Legendary cookbook author Naomi Duguid talks fermented sticky rice wine, raucous Thai market culture, and the immeasurable value of unscheduled time.
The Trip host Nathan Thornburgh would not be the first person to admit to falling deeply, darkly in love with the markets of Southeast Asia. There’s just something about the slurry of exhaust, sticky air and stickier rice, knockoff Premier League kits, fresh fruit, and dried worms, wild lime leaves, mango hawkers, and sausage mongers. They hit you in all the senses. They imprint on your brain. And nobody has helped Nathan and countless others decode that imprint and make sense of those markets more than Naomi Duguid—a guide, savant, author, and all-around bridge from West to East.
Naomi basically invented a deeply popular genre of book: the wandering, anthropological journalistic cookbook. With classics like Hot Sour Salty Sweet, Burma: Rivers of Flavor, and Taste of Persia. Of all the places she could have settled on Earth, she settled in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where she lives half of the year. That’s why Nathan, oh so thirsty at the end of dry January, chose Naomi to help him break his fast with fermented sticky rice wine and that delightfully downmarket thing they call Thai whiskey, which is actually rum.
Nathan Thornburgh: I have to say, I feel completely indulgent to be here, breaking the fast in Chiang Mai with some extraordinary liquor and extraordinary people. It feels… ornately festive to be breaking dry January like this. So, tell me about what we’re drinking today.
Duguid: We’re drinking a fermented rice drink. I mean it’s alcoholic because the rice is fermented for 30 days. It’s made from a little yeast and sticky rice, made by the friend of a friend of mine in a village in north Chiang Mai. I don’t know if it’s because there are lychee orchards around there, but it has a sort of a slightly fruity, aromatic taste. It’s incredible and yummy and awesome.
Thornburgh: That’s the nose on it.
Thornburgh: Cheers. Oh… that’s super good. It’s almost like the natural wine version of sake. It’s heavy, and funky, and incredibly delicious. It starts off like tasting like sake and ends in a very different place.
Duguid: Exactly. Sticky rice is the staple rice up here, so you really are drinking the taste of here.
Thornburgh: So, I’m excited to talk to you because you are known for—and I think you probably created the genre—which is this sense of borderless cuisine. You travel and follow flavors that go from country to country. You did this with Rivers of Flavor and Taste of Persia. In those books, you didn’t just stay Burma or Iran, you branched out and saw what they borrowed from their neighbors and what they gave back. You travel immensely and deeply—the kind of travel that I aspire to do. Of all the places you’ve traveled to, why did you decided to settle in Chiang Mai?
Duguid: I mean this is just so geopolitically interesting as a location, you know, it’s a window on a whole lot of things. So, that’s part of it. And it’s livable.
Thornburgh: How long have you been here?
Duguid: Well, I bought the apartment in that I have now in 2006.
Thornburgh: I re-read the New Yorker profile of you, which Jane Kramer wrote, recently. It’s this great look at you as a traveler and how you came to be doing the things you’re doing. You had this important point about relying on serendipity for all your discoveries…
Duguid: But you’ve done a lot of that as well.
Thornburgh: Not as much as you.
Duguid: I’m not a journalist so I don’t have the pressure of having to master the place. I want to let serendipity happen. I can be tired but I don’t feel squeezed, and I think those are two different things. So, I think I have it easy. I am lucky. It is luxurious.
I want to let serendipity happen
Thornburgh: And you left a great job in Toronto to go do that and to be present and ready for whatever happens. You also do food tours here in Thailand, which has become a robust part of your life here.
Duguid: Yeah, I do it once a year. I don’t advertise it, but I take people to a different market each day and they learn how about Thai food and how to cook using certain traditional hand tools. I was taking trips into Burma once a year, but I’m not doing that right now.
I’m not the teacher. I’m just to go-between my Thai friend Fern and her mother who is from a village in northern Thailand. It’s really sort of cultural immersion through food. It’s very hands-on and intimate, and it’s really fun because this growing appreciation and sort of respect for appreciation and respect for what cooks in Thailand are doing every day.
