactly what the French wine makers have contended for over a century: terroir. But to be fair to Western cooking, I think in some cases, Asian chefs can learn from us, as well. Thai curries are improved by the searing and cooking of meats, as this carmelizes the natural sugars and enhances flavor. Merely boiling meat, as Southeast Asian cooks regularly do, is merely a hedge against fuel shortages.
Are you a fan of the pungent (some would say “stinky”) fish sauces that are used in so many of the cuisines around Southeast Asia?
I adore fish sauce, and have in fact conducted fish sauce tastings around the world at Masterclass sessions. I think some of the worst soy sauce is today served in Laos and Vietnam, as chemical sauce is the norm in both countries. Which is somewhat strange, considering that Vietnamese fish sauce is the world’s best. Chemically brewed fish and soy sauce take a day to break down the beans and wheat (using hydrochloric acid), while a naturally brewed variety takes months if not a full year or longer. The difference in taste is like chalk and cheese. Thai varieties generally include sugar, which is fine, and I have seen local production using river and stream fish in Sukhothai. Some are brought to the boil, others left natural (but a health concern). Vietnamese sauces usually do not include sugar, and I do rate the ones from Phu Quoc Nha Trang as world’s best. Northern Vietnamese fish sauce, on the other hand, is an acquired taste, and way too pungent for me.
You’ve eaten a variety of unusual food during your travels. Is there anything that you vow never to eat again?
As much as I adore Isan cooking, I still find pla ra/padaek a challenge. I’ve eaten a snake banquet in La Met village outside of Hanoi, but once was enough. And dog tastes so gamey, it’s worse than the strongest pork. And honestly, although I have written a best-selling book called Fondue, I really don’t like cooking at the table.
Are there any countries you are still craving to visit, or any “special” native dishes you still haven’t tried?
I am an ambitious eater, and drinker. I longed to taste alpine cloud berries, but was disappointed in Norway. Give me a juicy raspberry any day. On the Tibetan Plateau of Yunnan I always try the local yak butter tea, often with toasted tsampa buckwheat flour. Good, but not delicious. As for countries, Bhutan has long been high on my list, but it certainly is not a culinary destination. Surprisingly, I love returning again and again to countries and cities I’ve previously visited, learning ever more about them. As a tour host we personally scout all locations prior to a tour, and ditto as a travel writer. What I detest is an article or book that starts out with “When I first got off the plane….” I want to read — and learn — from an authority, not an armchair travel writer who goes once and thinks he or she is an instant expert. I disliked Ant Egg Soup: A culinary Journey Through Laos for that very reason. But I admire Fuchsia Dunlop’s writings on China’s food.
For pure relaxation, when you aren’t leading a tour, where is your favorite travel destination?
I adore Bangkok. It is such an exciting city, so much to see, so vast, and so creative. When I first started coming some 30 years ago, I loved its traditional arts and crafts. Today, it has gone well beyond that, becoming truly an international city, with international input, and local world-class art. We’ve also loved our journeys into Yunnan, China — it makes Thailand feel like a New World country by comparison.
You donate a portion of the proceeds from your tours to charities and training programs in each country you visit. Which ones are you most proud of, that gave you a special glow after contributing?
We both felt most humbled when we donated $1,000 to a monastery in Yangon. This was the city’s largest, and normally housed some 1,300 monks, students and orphans. When we presented our donation, the head monk commented that $1,000 would provide a little more than one day’s nourishment. How so, I asked? Three meals a day (less for the monks) at 25 cents per serving easily matched our $1,000 donation.
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