When I got a copy of the cookbook, Burma: Rivers of Flavor by Naomi Duguid, I had no idea what Burmese cooking was even like. As it turns out, geography is a pretty good guide: To the west, Burma (a.k.a. Myanmar) is bordered by India and Bangladesh; to the north by China, and to the east by Thailand and Laos.
Ginger, lime, turmeric, and chiles fill the spice lists. Instead of fish sauce or fermented bean paste, the funky umami notes of Burmese cuisine come from dried shrimp and fermented shrimp paste. And shallots go on everything.
When I first sat down and read through it, I wished I had a whole month to cook exclusively from the book. I only had a few days, so I picked just one recipe to start with: Burmese Style Chicken Salad. Packed up for lunch with steamed rice and a lime-shallot dressing, it was an easy, healthy, and delicious meal.
Then Mr. Bookdwarf and I planned a party: Spice-rubbed Jerky, Fluffy Lemongrass Fish, Mandalay Carrot Salad, and a tapioca-and-coconut custard.
Everything was served with small bowls of hot chili oil, crispy shallots, and a powder made from dried shrimp that were reconstituted and crushed. The odd-looking shrimp powder was key, functioning like a southeast-Asian bottarga: You wouldn’t eat it by the spoonful, but sprinkled onto anything else it added mouthwatering complexity and richness.
Who knew that a plain-looking carrot salad could be so flavorful. Served in a bowl, you might pass on this–but that would be a huge mistake. This is THE BEST CARROT SALAD EVER.
Dressed with a lot of lime, fish sauce, roasted peanuts, toasted chickpea flour, and cilantro, this deceptively simple looking salad packs a lot of flavor. And it’s easy to make, too. I just grated some carrots bought at the farmers market on a cheese grater then tossed it with the other ingredients. That’s all.
The beef dish was fascinating: Thin sliced, rubbed with spices, and dried slowly in the oven for a couple hours, it became light and slightly stiff.
Then we fried it in hot oil until it was crispy and the turmeric in the spice rub was a rich red color. (Mr. Bookdwarf’s nails remained yellow for days). A now-closed Thai restaurant we used to go to in Union Square had a dish a little like this, and it was one of our favorites. Now that we know how to make it at home I have a feeling it’s going to wind up on party menus again and again.
The photo of the Fluffy Lemongrass Fish doesn’t do it justice. You take a firm textured white fish–hake is what was freshly caught the day I shopped–and poach it in water with turmeric added. It gives the fish a lovely yellow hue. Meanwhile, you grind some shallots, garlic, ginger, and lemongrass into a paste.
Then once it’s cooled for a few minutes, you flake the fish into smaller pieces. Then saute the lemongrass paste in a large saute pan or wok for about five minutes. Add the fish and break it down even more in the pan. Transfer to a bowl, season with fried shallots, lime juice, and salt. Again, it’s a deceptively simple dish.
I decided to make the Tapioca Coconut Delight because it was something I could make ahead of time. It’s a tapioca base topped with a coconut custard. Sounds simple. Something went wrong however. My tapioca never fully set and when I tried to spread the coconut custard–which was delicious by the way–it smeared and ruined the top. It didn’t look pretty, but my guests ate it up anyway and scored it a victory. I have no idea what went wrong. Next time I might just make the custard and turn it into an ice cream. Or perhaps I should try again. After all, no one likes to feel defeated by a dessert.
I’m looking forward to working my way through more of the cookbook – the entire chicken section looks fantastic, especially one called “Village Boys Chicken,” which is supposed to be a recipe for how you’d cook a chicken if you’d stolen it. First, I have to steal a chicken…
Note: More photos of the cooking process are here. It’s becoming more obvious that I need better lighting: As it got dark outside, my pictures got darker. Soon, I think, I’m going to get some decent photo lights.
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