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On Traveling Alone, Packing, and Persia with Author-Explorer Naomi Duguid

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Naomi Duguid travels the world like we all wish we did: going with the motions, without much planned before it happens, eating a ton. She's the epitome of an explorer, and her books—Taste of Persia her latest, Burma the one before that—approach the geography with the same enthusiasm, curiosity, and deep knowledge.

Between rafting trips and book tours, she answered a few questions for us—about traveling alone, homesickness, and how in the world she recreates recipes she's tasted while traveling.

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On traveling:

You’ve written about traveling with kids, but you also travel alone (and did so while researching this book). What do you get by traveling alone that you don’t in any other type of travel?

I LOVE traveling alone. I think it’s the best way to be present to a place and to the people who live there. If I have a traveling companion, then we make a little bubble of two. If I am on my own, I am vulnerable, sometimes lonely; I’m focused outward rather than on a traveling companion, which allows interesting encounters to happen.

How much of your trips do you plan, and how much do you leave to chance?

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Of course the answer varies depending on a lot of things. But in general I don’t plan a lot. I like to leave space and time for serendipity, which means leaving flexibility and not booking ahead.

When imagining a trip I start by looking at a topographic map: where are the mountains, the valleys, the agricultural areas? And then I leave myself open to let things happen. For example, when I went to Iraqi Kurdistan, I had a small present to deliver to the brother of a friend. I had booked a hotel for several nights near the capital, Arbil, to give myself a chance to recover from jetlag, and I had loosely planned to travel to a town called Sulaymaniyah after that. As it turned out, when I met up with my friend’s brother in Sulaymaniyah, he and his friend drove me two hours south to their hometown. They told me I was staying with the family there. If I had had bookings and plans, it would have been bumpy, but as it was, I just moved forward into the situation, which was a huge gift.

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How have you evolved as a traveler and explorer since you first started?

As I get older I am more prepared to take chances with casual invitations from people. But apart from that, I think I have always loved starting conversations and interactions with people I run across on a bus or train or wherever. And I have always been curious about other people's’ lives and how they manage day to day. I have always loved taking photographs of food and people going about their daily lives, working at agriculture, or making textiles or kids heading to school: the ordinary textures of everyday life.

How do you pack? What are your essentials, your don’t-need-but-gotta-have splurges?

I hate having checked luggage, but it’s sometimes necessary, especially because I take my camera and lenses. I do not take a laptop so as to have less to lose. I usually take a cellphone and an iPad mini on which I can read The New Yorker and books even when there’s no light in the room I’m sleeping in.

Otherwise, a spare pair of shoes, lots of underwear, layered t-shirts and long-sleeved shirts. Always a scarf to keep drafts off my neck or to cover my head with or whatever. And always a large dark-colored (blue and black) woven shawl; it looks like wool but it’s actually silk, from India, and it serves as blanket, shawl, towel, dressing gown, what have you. Then two extra pairs of pants and, in Muslim countries, a long loose top, linen, that is long sleeved and comes to past mid-thigh. It’s a comfortable cover-up that neutralizes me.

What do you get homesick for?

I have to admit that since I had a ten-minute session of tears when I was seventeen and had just arrived in Tours, where I was to spend a year, I have never felt homesick. Where I am is always more interesting to me than thinking about where I am not, if you see what I mean. I do admit to missing my then-almost-two-year-old son, Tashi, when I left him for the first time to travel to Oaxaca in 1992; I wanted to squeeze the plump legs of every toddler I saw!

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On Persia:

What’s the one word of advice you’d give people who’d like to travel to Iran?

Just go! If you have a European passport, it’s not too difficult to get a visa. If you have a US or Canadian passport, it’s more difficult. You have to go with a group or at least be accompanied by a guide. When I went, I was free to wander around and talk to people. But things got tighter for Canadians after that. Things may loosen, with improved relations. I hope they do, and soon. But for now things are tight.

I am hoping to take a group to Iran next fall, October 2017, for a food-focused tour, rather like the immersethrough tours I take to Burma each winter. I’ve started planning the tour, working with an Iranian travel agent in Tehran whom I trust. He was the man who helped me get my visa and plan some of my trip there. We need to plan well ahead because accommodation gets booked up quickly, especially for the desirable travel season, which includes October.

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On recipes and food:

What is your process for developing recipes for dishes you’ve tried while traveling?

I sometimes have the luck to be in people’s kitchens where I can take detailed notes and photographs of how a dish is made and can sometimes help with the cooking or get practice with a technique such as shaping dumplings. In those cases, I make a rough recipe, with an ingredients list, shop, and then try it. I may try two or three versions in parallel, if I have several versions to check. And then I adjust as I am cooking, make notes, and then try again another day or another time on the same day. If I am trying to reproduce a dish I have eaten but have not seen being made, then I look at recipes, if there are any that are for dishes that are similar, to give me an idea of how to proceed. Then I draft a rough recipe and try it as often as I have to.

Then some dishes are in a class by themselves, like the “ash,” a thick soup of Iran. They are one of the glories of Persian home cooking. And so I felt I needed to develop reflexes in making ash. I made different versions, about every other day, for three weeks. And finally I felt I understood what the category of “ash” dishes was, and what flexibilities is has, and how to make a good ash every time. I felt, if this doesn’t sound too strange, as if I could “wear it.”

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On the spectrum of “authentic to what I ate” and “tailored to the readers’ palates,” where do you stand?

I try to stick with “what I ate” or as close to that as possible. Perhaps another way of expressing it is to say that I aim for a version that a cook from there might make if she were working with the ingredients and tools in my North American kitchen. I like to suggest options to readers, such as substitutions for a hard-to-find ingredient, but I never want to omit the subtleties. That feels disrespectful. If readers want to modify the dish, that’s great, and it’s their choice. But I feel I should give them something reliable and anchored in the tradition as a starting place.

What are you excited about now?

I’m about to set out on book tour which is an exciting chance to engage people. I have some fun events to look forward to, including cooking classes in Chicago and St. Paul, a public conversation with Jonathan Gold, in Los Angeles; the Texas Book Festival; and other interesting, interactive events in San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, New York and Canada.

In terms of future projects? I think I want to delve more into the Persian culinary heritage as it travelled further afield. That might take me back to the Indian Subcontinent and to central Asia. Our lives and our history is so interwoven with others. I love the cross-fertilization of human culture over time, trying to understand and appreciate it as it is now, without ever thinking that I have the answers. The questions are the fun part after all.

Naomi's latest book is Taste of Persia: A Cook's Travels Through Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, and Kurdistan.