Eyes to See: An Interview with Naomi Duguid
Updated: Jan 31, 2020
THE FOOD WRITER AND PHOTOGRAPHER
ON THE USES OF SERENDIPITY
INTERVIEW AND PHOTOGRAPH: ROHAN KAMICHERIL
’m standing in the backyard of Naomi Duguid’s Toronto home—temporarily halted by
the food writer as we head indoors so that we can examine a wee, felled eggplant that
she’s picked up off the ground. She tut-tuts and shows it to me—marked with cursory
bite marks and abandoned.
“Well, at least the squirrels are getting fed,” she remarks wryly.
Her garden, in the last days of late-summer splendor, is getting tall and going gently to seed in preparation for autumn. Her books, which have spanned the world, from India to China, and covered topics as varied as flatbreads and rice (and will soon include a tome in progress dedicated to salt), are a testament to the wide range of her culinary interests and the breadth of her knowledge. Whether it’s her neighbourhood squirrels or her readers, Duguid, puts out an enviable feast.
As we sit in the shade of a crabapple tree on her front porch and sip tea, she tells me the history of her tidy, tree-lined neighbourhood, extols the verdant merits of the thriving Chinatown market scene nearby, and generally brings to bear on our conversation the experience of over twenty-five years of travelling the world and documenting its food.
Duiguid’s brand of culinary anthropology, when you meet it head-on (in person or in her books) is unfailingly winning. And yet, it’s a form of exploration that fewer and fewer people choose to embark on these days. She writes boldly across cultural difference, yet with an unshakeable gentleness and sensitivity.
She disclaims, at several points in our talk, that she isn’t a journalist. It’s a confession that might otherwise sound like an admission of defeat. Duguid’s approach isn’t fueled by the same quest for answers as a journalist’s, it’s true. Yet, that lack of preconceptions or a defined sense of mission frees her to encounter new places as they choose to present themselves.
It’s this openness to novelty and to the unexpected that suffuses Duguid’s work and brings the places she writes about to such vivid life for her readers.
As we say goodbye, she unearths a small wooden box for me to look at—one among the years of accumulated treasures that fill her house. It’s a yak butter container that she was gifted a long time ago. I open the lid and am engulfed with the ripe smell of old dairy, limned with the dark, earthy odor of wood. It dissipates almost instantly, but it leaves a bright fragment of memory behind: one small shard of collected light that reveals a whole landscape, a history, a living image of a faraway place.
Rohan Kamicheril: Can you tell me a little bit about how you got into food—the cooking and the eating of it, but also writing about it?
Naomi Duguid: I can't give you a simple answer to that. I have specific food memories from childhood—for example of loving strong-tasting cheeses (a blue cheese called L’Ermite was one of them) at a very young age. And I liked eating them without bread, which most adults found distressing. I assume they thought that I had no palate, to be able to tolerate that strong a taste at the age of eight. This was in largely white-bread Ottawa.
But my mother made all our bread, put up damson jam and Seville orange marmalade (recipes for both of those are in my Home Baking book, by the way) and was a very good plain cook. I am so grateful for that. We ate out of the garden in the summer, we ate leftovers, too, and there was a frugal necessity that informed all her cooking that I think is really at the base of all the best home-cooking. Starting when we were ten or so, my brother and I would occasionally come home from school and find a note left by my mother, asking us to put the bread (almost always whole-grain, rising in pans) in the oven at whatever temperature she directed. So we were looped in to the kitchen from an early age without it being a big deal.
"I realized that I could improvise and figure things out on my own without needing to be intimidated by the idea of expertise."
Later when I was living in an apartment at university and I wanted to make bread, I found that I could figure it out by picturing my mother's gestures and the sequences she followed, including letting the dough do a first rise overnight. It was extremely satisfying, as was the moment when I realized that I could improvise and figure things out on my own without needing to be intimidated by the idea of expertise.
And then when I was seventeen I spent a year in France. I was en pension in Tours, where I learned about French traditions, and where I gained a bit of an understanding of wine. I would hang around the kitchen when Madame J was cooking lunch or supper, chatting with her and watching, and smelling. I was so lucky: she was from the Midi and her husband from Lyons, so they set a delicious and generous table. I wasn't aware of how much I was absorbing until after I left.
