Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid have changed the meaning of the word “cookbook.” Their six books — full of their stunning photography, concise recipes, and vivid writing — link food and culture, concentrating on remote areas and little-known cultures around the globe.
In their newest book, Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China, the husband-and-wife team returns to Asia to focus on the culture and food of the empire’s non-Chinese population, from the Tai of southeast China near the Thai border to the Tajik in the far west.
Your cookbooks are very different from the standard
ingredients/method model. What prompted you to incorporate so many National Geographic-esque photos and in-depth writing about various cultures into your books?
Jeffrey: I think our style just evolved. With the flatbread book (Flatbreads & Flavors), we thought we’d write about the politics of food, but in the end, we were only happy writing about things that we knew firsthand. We didn’t feel comfortable writing on secondary sources.
In photography there’s a term: “F8 and be there.” [F8 is an aperture setting on cameras that allow objects in both the foreground and background to be in sharp focus.] Basically, be there and report what you learned and how you felt while you were there. We wanted to write like that.
Naomi: Food as a recipe, another way for cooking fish or whatever, isn’t really the point for us. It’s the cultural context: This way of cooking fish has evolved because of where these people live and what they have to feed their family.
It doesn’t make any sense for us to give a set of instructions without explaining where the dish arose, and how we saw it or interpreted it. Otherwise, it’s just a recipe and it doesn’t connect to daily life or to the culture that bore that food.
So with the food, you’re transported, we hope.
Jeffrey: And it’s obviously going to taste different if you know where it’s coming from. If I’m in a big-chain supermarket and I take a free sample and taste it, it has almost no emotional context for me at all. For us, it’s always been way more interesting to look at the context of the food than just the food in isolation.
You travel to remote parts of the world and find such amazing food. How do you meet the people who teach you how to cook their favorite regional dishes? Do you show up in a village and ask around for the best cook in town?
Naomi: No, no. We rely on serendipity and we have our travel skills honed. You’re more apt to meet people when you’re traveling by yourself. You have to meet people more than halfway and engage them in conversation.
And importantly, we’re not rushing around. We can make time expand if we’re not going to a zillion places. We’ll hang around in a market for a full week to see daily patterns and what time the light is good for taking photos. We become familiar with the people there, so we can sort of become a piece of furniture. That’s when you start to see more depth and see the details and flavors of a place and its people.
Do you collect recipes from people you meet? Or do you glean a style of cooking and then return home to recreate what you’ve eaten later?
Naomi: We never get recipes from people. We might make a note, and we note-take with our cameras, too, but mostly it’s memory. I remember in Senegal, I was noting how many peppercorns a woman was putting in a stew, and when I got home I looked at the notes and thought, “But the peppercorns taste different there!” The exact quantity doesn’t matter; it’s to remember the taste and texture and how she put it together that is important. So we work on recipes when we get back to approximate the tastes.
Are there any dishes you haven’t been able to recreate?
Naomi: There’s a story in our newest book about these handmade noodles; we have pictures and they’re wonderful, but we’ve been unsuccessful making them at home. You can’t conquer the world’s cooking just by seeing it and eating it; some skills take a long apprenticeship. We were humbled. These are very sophisticated techniques that people have developed over the eons, and how wonderful that we can even know about them!
In your forthcoming book, Beyond the Great Wall, you explore remote areas of China. What led you to this area of the world?
Jeffrey: We’ve been interested for a long time in the cultural survival of populations of people who have no sovereignty. In our book Mangoes and Curry Leaves, we looked at different stateless cultures of India, and in Hot Salty Sour Sweet, we looked at the ethnic groups living in Laos and Thailand that aren’t Lao or Thai.
We think there’s an overlap between the seed savers who are making sure we save our plant biodiversity, and those of us that are making sure that cultures survive; our way of talking about that is through food. In China, it’s very important because economic growth is changing things very quickly and many of the ethnically non-Chinese people are being threatened by unchanneled growth.
Plus it’s such a huge area, and in many places they have very little food, so their relationship to food is unique and interesting. In Tibet, there are places where the altitude is so high they can’t boil water to cook rice. In the western part of China, the Turkic Uighurs live in desert oases, and the food was amazing — tomatoes, hand-stretched noodles, melons. And then in the east in Yunnan, north of Thailand, there’s subtropical cooking.
Most places we went to were so remote, their cooking hasn’t been influenced much by other places, which makes it really interesting.
What are you working on now?
Jeffrey: We’re thinking about maybe something on the Celtic world. Ireland, Northern Spain, Wales, Brittany. It’s a people that have lived on the periphery and still retained their language and culture. Eating locally and in season seems to be even bigger there; there’s a very present sense of eating locally and their heritage of food.
If you could be anywhere having lunch right now, where would it be and what would you be eating?
Naomi: I’d like a rice meal in Kerala [the southwestern coast of India]. You get a pile of red rice in the middle and there’d be about two things made with lentils, a couple of chutneys; my mouth is watering telling you about it! And there’d be a few vegetable curries in little heaps, and there might be a papad on top. It’s really lovely because you get to mix and match the flavors. And it would be about a dollar!
Jeffrey: Our son is writing a story for school about this beach in Kerala where we stayed for a while. We lived above this restaurant that was amazing because they had a tandoor oven, which is a northern-Indian cooking thing. They’d skewer these huge hunks of freshly caught tuna and lower it into the tandoor and it was fabulous. They made great French fries too, all sorts of types of food. Our kids loved it; they were 12 and 9. So, every time we stopped in, it was hard to choose what to have.
Naomi: Yes, choosing from so much, it’s a lovely problem, isn’t it?
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