Burma’s flavors

Between the culinary superpowers of Thailand and India, Burma's cuisine is ready to tantalize all taste-buds.

Burma has one of the richest culinary heritages in the world,” (photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Burma has one of the richest culinary heritages in the world,”
(photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Burma has one of the richest culinary heritages in the world,” wrote Anne Willan in her foreword to Robert Carmack and Morrison Polkinghorne’s just-published book, The Burma Cookbook – Recipes from the Land of a Million Pagodas.
This shouldn’t be surprising since Burma, now known as Myanmar, lies between culinary superpowers Thailand and India, and is the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia.
But Burma’s cuisine is more delicate than that of its neighbors. In fact, like the French, the Burmese have a preference for subtly seasoned food.
It was only natural that French cuisine came up in the conversation at a recent party celebrating the book’s publication. The party took place in Santa Monica, California, at the home of Anne Willan, the founder of Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris, where Robert Carmack and I studied French cuisine in the late 1970s and became friends.
At the party Carmack explained how a typical Burmese dish is prepared. “The basis of Burmese cooking is flavored oil. To make it, people cook onions in oil on slow heat. Then they take out the onions and add garlic, and they might add lemongrass and ginger. They may season the oil with chili at the beginning. That oil is the essential seasoning. After a dish such as a curry has finished cooking, Burmese cooks add the sautéed onion to it; either they put it on top or they stir it in. They don’t want the onion sitting in the dish for more than an hour because its taste becomes too dominant.”
“Think of every stew that we made in France,” he continued. “I just made a pot au feu [French beef in the pot with vegetables] and you know it’s got onion in it. If it had been sitting around for two hours, Burmese people might find it too strong.”
“Myanmar’s cuisine and cooking culture embraces aspects from all neighbors, while retaining a distinct style unique to Burma alone,” wrote Carmack and Polkinghorne. “From India comes a predilection for dry spices, yet only turmeric and a mild paprika- like chili powder are ubiquitous... A typical Burmese masala of dried spices retains a distinct simplicity compared to the myriad layers of its Indian equivalent... In Myanmar, the flavors are less assertive [than in Thailand] – chilies larger and milder, lime or lemon used in less quantity, and likely to be tamed or melded with chickpea flour or ground peanut.”
Numerous Burmese ethnic groups influence the country’s cuisine, and cooks often make use of sprouts, rhizomes and bulbs as flavorings. Recipes calling for dark or light soy sauce indicate Chinese origin or influence. Fermented fish sauce is a traditional flavoring.
At the party we enjoyed tasty Burmese salads. Fried fish seasoned with turmeric, salt and chili powder was turned into a salad with lemon basil, fish sauce and a lime juice, green chili and shallot dressing. To make cauliflower and asparagus salad, Carmack dresses the vegetables with flavored oil, vinegar, salt, sugar and turmeric, and enlivens them with sesame seeds, crisp fried onion and crisp fried garlic. For his simple potato and mint salad, he flavors warm boiled peeled potatoes with seasoned oil, salt and pepper, and adds a generous amount of sliced fresh mint when the potatoes have cooled.
Burmese cooks also make salads from tea leaves. “The Burmese contend that theirs is the only Asian country that both drinks tea as a beverage and eats the leaves as a dish,” wrote Carmack and Polkinghorne.
The salad is made from steamed tea leaves that are fermented in the ground for a year. We sampled a flavorful rendition of this salad at Summer Canteen restaurant in Los Angeles, where it was made from house-pickled tea leaves mixed with romaine lettuce, diced tomatoes, fried garlic, peanuts, cashews, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and sesame seeds.
Although Burmese cooks are particular about how long onions sit in a stew, they are very fond of the onion family members. In addition to using them in seasoned oil, cooks prepare a second kind of fried alliums, usually from shallots or garlic – deep fried crisp ones, and use them to garnish a variety of salads, soups and rice dishes.
The three preparations – the seasoned oil, the aromatic vegetables fried to make it, and the crisp-fried shallots and garlic – are so central to Burmese cuisine that Carmack and Polkinghorne recommend stockpiling them.
■ Faye Levy is the author of Fresh From France: Dessert Sensations and of 1,000 Jewish Recipes
Carmack and Polkinghorne wrote that this recipe showcases the myriad flavors of Burmese salads.
You can substitute or add other vegetables such as cucumber, cabbage, green beans, Asian radishes or bean sprouts, taking their cooking times into account. To serve this as a hot vegetable dish, see the variation.
Serves 4 to 6
❖ ½ cup (125 ml.) white vinegar
❖ ½ head cauliflower, broken into florets
❖ 2 carrots, peeled and cut into 5-cm. (2-inch) -long sticks
❖ 250 gr. (8 ounces) asparagus, trimmed and cut into 5-cm (2-inch) lengths
❖ 1 tsp. salt
❖ ¼ cup seasoned oil (see recipe below) or vegetable oil
❖ ½ tsp. turmeric powder
❖ 1 tsp. sugar
❖ 2 Tbsp. black and/or white sesame seeds
❖ ½ cup (35 gr. or 1.2 ounces) crisp fried onion/shallot (prepared following note below, or store bought)
❖ ¼ cup (20 gr. or 0.7 ounces) crisp fried garlic (prepared following note below, or store bought)
Prepare the vegetables: Bring a large pot of water to a boil with half the vinegar. Plunge cauliflower and carrot into the pot and cook for 2 minutes.