RK: So much of your work draws on the food that is cooked in homes, or on traditions that can only be seen in homes. And yet, in so much of the mainstream discussion of food these days, the emphasis seems to be on how to cook more like a “professional.” Have you observed that too?
ND: Yes, and it’s exhausting. Because that kind of professionalization is essentially training a cook in how to give orders, how to make people nervous. It’s all very military. When you think of all the chefs at hotels across India, they're doing a really good job of cooking so many different Indian cuisines. And their cooking is fabulous, but they know what they know because they had mothers and grandmothers who trained them in those reflexes and those instincts. Of course they then go to cooking school, but any actual core knowledge or feeling—any palate—comes from these women. And so you have to wonder, are we comfortable just erasing the contributions of these women?
RK: Is it questions like this that motivate you to write about food?
ND: I think it’s curiosity about the world that motivates me. I take pleasure in not knowing the answers to questions. As a way of understanding the world there's just nothing better than food.
Wherever you go, it’s the same questions: what's the climate? What grows there? What do people do with it? What do they not do with it? I think about shortages and absences—because what you don't have shapes how you work as much as what you do have. Frugality can be a great creator. It's like a sonnet—it sets out rules and constraints within which you have to be creative.
Just asking these questions creates an intimate engagement with the world—and it’s a relationship that isn’t invasive. I don’t need anything from my subject. I can just be and observe. I don’t have to get to the bottom of everything. But I am trying to figure out how things work for people there and I do want to transmit that to readers and to make the "other" a little less other. So that way when people see news of some place like Iran on television, they can recall these stories and these recipes and these encounters and think, well, what I’m seeing on TV can’t be all of the story.
RK: Do you feel like it's getting harder for food writers to be generalists? There seems to be so much pressure to be an expert on a region or a single subject, and yet your work is unabashedly roving—you’ve written about regions as diverse as China, Morocco, India, and Iran.
ND: I’ll just say that in any new place I’m never the expert, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that—in fact, I love it, all these masses of unanswered questions.
And I want other people who aren't experts to also say, Yeah, I don't have to be an expert to engage with this in a full, wholehearted way. I'm not making light of anybody’s hard-earned expertise, but I’m against the notion of privileging expertise at the expense of all other kinds of inquiry—of making it the holy grail of all exploration. It just leads to a very hierarchical view of cooking. With Taste of Persia I wanted the book to contextualize the food, the history, and the people of the region.
"...people came up to me and said, oh, you're talking about our Iran—a human place, a real place."
And when I went out on the book tour I thought I was going to have Persians in the United States and Canada coming up to me and saying, you got it all wrong. But when I was on tour, that didn’t happen: in fact, people came up to me and said, oh, you're talking about our Iran—a human place, a real place. I talk about the domestic, and we can all connect to that.
RK: Taking a broad look at some of the regions you’ve written about—India, Southeast Asia, China, historic Persia—it seems like many of them could be said to be complex enough to contain multiple national cuisines. Is this a dynamic that particularly interests you? How minority cuisines operate within a larger national framework? What tensions does that create?
ND: Well, I think it's always about context. I remember having a conversation with somebody in Gujarat—somewhere outside Ahmedabad—and we were talking about a mango chutney, and she said that she had left out a certain ingredient—I wish I could remember what it was now—because her husband doesn’t like it. And she said the rest of her family thinks she’s crazy to leave it out. And what that says to me is that, in fact, each kitchen is its own region and everything else is just a matter of scale. So when people talk about “Indian food,” or “Indian dishes,” or even “Gujarati food,” I just want to say, Stop!
I think it’s important to never think you truly know anything—because only then do you truly have eyes to see. So often you think you know something but actually you’re really just motoring along on your assumptions. Keeping an open mind is key, because it gives you respect.
RK: You have a great line in Taste of Persia about what you call “gastro-regionalism,” where in many parts of the world it’s not enough to merely be proud of your way of doing something—you also have to believe that the way everyone else does it is wrong. Do you think that there’s a connection between this culinary tendency and the ways that these cultures interact, too?
