Above: Robert Carmack (right) and Morrison Polkinghorne of The Globetrotting Gourmet.
Food enthusiast and writer Robert Carmack is the co-founder of The Globetrotting Gourmet, which has been taking food lovers on culinary adventures in Asia since 2000. Starting out as a journalist, Carmack has also worked as a food stylist and authored various cookbooks, including “Thai Home Cooking,” “Vietnamese Home Cooking,” and “Desserts with Spirit.” He currently divides his time among Asia, Australia, and U.S.
What’s your favorite place in Asia in terms of food and why?
Oh, what an unfair question! There are so many. I initially did my food studies in France, and during my travels there I relished the country’s infinite variety of flavors and dishes. Each day was like eating a new meal, a new sensation. I find that same delight in Asia, and especially in Thailand and Vietnam. Each country’s food is unique, but eating their dishes day after day never smacks of repetition, nor monotony. As a matter of fact, I often equate the complexity of Thai food to French cuisine; and Vietnamese fare to the complexity of what is served in Italy, with its simple abundance of fresh herbs and greens at every meal.
How does a country’s cuisine reveal its culture?
There’s two ways to look at this: royal cuisine vs. what the pedestrians consume. I absolutely adore a food culture where the everyday person waxes lyrical about street foods, and the cafe-level and street foods are superb, or a city whose taxi drivers are the first to suggest what and where to eat. Singapore and Penang particularly stand out. I once stopped Singaporeans on the street to ask about their favorite part of fish head curry. Instead of walking away in disgust, they positively reveled in the details, from the eyes and cheeks to even the roof of the mouth.
You recently announced the “Food & Fabrics” tour to take place later this year in Myanmar. Why the combination of food and fabrics?
I entered the food world first as a general journalist, then decided to specialize in the subject, and after university traipsed off to France for formal learning. My colleague Morrison Polkinghorne, by contrast, did his apprenticeship first in food but quickly learned he preferred pinking shears over a chef’s knife, so went on to textile design. Asian cultures highly value weaving, so Morrison’s experience is as important in the village as mine is in the markets.
What characterizes Burmese food? What makes it unique?
Burmese food is a delicious trifecta of Thai, Indian, and Chinese. Its cooking culture embraces aspects from all its neighbors, while retaining a distinct style unique to Myanmar alone. From India comes a predilection for dry spices, yet only turmeric and a mild paprika-like chili are ubiquitous. Actual curry powder blends are relatively rare and used on only a scant number of typical dishes, such as the famous ono kau swe [coconut noodle soup] of the Shan state. To the country’s east lies Thailand (and probably the most similar style to ethnic Bamar fare) and its chili-fiery dishes and vibrantly tart citrus-flavored salads. Yet in Myanmar the flavors are much less assertive—the chilies larger and milder, the lime or lemon used in less quantity, and not as tart, and likely to be tamed or melded by besan or chickpea flour. Indeed, the popularity of pulses delineates Myanmar’s foodstuffs from the southeast, linking it more firmly to historic India in the west, and to China’s Yunnan province in the north and east.
Top destinations for culinary tourism at the moment seem to be Thailand, China, and Vietnam. How do you think Myanmar will fare in comparison?
Myanmar is a special experience, and I use the word “special” instead of “unique” because it sits near and dear to my heart. I adore the traditional-ness of it all: seeing men wearing sarong-like longyi, the car license plates in numerals I can’t even read. The official measurements are still imperial, and metric has yet to even catch on. The country is actually the closest to reliving the golden age of travel. When you stay at The Strand in Yangon, for example, you can almost sense Somerset Maugham walking its floors, reliving those colonial days of former grandeur. Myanmar is a rich country with a poor economy. This has left people mired, and with little money for elaborate foods. But there’s a richness in foodstuffs at the market. Their Alleppey turmeric is better than India’s Madras turmeric!
How do you ensure an authentic culinary experience during your tours?
We never rely on local tour companies planning our outings — we do it ourselves. When dealing with foreigners — whether from another Asian country, or Westerners — local tour companies invariably pick “safe” options; moreover, they choose looks over flavor. We visit all locations prior to touring then scout out restaurants by word of mouth or reputation. We’ve found some real gems this way, places rarely if ever mentioned in tourist guides. Truly, our greatest reward is when people we take on tours observe they are the only foreigners in the place. No tourists, just locals.
What’s the most unusual meal you’ve had in Asia?
Cobra and grass snake in Le Mat village outside of Hanoi has got to top the list. They first served crisp fried snake skin, with the diamond pattern still visible, so I pretended it was crispy pork rind. But by the time I got to the green and red spirits with snake gonads, it was downed in one gulp without breathing.
Hawker stalls vs. top-end restaurants?
