On Tuesday a woman walked into my bookshop and while scanning the shelves, told me that “a Burmese friend recommended your shop to me.” “Really? Who was that?” I asked. “Ma Thanegi” was her reply. That of course led to more conversation and introductions. She told me her name was Naomi, was from Canada, but spent a lot of time in Thailand each year. She had also been making frequent trips to Myanmar to do research for a Burmese cookbook she is writing. She ended up buying a bunch of books (including every title we had by Alan Furst) to take with her to Toronto the following day.
I wrote an e-mail to Ma Thanegi later that evening, telling her that I had met a very interesting friend of hers. Thanegi wrote back and said: “Google her name — Naomi Duguid. She’s a lovely person.” I took her advice and did an online search, revealing that Naomi Duguid is quite the traveler and also a highly regarded cookbook author. She has written several cookbooks with Jeffrey Alford, including Flatbreads and Flavors; Hot Sour Salty Sweet: a Culinary Journey through Southeast Asia; Flavors of Rice; Mangoes and Curry Leaves: Culinary Travels through the Great Subcontinent; and Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China.
From the reviews I’ve read, Naomi’s books appear to be much more than ordinary cookbooks or collections of recipes. Her books combine food, travel, and culture, immersing the reader in the lives and customs of the people of the country or region that she is visiting and writing about. In an interview she did with Artsmania, Naomi said:
“I try to work against our natural tendency to pigeonhole other people or other cultures … I see all these books as tools for helping make the “other” less “other.” The stories can do that for some people, and then if they make the recipe, maybe the story echoes with the recipe and gives them more dimensions. And so it’s no longer just a place they’re never heard of on a map, or a place they think is weird and foreign.”
The new book that she told me about is tentatively titled Rivers of Flavor: Recipes and Travel Tales from Burma. Publication is scheduled for September 2012 by Random House Canada and Artisan Books in the US. I can’t wait to read it!
Paula Helfrich, another resident of Yangon — and also a friend of Ma Thanegi — was in my shop the previous week for some book buying and conversation. Paula is American but has been living in Myanmar for several decades (in fact, she was born there!), teaching English to monks and children. Paula recently co-wrote a novel, Flying, with Rebecca Sprecher. It’s published by Author House in the USA. Described as “an unprecedented, behind-the-scenes glimpse into the airline world,” Flying traces the lives of two young women, one of whom (like Paula) was raised in Southeast Asia.
And I have to put in a plug for Ma Thanegi’s books while I’m at it. Last year, Things Asian Press published her travelogue Defiled on the Ayeyarwady, a fascinating and funny account of Thanegi’s trip down the famous river. In addition to being a detailed account of her trip, it serves as an excellent primer for those wanting to know more about Burmese culture and customs. Her conversations with fellow passengers, and observations of what’s happening around her, are marvelous. She is currently working on a new memoir of her life in Myanmar, and Things Asian also plans to reprint her excellent cookbook, An Introduction to Myanmar Cuisine later this year.