ND: [Laughs] Oh, it’s absolutely the same thing. But it’s especially true in a place where your identity has been threatened. So it’s obviously going to be stronger in places like Georgia or Armenia where people have struggled to keep the air hole open in the ice floe that was the Soviet Union. Similarly, it’s true in every situation in which people have been displaced and they then have to reassert themselves in a new place.
RK: You have the great example of the Assyrians who have really diligently guarded their culture for so long.
ND: It’s unbelievable. And then there's the Yazidis, too, of course. And you could do that in India, too. You could take fifty square kilometers of Kerala and mine it for stories and traditions for a whole lifetime. Kerala is a little bit like the Caucasus in the sense that there's a whole lot of legacies layered and jammed together in a small place. And as an observer it's about having respect and also saying, I understand where these strong regional feelings come from. People are trying to live their lives as best they can and sometimes that involves putting your elbows out to try and keep that guy over there from imposing too much.
"Keeping an open mind is key, because it gives you respect."
RK: You have a line in Taste of Persia where you talk about how, since Persia's influence—both in culture and cuisine—has been so outsize historically, many of the ingredients in the book are actually familiar to many northern European and American readers. But it feels like there's been a more recent wave of interest in the region, too. Are there ingredients that are more commonplace now than when you wrote the book?
ND: In each book I write I have an ingredient where I think, Okay, this is it. In Mango and Curry Leaves of course it was curry leaves. And in this book I was hoping it would be khmeli suneli, the Georgian spice blend. For years I would beg Aziz at Kalustyan’s to source it for me—I mean really since the late ’90s. But then, when I was actually working on Taste of Persia, I said, Please, please, Aziz, try to figure this out. And so each time I was in New York—about three times a year back then—I would always stop in and see if he had it. And then one day, finally, he did.
RK: Is the main difficulty getting the blue fenugreek?
ND: Yes. Blue fenugreek is the hardest thing. Everything else you can sort of improvise. Oh, but also, apart from khmeli suneli: it’s not a single ingredient, but the whole notion of having fresh herbs on the table—that’s something that’s become so much more commonplace.
RK: But, even now though, in more remote corners of the United States, people do seem to have a fear of herbs.
ND: True. Though it does seem to be changing. Like with coriander leaf—what you call cilantro in the United States—that made it through because of Mexicans. Then there’s flat leaf parsley, and now you have all the different kinds of basil. And people are getting used to just having herbs on the table as a form of “fresh.” You don’t have to make a salad out of it—just have it there. You can vary flavors so much with fresh herbs—I mean, talk about a palate freshener! I'd like to see more restaurants doing that. It’s magical. It's a source of such pleasure, and it's such a wonderful way to wake your palate. And that’s a very Georgian, Armenian, and Persian thing.
RK: One of the many striking things about your approach to documenting food cultures is that you also do your own photography. Do you find that your approach as a documentarian varies when you're using your camera versus writing? Is there something that one practice can evoke that the other can’t—or do they complement each other?
ND: In the course of gathering what I gather, I always come up against conflicts: the light is beautiful right now, but I am talking to this woman. How do I choose? And that's always hard. But I always stick with the woman because she's precious—and light comes and goes.
So it starts with that question on the road. I don't think of the photographs as part of the book when I'm taking them. I'm just there, in the present. I may think, Oh that speaks to me, or, Oh, that’s lovely. But I don’t really write the stories until later and often I don’t even look at the photographs until a month after I get home. Because I don't want my memories of the place and the trip to be defined by the photographs. They can grab you and hijack your impressions. I need to forget all the inessentials. The facts are necessary to ground it, but first I need to strip them out, to give me some distance.
"I need to forget all the inessentials. The facts are necessary to ground it, but first I need to strip them out, to give me some distance."
RK: So you don’t decide ahead of time: this I’ll photograph, but then this other thing, I’ll write about?
ND: I think the most important thing is to not have an agenda beforehand. Because if I had an agenda then I would be limited by my ignorance. So I try to go in not knowing, and without a real plan. I’ll book a room for the first two nights in a place and then that's really it. I want to be open to serendipity. But that also means that when I travel there are often days when I think, gosh, nothing happened today.
