Burma

Burma

By
Charmaine Solomon
Contains
55 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742701448
Photographer
Alan Benson

Burma

I was too young to remember my first visit to my grandmother’s home in Rangoon, Burma, but the second visit, which lasted a year, has left a medley of impressions. My most vivid memories of Burma are of glittering golden pagodas and delicious food. I recall saving my pocket money to buy snacks from the vendors who streamed through the suburban streets calling their wares. In the evenings we often visited the bazaar where the streets were lined with food stalls of every kind.

Snacks, sweets, cool drinks, complete meals — each stall specialised in one particular item. What I liked best was fresh sugar cane juice, extracted from cane crushed between large, shiny steel rollers and poured on to ice clinking in tall glasses.

My mother, who was born in Mandalay, had left Burma as a young bride to live in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), so Burma was a country new and fascinating to me. It was during this second visit that I first met Aunt Connie, my mother’s youngest sister. She made an impression at least as deep and lasting as those made by my favourite foods.

The next time we met was in England, where I had been sent to finish my education. Happily, Connie was spending a year there and I lived with her delightful family in a beautiful country house, one of the happiest times of my life.

Because she lived for many years in Burma and cooked delicious Burmese food, I asked for her help in making this chapter the best possible source of information on Burmese food. Thanks to my wonderful aunt, Constance Hancock, and Mrs Ida Htoon Phay I have added to the Burmese recipes learned from my mother and grandmother. ‘Cooking should not be a chore,’ wrote Connie. ‘The busy housewife must use her head and try to make life a little easier for herself if she wants to venture into exotic cooking. So, in order not to spend a fortune on air-fresheners every time she prepares strong-smelling foods, it is useful to know that onions, garlic and curry ingredients can be cooked in large quantities and stored in jars or in the freezer.

'One cup of curry ingredients is sufficient for a 1.5 kg chicken or 750 g of beef, lamb or pork. As fish and meat curries are made from the same basic curry ingredients there is no problem. To the basic ingredients I add, as the recipe requires, other spices or herbs which make the dish taste the way it should.’

Family and friends who turned up unexpectedly would be amazed that she could start from scratch and produce a whole meal in less than an hour. The dish that took longest to cook would be started first and so on. She’d always have a supply of crisp fried brown onions and garlic, pounded dried prawns and balachaung, as well as hot mango pickles and chutneys. Her deep freezer would hold treasures like chopped coriander leaves and green and red capsicums cut into pieces, so she could take out only what was required.

Serving and eating a Burmese meal

The cornerstone of a Burmese meal is, as elsewhere in Asia, a dish of perfectly cooked, steaming hot, fluffy rice. This is brought to the table just before or after guests are seated so that it will be hot. The soup too is always piping hot, but for the rest, the dishes are placed on the table beforehand and many of the accompaniments are served at room temperature.

A table set for a meal is a colourful sight. The various dishes served should complement or contrast. Plain soups with rich, oily curries; stronger soups with mild dishes. There should always be one chilli condiment; one raw salad of leaves, fruit or vegetables; one soup; one, two or three curries of meat, fish, prawns or eggs; perhaps a bowl of lentils, a homemade pickle, and almost always that Burmese favourite, balachaung. There is no set rule as to which dishes should be served together, so an unlimited number of combinations is possible. The table is set with plates for the rice, bowls and porcelain spoons for soup. It is customary to eat a Burmese meal with the fingers, but nowadays spoons and forks are also used. There are some Burmese meals, though, that must be eaten with the fingers. In this case, a bowl of hot water, soap and a towel are placed on a side table for hand washing before one is seated.

When one does begin, it is polite to start with small portions. Not too much rice first, then one tiny helping from one of the dishes to be mixed with the rice and tasted, then something from another dish, and so on. When all the dishes have been sampled, the decision is made whether to stick to one particular dish or to combine various flavours. Spoonfuls of soup are taken between mouthfuls of rice and curries. After the meal the hands are washed again. Fruit or a cooling sweet and cups of steaming hot tea follow.

There are certain Burmese meals where a one-dish speciality is featured, such as moh hin gha, kaukswe or htamin lethoke. These are do-it-yourself specials where rice or noodles is served with flavoursome accompaniments and you create your own masterpiece. When you sit down to this kind of meal there is no guarantee that your food will taste exactly like the next person’s. You will help yourself from the same dishes, but from there on it becomes an improvisation. Do you want a gently seasoned meal? Or one so hot it brings tears to your eyes? There will be chopped fresh coriander leaves, garlic slices fried crisp and golden, piquant tamarind water, hot chilli powder or fried whole chillies, brilliant red chilli oil, rich brown fried onions, sliced spring onions, nutty-flavoured roasted chickpea powder. Depending on the proportions in which you add these you create a taste sensation made to order — just as you like it. If you feel you need help, it is considered quite the thing to do to ask someone if you can taste their meal — or ask them to taste yours and advise on what is needed, or even to mix your portion for you … all delightfully informal.