Top-end restaurants are only an alternative when the locals can’t cook. In Bangkok and Singapore I rarely go beyond hawker stalls: the flavors are so enticing and prices so cheap. That being said, I have noticed a tragic trend where increasing food costs are forcing the hawker stalls to downgrade their quality. Not only that, health issues — usually dirty plates as opposed to bad food— are causing wider numbers to eschew hawker stalls. Although I was skeptical at first, Singapore got it right when it corralled the hawkers into centers where hygiene could be policed — and as a result that scene is still extremely vibrant and entrenched in local culture. By contrast, I find more and more of my hi-so friends in Bangkok opting to eat “hygienic” fast food, which not only harms their waistline, but also their culture.
Where should the hungry and adventurous head to in Asia?
To the markets first and foremost to see the ingredients. Then seek out the popular local places where people are eating — not just high end, but all levels and price ranges. My personal favorite is Thailand’s northeast Isan fare, but I equally enjoy the mountainous cuisine of Yunnan and its alpine hams and myriad wild mushrooms, and of course, Vietnamese food. I also adore the food aesthetics of Japan. Morrison and I have done extensive research in soy sauce and shoyu (even teaching master classes around the world with vertical tastings). We’d love to host a tour there in the near future.
What’s your favorite food-related festival in Asia?
All festivals invariably bring out the hawkers and the celebratory dishes, so let’s be broader! Certainly the Lychee Festival in Chaing Mai offers the sweetest, plumpest and largest fruits I have ever seen, and I adore autumn moon cake in Singapore, Jakarta, and Penang. But in all honesty, the Vietnamese versions taste even better, with their candied fruits. Thailand’s Loi Krathong Lantern Festival is the most beautiful (especially in a country setting like Sukhothai). The end of Buddhist lent in October or November is great fun, especially in Laos, as it seems to release so much pent-up energy, not just for the monks, but especially the farmers. The Thingyan Water Festival in Myanmar, marking the end of drought and beginning of monsoons mid-April, is a raucous experience, and we definitely prefer it over Thailand’s festival over the same dates, because in Myanmar you can sit aside and watch all the frolicking, without actually getting wet. We’re hosting two tours there over those dates next year.
You are also a food stylist. Do you consider food an art form?
It’s been said that food is the only essential art, as you can’t live without eating. Frankly though, and as passionately as I feel about the subject, it’s an artisan craft. Now if you had asked me if food is a culture, then I would have to say, “yes.” We like to promote our tours as “learn a country’s culture through its food.” I started in editorial food styling, where even a dog’s dinner can look great on select crockery and under mottled lighting. But I then worked up to styling television fast foods, which is much more difficult to make look good. Number one, major food chains do not allow cheating in any shape or form (contrary to public perception). So that touted hamburger usually sits on a piece of plain white formica, with the company’s tomatoes, lettuce and cheese, plus their pre-formed frozen patty. The trick is to keep it looking fresh and delectable, and under studio lighting. Now I write cookbooks, so the onus is to ensure each and every recipe accurately reflects the subject (is it authentic or bastardized fusion?), and also consider that when someone cooks these recipes they are outlaying real money to cook the meal — so it better be good. When styling, by contrast, one only considers the visual, not the flavor.
How does sustainable tourism and responsible travel factor in into your tours?
You don’t go to a person’s home without a thank-you gift, and we feel the same about being allowed into a country to experience its culture and its hospitality. Consequently, we allocate a portion of our proceeds to a local charity after each tour, such as a year scholarship to a Cambodian cooking school program, or feeding students at a local monastery in Yangon. We try to ensure it is food oriented, and sometimes we even allocate directly to a local individual who we think can make a difference in a community. For example, a Bagan horse cart driver we knew eventually helped build a village school, after we introduced him to one of our clients who funded its construction. We also portion out payments to various suppliers who organize our tours, instead of using just one company. It is more work for us that way, but we feel it makes a difference. Certainly, we use a reputable local company for the bulk, but in local areas we also try to pay trishaw drivers, restaurateurs, and some hotels directly, so they benefit more, instead of using a middleman.
Finally, what’s your advice for food tourists?
We offer group travel to people who regularly tell us they “don’t do group tours.” Foodies are inherently convivial and know how to break bread with strangers. They are also open to new experiences, and to new acquaintances. We’ve been hosting these trips for over 10 years, and believe me, if they hadn’t been fun, and if we had not enjoyed the company so much, we’d have stopped long ago. Another piece of advice: eat local, not Western. You’re less prone to get sick. Asian food is grown, killed, marketed, cooked, and eaten within 24 hours. Western dishes need refrigeration and are too perishable.
Read more about upcoming tours from The Globetrotting Gourmet here.