Thornburgh: Yeah. The question always for me, who has not had the success in this as you is: how do you achieve this sort of life?
Duguid: It’s tricky. When my kids were younger, we’d take them out of school for two months. It was fine until the last trip we did when my older kid was in grade 10 or grade 11. The school had trouble coping with averaging my kids’ marks when they missed three of their tests and that kind of thing. But it really, it was fine until then. And they seem to still be fine. The oldest one is 31 now and he’s on some postdoctoral fellowship at Oxford. He wasn’t harmed by trailing after his parents in northern Laos or whatever. My kids learned to talk to people of every age and stage and had the capacity to be interested in whoever comes across your path. I think that’s a huge thing. That’s a traveler reflex.
Thornburgh: Did they ever go backpacking or take a gap year?
Duguid: They weren’t at all interested in doing any of that because they didn’t have any a pent-up desire to travel.
Thornburgh: A lot of things people try to avoid inflicting on their children are actually just missed lessons. This shit is not going to kill the children.
I will say the pressures that schools place on children—the clamping mechanisms they have—are impressive. I guess the question that you really have to face is whether you’re going to call their bluff.
Duguid: Your kid gets kicked out if they miss school?
Duguid: Wow. Toronto is a much more benign place. We’re a very provincial little place.
Thornburgh: Right? You have the Canadian nice thing going for you guys. It does feel like the schools are just kind of daring you. I mean, how fabulous would it be to just take your kids away for a couple of months?
Duguid: I think free time is really valuable. I think kids need free time. I think, as adults, we need freedom and how to figure that out. I’m talking like an entitled person and, but you can figure it out by saying I don’t need all the things that jammed up time produces.
Thornburgh: Tell me about this book that you’re working on now. It’s a departure from the other books that you’ve published, right?
There’s an endless amount of stories about salt.
Duguid: It is. This book is not a regional book. It’s about salt. I’m writing it not because I want people to be eating handfuls of salt but because we all have to have it to survive. I find it fascinating. Everywhere in the world, there are fallow seasons. There are seasons when it doesn’t rain or it’s too cold or whatever, so we need to preserve food for those seasons. And salt has been one of the great tools for doing that. So, I’m going to have stories about salt in the book, but also recipes.
Thornburgh: It’s going to connect the pleasure of salt and what it can give you with kind of an anthropological, evolutionary story of our relationship with it.
Duguid: Yes. My working title for the book is a Joy of Salt.
Thornburgh: Not The Joy of Sex. It’s The Joy of Salt.
Duguid: Yeah. Let’s go there, right? Because there’s so much fear around salt. And throughout history, salt has been used as a tool for coercion. There’s an endless amount of stories about salt.
Recently, a very nice woman who lives on the Noto peninsula in Japan, where there are salt farms, wrote to me. She said she lives up in the hills. According to her, people in the villages up in the hills grew rice and they used to marry someone from the salt flat so they could trade rice for salt because they’re equally valuable.
Thornburgh: Wow. I love that idea of forced ingredient marriages. We’re the people with peanut butter. You have to go marry somebody from the chocolate tribe. Otherwise, we’re not going to make it.
Duguid: We’re not going to have a jelly sandwich if we don’t have somebody making jam.
Thornburgh: That’s amazing. I cannot wait to read your book.
Duguid: It’s going to be a while.
Thornburgh: Well, I’m going to try to internalize some of your approach to the world and just get comfortable with waiting.
Duguid: Drink to that, with a margarita with a salt rim.
Thornburgh: Absolutely. Cheers.
Episode 30 Show Notes:
Naomi Duguid’s landmark 2000 book co-written with Jeffery Alford.
Naomi’s award-winning 2012 cookbook, which explores Burma’s food cultures.
The author’s latest award-winning book.
Mark Kurlansky’s 2002 book on how a common household item has shaped civilization.