When hosting dinner parties, I love to prepare lavish spreads of dishes served family style, all at once, in the middle of the table. Indian has always been my cuisine of choice for this kind of meal for the complexity of its flavors, the fact that you can prepare almost everything in advance, and the variety of dishes, from curries to chutneys, that you get to enjoy in one sitting. Recently, I discovered Burmese cuisine, and it may very well become my new feast favorite.
It all began when I attended a conference about travel writing last year in New York. The speaker was Naomi Duguid, an incredibly inspiring photographer and writer, who has traveled the world. During her talk she presented many pictures from her upcoming book,Burma: Rivers of Flavor, and spoke about the country with such passion that I became very curious about the place, which I knew next to nothing about. After the conference, I read about Burma’s history online and I added her book to my wish list, eager to discover the flavors of Burmese cuisine.
In the fall, I traveled to San Francisco, and one day E and I were walking around the eastern end of the Golden Gate Park, in search of a tasty lunch spot. We stumbled on Burma Superstar, a restaurant I had seen mentioned in a few blogs. There was a line of people waiting; we had a quick look at the menu and decided to try it. We shared the tea leaf salad, the chili lamb and the Burmese fried rice, and we were absolutely blown away by the flavors and range of textures; everything was so bright, complex and delicious! We licked our plates; that simple meal ended up being the highlight of our stay in San Francisco. We left promising ourselves that we’d go to Burma (soon, please!) and I ordered Duguid’s book as soon as I came back from the trip.
Due to the country’s geographic location, cooks in Burma combine techniques and ingredients from India, China and Thailand, but they use them in different ways and combinations so that the flavors are absolutely unique: Burmese cuisine tastes like no other Asian cuisine. Throughout the book, Duguid’s gorgeous photographs of Burmese people and breathtaking landscapes, along with themed pages and a chapter about Burma’s history, tells us about the country and its traditions. She also explains why she has chosen to call the book Burma – not Myanmar, which has been the official name of the country since 1989.
Food-wise, I discovered that a handful of ingredients was at the base of the Burmese diet:
- Shallots, shallots, shallots! The quintessential staple. Fried, pickled, sautéed, fresh; Burmese cuisine uses shallots everywhere. The oil used to fry shallots is also carefully strained and bottled to be used in stir-fries and salad dressings.
- Turmeric. Burmese cuisine uses the bright yellow powdered form of turmeric, and it’s usually added to the oil at the start of the cooking process. An ancient spice from India, it has been proven to have medicinal qualities, so adding a pinch of it in your daily diet is a good, delicious and healthy habit.
- Chiles. Just like the shallots, they’re used in many forms: fresh, dried or powdered. Chile oil is also a common condiment.
- Peanuts. Raw peanuts are roasted, coarsely chopped and liberally sprinkled on salads. They add a wonderful crunch and a little protein to vegetarian dishes.
- Tamarind and lime juice. The sour components of the Burmese flavor balance. Tamarind is an intriguing and unusual flavor that needs a little getting used to, but once you’ve learned to recognize it, you start craving for it. And lime juice: there’s no better way to brighten a dish. An absolute essential in Burmese salads, and great in soups too.
- Fishy flavors. Fish sauce and dried shrimp are abundantly used, more than in other Asian cuisines. The most unusual dish I’ve made from Burma: River of Flavors is a Tamarind-Pumpkin Curry that features tamarind, dried shrimp powder and dish sauce; now that isn’t a combination western palates are used to. The first bite gave everyone a quizzical and unsure look, but everyone grew to love the dish for its sweet and sour balance and the pumpkin’s rich texture, which made it the perfect sidekick to spicier dishes.
As you can see, most of these ingredients are readily available anywhere, which is another great thing about Burmese cuisine. No exotic sauces or spices to hunt down! Before you start cooking, you need to gather those staples, but one you have them all on hand, and you’ve made the oils and fried shallots, assembling dishes is a snap.
