Feast on Naomi Duguid’s Burma cookbook and Marcus Samuelsson’s memoir
After an extended summer of grilling, fall’s the time to up the cooking ante. Perhaps it’s the warmth of the kitchen that encourages us to take on a new project—or the shorter days that lead us directly to the sofa to read about someone else’s culinary adventures. Either way, here are two books to inspire you.
Chances are you don’t have a favourite Burmese takeout joint and that mohinga—a Burmese equivalent of Vietnamese pho—isn’t on your regular menu rotation at home. Toronto’s Naomi Duguid introduces this less-familiar cuisine in Burma: Rivers of Flavor (Random House Canada). Duguid, who has coauthored six cookbooks including Hot Sour Salty Sweet with her former partner, Jeffrey Alford, wrote this one solo. Like her other cookbooks, it’s a richly photographed tome that gives armchair travellers a look at a country’s culture through its food.
Duguid makes it clear that the book is about food as a window into daily life, not politics. “The Burmese army and government are not invited into the kitchen in this book, nor will you find discussions of human rights mixed in with the recipes here,” she writes. She notes that while she felt anxious that she might put those who spoke with her in public at political risk as she researched the book over the past few years, she found them tolerant of her photography and questions and generous with their food traditions. She encourages people to travel to Burma to experience the culture for themselves.
So what characterizes Burmese food? Well, if you look at a map you’ll easily be able to guess the influences: it shares borders with Thailand, China, and India, among other countries. Flipping through the book, some recipes look quite similar to those for Thai dishes, particularly the salads, which are based on everything from long beans to pomelos. Others, such as paneer in tomato sauce and chicken aloo, echo the Indian subcontinent. Similarities to Chinese cuisine show up in recipes like pork strips with star anise. These influences combine with those of Burma’s indigenous cultures to make a unique cuisine.
Recurring ingredients include fried shallots and shallot oil, dried red chilies, dried ground shrimp, turmeric, and roasted chickpea flour. There’s an abundance of condiments and sauces to accompany meals based on rice. “Please don’t be intimidated,” Duguid writes, “you can put together your basic cook’s pantry in an hour.”
The recipes are certainly intriguing. Chickpeas, often eaten for breakfast, are showcased in a chickpea soup with lemongrass and ginger. (Find the recipe here.) A coriander-tomato omelette calls for turmeric, and a pumpkin curry features tamarind. The photos capture your interest, as they’re not just of the food but of the people and everyday sights, such as clay pots of water set out in shelters by the side of the road for passersby to drink. Duguid gives this as an example of how “all over Burma the innate generosity of the culture is on display.”
Shifting to other parts of the world, Marcus Samuelsson’s Yes, Chef: A Memoir delves into his journey from Ethiopia to Sweden to the U.S. It’s worth reading for several reasons. First, it traces Samuelsson’s fascinating career path, showing how he eventually became one of America’s top chefs. At age 23, he was the youngest chef ever to receive a three-star review from the New York Times (when he was the chef at the Scandinavian restaurant, Aquavit). He now runs Red Rooster in Harlem.
But more interesting is his personal journey across continents and how his identity as a chef was shaped not just by the colour of his skin but by his environment. Orphaned in Ethiopia at age three, Samuelsson was adopted by white Swedish parents and brought to Sweden. He credits his Swedish grandmother for first teaching him how to cook (think pan-fried herring and lingonberry jam); he went on to hone his European techniques and flavours in Switzerland and France. After moving to New York, he did stints in a cruise-ship kitchen, sampling food at ports from the Caribbean to Asia. While visiting the latter, he started to question why the fine-dining world dismissed “ethnic” food. “Who started the lie that France had the greatest food in the world?” he asks.
In America, Samuelsson was at first uncomfortable being pigeonholed as “the black chef”. It wasn’t until he was well-established in his career that he begin to explore his Ethiopian roots and cuisine. When he returned to the country of his birth, he found a sense of belonging but also a “deep reminder of how fate had steered my life on such a different course”. His book shows how a person’s identity—and their cooking—is a product of their experiences and can’t just be reduced to race, ethnicity, or nationality.
Samuelsson’s cultural sophistication results in some interesting insights into American and European restaurant kitchens, including the differing attitudes of chefs towards apprenticing and being accepted into culinary circles. But ultimately, his story isn’t about generalizations: it’s about one very interesting individual.
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