Lucky Miracle: Traditional Flavors from Contemporary Burma

It is often said that the best way to learn about another culture is through its cuisine. After traveling across Burma and sampling its food and foodways for more than 20 years, James Beard Award-winning writer Naomi Duguid has pulled together her favorite memories, photos, and memories of the country in her new book, Burma: Rivers of Flavor. On September 25, Duguid came together with Alex Ong, ASNC board member and Executive Chef at Betelnut Peiju Wu, for a one-of-a kind dinner and conversation, the latest in the Asia Society’s popular Off the Menu series on Asian culture and cuisine.

“In researching and writing the book,” said Duguid, “I wanted to celebrate the richness of the food cultures of Burma and the vibrancy of individuals. I decided that there was no room for the military [junta] in the kitchen, so I put all the history of bad times at the back of the book.” When she first conceived of the project some years ago, no one could have predicted the remarkable political and social changes of recent months. Today she calls its timing a “lucky miracle.”

More than anything, Duguid was on hand to celebrate Burma’s food with Alex Ong and his all-star team. The cuisine offers “clean, simple, layered” flavor profiles that are utterly new to American eaters, even to fans of the few Burmese restaurants in the U.S. Over the course of the evening, Duguid and Ong demonstrated the range and sophistication of Burmese cuisine with a spectacular nine-course meal. 

One revelation was the tea leaf salad: complex, astringent, and served less as a salad than as a digestif and palate cleanser prior to dessert – a Burmese-style bread pudding best served with bourbon. The dish was so good, Alex said, that he’s thinking about adding it to the Betelnut menu – welcome news for everyone who wasn’t able to attend the sold-out event.

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