The great thing about Naomi Duguid’s writing is that she walks you through the basics with an ease that makes you realize it’s an accessible cuisine, even for Western kitchens. The flavors are exotic, but the dishes are easy to make and they’re guaranteed to impress. I very much appreciated the double-page titled “Burmese Food in a Western Context”, where she suggests menus for different occasions, from weeknight meals to breakfast and brunch combos. It can be hard to learn how to incorporate dishes from a new cuisine into one’s diet, so this is another tool that makes the process much smoother.
Soon after getting the book, I decided to make a “rice meal”. People in Burma usually have one daily meal centered around rice, most often eaten at noon. A rice meal consists of steamed rice, a small portion of curry, a bowl of soup, and a multitude of condiments and side dishes. The formula makes it ideal for dinner, and again Duguid provides suggestions for how to assemble your own rice meal based on the book’s recipes. There are no set menus, rather there are tips on how to balance textures and flavors for a delightful experience. Here’s what my rice meal looked like:
- Salad: Punchy-Crunchy Ginger Salad
Very close to the fantastic Tea Leaf Salad we had at Burma Superstar. Fermented tea leaves, the central component of the tea leaf salad, are almost impossible to find in North America, so Duguid substitutes pickled ginger, which provides a similar zesty-crunchy punch. This main ingredient is combined with pumpkin seeds, split soybeans, peanuts, sesame seeds, chopped tomato, shredded Napa cabbage, fried garlic and lime juice to produce a fantastic salad that’s a lesson in textural contrasts. One of the highlights of the meal.
- Soup: Ambrosial Chicken Broth with Shallots and Lime Juice
A simple clear soup that was great to reset our palates in-between bites of the other more intensely flavored dishes.
- Curry: Tamarind-Pumpkin Curry (see above for description)
- Shrimp Curry
A simple tomato-based curry that was delicious but less exotic than other dishes of the spread. I see it as a good staple for all occasions as it would please all palates; no need to be familiar with Burmese cuisine to appreciate it.
- Chicken in Tart Garlic Sauce
This chicken dish was dead simple to make (chicken sautéed with ginger and garlic with a lime juice-based sauce), but it was tangy and aromatic and turned out to be one of my favorites.
- Kachin Pounded Beef with Herbs
Definitely one of the most exotic dishes of the spread, it’s made with stewing beef simmered until fork-tender and then pounded with a powerful spice paste. The texture of the shredded meat was a novelty in itself, and the level of spiciness was just perfect. A favorite.
- Condiments: Standout Tomato Chutney and Everyday Cabbage-Shallot Refresher
Both played good supporting roles against the big, bold flavors of the main dishes, but my favorite was definitely the Cabbage-Shallot Refresher. It’s a super fresh and crunchy salad dripping with lime juice: I’m addicted.
- Rice: Perfumed Coconut Rice
Jasmine rice cooked in coconut milk and infused with shallots, clove, cinnamon and turmeric. A wonderfully aromatic mixture that’s a luxurious step-up from classic steamed rice.
Impressive no? I won’t lie, it took me hours to prepare everything, but Duguid’s recipes are precise and reliable, and I made many dishes the day before as well as most of the prep in advance. The night of, I followed a carefully written to-do list and I enlisted the help of a friend who helped me finish up each dish. Everything was served at once, in what was definitely one of the most generous spreads I’ve ever made:
Because there were just four of us, we had lots of leftovers, but we would have been hard-pressed to complain when lunch and dinner over the next few days looked like this:
After cooking all of those dishes, I feel like I’ve had a crash course in Burmese cuisine and I can confirm that Burma: Rivers of Flavor is a new classic at home. Not every meal needs to be a rice meal, and a simple Burmese curry served with a vegetable side dish makes us very happy on a weeknight – especially in winter, when the flavors have such a comforting effect. I have bookmarked dozens more recipes and I’m convinced I get through them all, hoping that’ll help make the dream of traveling to Burma a reality.
Burma: Rivers of Flavor
Author: Naomi Duguid
Publisher: Artisan (US), Random House (Canada)
Buy it now