I remember one particular day like that when I was in Dushanbe in 1989. What a privilege it was to be there at that time, but on the other hand, it was also pretty bleak—the weather gets funny and grey in Central Asia in October, and some days it was just really hard because nothing was happening.
And the only thing I had to distract me was my paperback copy of War and Peace since my backpack was full of slide film. And I remember the book had like twelve hundred and thirty-seven pages and I thought, okay let’s divide it by the number of days. And so I had something like forty-two pages I was allowed per day. And that one day in Dushanbe I just gave in—I yielded and I read a second day’s worth. It felt like—I don’t know…
RK: Like eating dessert?
ND: [Laughs] It was pathetic! But it also made me appreciate every word of the book because when you only have forty-two pages you linger on every word. And that's really the way to read War and Peace, as a rationed book—almost like prison literature. But when I thought about those empty days after the fact, that was when I realized that it was actually those days when nothing happened that were what informed me—like the negative space in a photograph.
RK: In Taste of Persia you do touch on politics, but you bring it up in a very evocative way—in conversations with people on trains, almost as asides sometimes, or in observations about some small detail of the cultural life of a place. Did you particularly want to put a face to a people who had been so politicized by the media and by politicians?
ND: Well, not even just politicized—eradicated actually. They don't exist. The only people who exist are the mouthpieces and then the headlines about those mouthpieces on the other side.
RK: You explore aspects of culture that people don't see otherwise—in these everyday interactions with people and the like. But then you also include those moments where politics inevitably does come out in the conversations you have with people. How do you balance those two things?
ND: I never bring politics up—I wait for somebody else to. For example, in Taste of Persia, when I asked that young woman in the train how things had been for her mother, I felt like I could risk asking her this because her English was good enough that she would hear the nuance in my question. And that's the other thing that's really important—to not try to do anything delicate or fraught with someone if you’re not sure if they’re even really hearing you or understanding you. Because then you're just barging in. I have the privilege of being able to leave, so it's really up to me to not rock anybody's boat. I think some part of me is always looking for an opportunity to open that curtain a bit and see what people are thinking. I try to squelch it so that I'm not actively doing it, but I think some part of me is still always doing it subconsciously.
RK: So you want to precipitate but not force?
ND: I don't even think it's that conscious. I think it's just an attentiveness and alertness to the possibilities of a situation. You have to rely on inference and indirection and seeing how people respond in a situation—like in Jafar Panahi’s Taxi where he has the camera in his car and he's picking people up and taking them places but he's actually the director and he’s been banned from making films. It’s brilliant, because he's showing us all these things by indirection, because nobody's ever telling. So there's all those layers of "show don't tell." And so some people will notice one thing and others will notice another, and that’s okay. You know, lots of people tell me, I read your books but I don't cook out of them. I think that’s great. Or others will say, I cook out of them but I don’t read them. That’s also great!
"I have the privilege of being able to leave, so it's really up to me to not rock anybody's boat."
RK: Well, and everything has its season—there may be moments when cooking out of a book may appeal to you, and others when you’d rather just sit back and enjoy reading it.
ND: And how lucky to have a book that can have a long life like that—where people come back to it again and again. To be in people's lives that way is very nifty.
RK: Finally, is there one recipe in Taste of Persia that you think would be the perfect entryway for readers into the collection?
ND: Well, there are just so many different kinds of readers. I think for vegetarians or people who are providing for vegetarians or vegans, the fasting foods of the Armenians and Georgians are brilliant. And I think that vegetarians and vegans should always try to just eat foods that occur naturally in culinary cultures where for whatever reason—shortages, beliefs, whatever—people have developed a full-blown cuisine that happens to be vegetarian. So for those people, I think Lobohashu, the Armenian walnut-kidney bean pâté, is fantastic. It’s something I take to potlucks all the time.
In terms of people who are meat eaters, then I think probably the Persian pomegranate-walnut kebabs.
And for people who are really cooks and really like to see the way flavors work, I think the Persian ashes are a wonderful choice. I just think it's a brilliant category of dishes. Complex, layered, filled with herbs.
So not really a simple answer—I know you wanted just one. But I really think those are all different ways of getting a handle on the different and marvelous ways with flavor in this part of the world.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
For Naomi Duguid's recipe for walnut-kidney bean pâté, click here.