They've documented their treks in a series of vividly photographed, award-winning cookbooks, including Hot Sour Salty Sweet. Their latest book, a delicious, National Geographic-style travelogue called Mangoes & Curry Leaves, explores the South Asian subcontinent, plunging readers into kitchens from Pakistan and Bhutan to Bangladesh along the way. Bite Club caught up with one-half of the Toronto couple last week to jaw about the cultural cachet of food and wooing women in Nepal.
Bite Club: How come you're always hopping planes to far-off locales?
Jeffrey Alford: I don't know anyone who's made a long trip with a backpack and hasn't come home with a greater appreciation of things.
How did you and Naomi meet?
We met in 1985. We were both in Lhasa in Tibet...staying in the same hotel. I was making a bicycle ride to Katmandu. She was a lawyer on a leave of absence, figuring out what she wanted to do in her life. On the fourth or fifth day [together], we decided that we'd get married. We'd gone outside town and ended up—I'd call it a truckstop, I guess—where you can sleep. A woman brought us up a big bowl of boiled potatoes, and that was dinner.
How did the cookbook collaborations start?
Tibet was open for the first time, and in our hotel were a lot of freelance [writers]. Most people were writing what we'd call adventure travel. But we realized we could write [about] food much more happily than we could about adventure. We sold Bon Appétit magazine [a story] about flatbreads of Central Asia.
And the food travelogues?
To me, food is only interesting in so far as it interacts with human beings.... I'm not interested in fancy restaurants, I'm not interested in trends. But I think we'll be forever interested in...trying to ask the question, "What are people really eating?" What do they take in their lunchboxes to school? The world is full of interesting places, and every place, they eat, and what they eat is always an insight into culture.
What's the process you use to gather recipes?
We never really have a guide or anything. We do a lot of work ahead of time in knowing what kind of region we want to be in, geographically, but...we just want to get off the plane and whatever happens, happens. In [Mangoes], we wanted to represent the entire subcontinent. North India gets sort of looked at over and over...so we really wanted it [to be about] the periphery...Bangladesh, Sri Lanka....
What's Sri Lankan cuisine like?
Even on that little bitty island, there's an unbelievable diversity [Indian Tamils, Sinhalese, Muslims]. There's different cuisines in all of these groups. It's right near the equator, so you have a lot of coconut milk.... The cooking in Sri Lanka has more in common with Thailand than it does with India. A lot more wild things.
Is indigenous North American cuisine ever gonna get some love from you two?
I'd sort of love to do a book on truckstops. But, then again, no probably not.
Mangoes & Curry Leaves (Artisan, 384 pages, $45). Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid speak Wednesday, Nov. 30, at Powell's Books for Cooks & Gardeners, 3747 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 235-3802. 7 pm. Free.