Remove with a slotted spoon, then add asparagus to the same water; cook for just one minute. Drain but do not rinse; spread to cool and sprinkle with salt, plus remaining vinegar.
Just before serving toss with remaining ingredients, adding crisp fried onion and garlic last.
Crisp fried is invariably produced from shallots (plus garlic and ginger), not onion, as the latter is more watery. Western pink and golden shallot variants are generally larger and more watery than Asian sorts, thus may not fry as crisply. One remedy is to lay them on trays in the sun briefly, or overnight in a dry environment before frying. To prevent sticking, line trays with parchment paper; or lightly salt sliced shallots, wait for 15 minutes, then wipe salt away and press firmly in a tea towel to extract excess liquid; or add a pinch of salt during final minute of cooking to help crisp.
Peel and thinly slice shallots and/or garlic lengthwise. Keep them separate, in a single layer. Heat oil in wok; it should not be too hot, lest the sliced shallots burn and turn bitter. Fry at about 160ºC (325ºF) till golden, stirring constantly; be vigilant, as they burn quickly. Depending on actual heat and thinness of slices, cooking times will vary; if very hot oil, 1 to 3 minutes, but safest to fry slowly for about 15 minutes.
Remove immediately with slotted spoon or mesh ladle, drain and spread out in a single layer to cool. If not sufficiently crisp, repeat two more times, decreasing cooking time accordingly. These can be stored up to six months when refrigerated.
Variation: To serve hot, boil vegetables as above, then stir-fry the vegetables with the seasonings and serve hot. Garnish with crisp fried shallots and garlic.
When making seasoned oil, wrote Carmack and Polkinghorne, the onions and garlic should be nearly caramelized but not fried until crisp.
Makes about ¾ cup
❖ 1 cup vegetable oil
❖ 6 small onions or 350 gr. (12 ounces) shallots, peeled and thinly sliced
❖ 1 garlic bulb (75 gr. or 2 ½ ounces), cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
❖ A 5-cm. (2-inch) knob fresh ginger, peeled and chopped or grated (about 60 gr. or 2 ounces)
Heat a wok, frying pan or saucepan over medium- low heat. Add oil after pan heats, as this helps prevent sticking. (Some cooks like to initially season oil with dried chili flakes at this point; this is optional. Cook these momentarily, as they burn quickly; remove with a strainer or pass oil through a fine sieve.) Add onions to oil, stir periodically until lightly golden and fragrant – typically as long as 15 to 20 minutes on low to medium-low heat. Remove onions with a slotted spoon, drain and reserve.
Increase heat to medium high, add garlic to the same oil and gently fry until golden – about 3 minutes; remove and reserve. Repeat same step with wafer-thin slices of ginger or grated ginger; you can also cook the ginger together with the garlic.
If making seasoned oil ahead, strain and store. Refrigerate onion, garlic, ginger and flavored oil separately in tightly seasoned containers. Flavored oil will keep for weeks, while cooked onions, garlic and ginger will keep for up to a week. Bring to room temperature before using.
In Myanmar even curries are not redolent of spice but delicately flavored with slow-fried onion- garlic-ginger oil, which “ubiquitously enhances local dishes with a subtle fragrance and taste,” wrote Carmack and Polkinghorne. “Compared to Indian and Thai food... curries here are veritably mild.”
“This dish is traditionally oily, but with superb flavor,” they wrote. “But be careful about the chili powder you use... Because of the large quantity called for here, it’s safest to use a blend of mild and hot paprika.” In general, to approximate Burmese chili powder, which is made from long red chilies rather than tiny ones and is much less pungent than cayenne, they recommend two parts hot paprika to one part sweet paprika.
You can substitute boneless chicken pieces for the wings; in this case use stock, not water, and decrease the cooking time by half.
Serves 4 to 6
❖ 1.5 kg. (3 pounds) chicken wings, jointed, or chicken pieces
❖ 2 tsp. salt
❖ ¼ tsp. turmeric
❖ cup vegetable oil
❖ 1 medium onion, thinly sliced (2/3 cup, 90 gr. or 3 ounces)
❖ 6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
❖ 2 tsp. freshly grated ginger
❖ 2 Tbsp. Asian chili powder, hot or mild paprika, or a blend of hot and mild paprika
❖ 1 cinnamon leaf (Indian bay) (optional)
❖ ½ cup water or stock
❖ 2 tsp. cumin seed, roasted and ground
Coat chicken with salt and turmeric.
Leave to marinate briefly.
Meanwhile, in a large frying pan, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add onion, stir periodically, and lightly brown until fragrant, then add garlic and ginger; sauté until soft. Remove with slotted spoon, and reserve. Keep the oil in the pan.
Heat oil again over medium-high heat, and lightly sear chicken on all sides. Add chili powder and optional cinnamon leaf; add a little water or stock to keep the meat from scorching. Cover and cook slowly over medium heat about 40 minutes.
Shake periodically to prevent sticking, and midway through lift lid to see if additional water or stock is needed. When nearly finished, add the reserved onion and garlic, sprinkle with cumin and stir. Serve hot.