Burmese curries

The ingredients basic to all Burmese curries never vary — onion, garlic, ginger, chilli and turmeric. The chilli can be used in powder form, or whole dried chillies can be ground with the other ingredients, but chilli is used sparingly and may be omitted. To make a curry for four people using 750 g of meat, fish or poultry, here is a well-balanced mixture: 1 large onion, 2–3 garlic cloves, 1 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger, ½ teaspoon ground turmeric and ¼ teaspoon chilli powder, using 2–3 tablespoons oil, for frying.

Animal fat of any sort is never used. Light sesame oil is best for capturing the true Burmese flavour. If corn, peanut, sunflower or other vegetable oil is used, add a small amount of Chinese-style dark sesame oil for flavour in the proportions of 1 teaspoon sesame oil to 1 tablespoon vegetable oil.

There is only one way to cook these basic ingredients in order to achieve a mellow flavour in which no single ingredient predominates. Grind to a purée the onion, garlic and ginger. In the absence of the Asian grinding stone, this is best done in a food processor, first chopping the ingredients roughly. It will be necessary to stop the motor frequently and scrape down the sides. When puréed, smoothly mix in the turmeric and chilli powder.

Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the ground ingredients, then reduce the heat and stir well to combine. Cover the pan and simmer the mixture, lifting the lid frequently to stir and scrape the base of the pan with a wooden spoon. This initial frying takes at least 15 minutes. If the mixture cooks too rapidly and begins to stick before the smell has mellowed and the onions become translucent, add a small quantity of water from time to time and stir well. When the water content of the onion has evaporated and the ingredients turn a rich red-brown colour with oil showing around the edge, the first stage of cooking, and the most important one, is complete.

There is a Burmese term to describe this – see byan, meaning ‘oil returned’, that is, with the water completely evaporated and the oil returned to just oil. The basic ingredients will not have the required flavour unless this procedure is followed. The meat, fish or vegetables added will release their own juices while cooking slowly in the pan with the lid on. A roasting chicken will be sufficiently cooked by the time its own juices have evaporated. Boiling fowls, duck, some cuts of beef and pork may need a little water added from time to time as cooking continues until they are tender. Fish and prawns cook very quickly but some types may need a little more fish stock, water or coconut milk added. Vegetables seldom require any added liquid, but if a wetter result is preferred add water or coconut milk.

Burmese sweets

Burmese meals do not include desserts, but fresh fruits in season are served after a meal. Between meals, however, sweets are eaten to satisfy a sweet tooth, or taken in the form of a cooling drink such as moh-let-saung. Then there is durian preserve (just as strong smelling as the fruit and arousing as much passionate discussion), mango preserve, wild plums cooked in palm sugar treacle and palm sugar toffee.

Agar-agar is the base of many jelly preparations. They are much firmer than jellies served in Western countries. There are also a number of cakes, fritters, doughnuts and steamed sponges made from finely ground rice flour and sweetened with palm sugar. They may be served with palm sugar treacle, freshly grated coconut, toasted sesame seeds and quite often a pinch of salt. The contrast is surprisingly pleasant. Unlike Indian sweetmeats, Burmese specialities are only slightly sweet.

Most Burmese sweets, snacks and drinks are prepared and sold by professional sweet makers, and each sweet maker specialises in only one variety. They are not made at home, for they require special equipment and hours of preparation. The very mention of moh sein boung (steamed sponge cake) is enough to make an expatriate Burmese go misty eyed. This is a beautiful, light-textured rice flour sponge steamed in tall moulds in two layers of white and brown — the brown gets its colour from palm sugar. Hawked through the streets at breakfast time, it is eaten off banana leaves with a sprinkle of grated coconut and a mixture of crushed toasted sesame seeds and salt — not very sweet or rich, but very satisfying.

Utensils

Like other Asian kitchens, that of a Burmese household is simply equipped. A brick fireplace for charcoal or wood fires, or a portable charcoal brazier; a selection of pots and pans, nothing that cannot be replaced by a Western-style utensil except the ‘dare-oh’, a rounded, deep pan in heavy iron with two handles, similar to the Chinese wok; the large flat grinding stone, a stone mortar and pestle and the usual colander, sieve, wooden and bamboo spatulas, skewers and ladles, sharp choppers and knives. Every recipe in this chapter can be prepared without any special equipment except, perhaps, a wok. As I have said in other chapters, the cook’s best friend when handling ingredients that would, in the country of origin, be prepared on the grinding stone, is a powerful and efficient food processor or electric blender.

Your Burmese shelf

This is a list of spices, sauces, sambals and other flavourings which are often used in Burmese cooking and good to have on hand to make the recipes in this chapter.

—besan

—cardamom, ground

—cellophane noodles

—chilli powder

—cloves, ground

—coconut, desiccated

—coconut milk

—corn oil or peanut oil

—cumin, ground

—dried prawn powder

—dried seaweed

—dried shrimp

—dried shrimp paste

—egg noodles

—fish sauce

—paprika, ground

—rice vermicelli

—roasted chickpeas (see note)

—sesame oil

—sesame seeds

—shiitake mushrooms, dried

—soy sauce, light and dark

—turmeric, ground

—wood fungus, dried

Note

Roasted chickpeas are available from Mediterranean or Middle Eastern grocery stores. If you can’t find the Burmese dried seaweed (kyauk pwint), substitute with the Japanese variety known as hijiki.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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