This is such a lovely cookbook. I appreciate MiMi’s work, sharing not only delicious recipes but her family history. Sometimes I think people take for granted how much it takes out of you to share both of these things, which can often be quite intimate. I learned so many new things and could also relate to so much: dishes made with MSG and tinned fish and condensed milk, shrimp paste relishes (ngapi in Burmese, gapi in Thai), loving and sharp-tongued aunties, sweets that are pink drinks or delicious bits and bobs in coconut milk.
The design, photography, and styling are fittingly beautiful–really fresh and contemporary, balancing clarity with a rich palette and lovely shadows. Alongside plenty of appetising photos of the dishes, there are adorable family photos, decorative objects, and familiar tools and utensils like granite and wood pestles, tiffins (pinto in Thai), and proper short spoons. All of that just sounds so obvious–of course a cookbook drawn from lived experience of being Burmese diaspora would include some of these items!–but I grew up seeing East & Southeast Asian food in Western publications being styled with–you guessed it!–A Pair of Random Chopsticks, and the graphic design would inevitably include that type of Asian font. I am still thinking about this interview with Greta Lee who mentions random chopsticks appearing in settings for her characters. It’s all a visual language which constructs this image of E&SEAsian-ness as a flimsy world attached to context only by sparse signifying ornaments which are intended as “authenticity” but are actually the result of deeply uninspired decisions.
Which is all to say: it’s very clear that each element of this book has been created with an exacting yet friendly eye for detail. There are sections dedicated to ingredients, suitable alternatives, techniques that really make a Burmese meal, and stockists–laying out just how accessible it is to make this food in the context of your home exactly because this food comprises home to people within the culture.
The way we sometimes consume published recipes is aspirational–we’d just love to be the kind of neatly aproned person who turns to a beautiful page that guides us in making something spectacular in our glass splashback four-oven remodelled kitchen or whatever–and I think this is even more prevalent when we turn our gaze to so-called ethnic cuisine. Perhaps to some it is “exotic”, a holiday; by definition not home. But in MiMi’s writing, I found something that resonated with my experience of growing up as diaspora. It’s hard to pinpoint what, exactly, but I really wanted to respond by cooking. I quickly clamped down on my tendency to faff about in indecision and pushed forward with cooking a bunch of delicious things.
Burmese Tofu Fritters (Tohu Kyaw)
Absurdly delicious. Delicate golden crust with creamy centres that are gorgeously molten when hot and fresh from the pan. It has the same delicate custardy wobbliness of egg tofu, though this is vegan and has a lovely hint of turmeric, which also turns the tofu a nice primrose colour. You must try it!
This is very easy to make, you just need to plan ahead slightly to prepare the chickpea tofu. When a recipe is this simple, I find myself paying even more attention to the details, so I actually measured tins and tupperwares to make sure the slab came out about the right size. I also checked the oil depth, and I am glad I did, because 5 cm (a good couple of inches) is more than I would’ve first estimated by eye. The reward was for being this persnickety was very high.
Shan Noodles (Shan Khao Swè)
I picked this because 1) it’s a vehicle for chickpea tofu 2) it reminds me of nam ngiaw, which I know as a Northern Thai dish. MiMi says it is a cousin to this one: a rich tomato and mince sauce served with rice noodles and mustard greens, fresh herbs, and nice crunchy toppings for contrast. The sauce is peppery rather than chilli-heavy and the fried tofu that gets lost in the bottom of the bowl soaks it up wonderfully. This is exactly the sort of food which suits this not-quite-summer we’re having: full of flavour and bolstering without being full-on winter stodge.
Fried Fish Curry (Ngar Kyaw Chet)
This is the only thing I’ve had for lunch so far ever since getting this book. I used defrosted basa fillets, upping the seasoned flour and sauce quantities just slightly to account for extra pieces. You turn the fillets in turmeric flour and fry them, sealing each one in a seasoned coating, then you turn each fillet in a thick spicy onion and tomato sauce. It’s absurdly delicious. If you’re going to substitute smaller tomatoes, go for about 300g. Also, because I am an unrepentant chilli gremlin, I like adding lots more chopped chilli on top. You can find the recipe on Foodism!
Burmese Masala Chicken (Kyet Thar Masala Hin), Buttered Lentil Rice (Pe Htawbat Htamin), and Green Bean Salad (Pe Thi Thoke)
This was such a delicious meal! For the curry, I used about 6 new potatoes, halved and unpeeled, and they soaked up the spiced gravy really well.
The buttered lentil rice is something I could eat alone, once I worked out how to make the recipe with my cheap bitch tendency to get new crop bargain rice, which needs much less water to cook through.
The recipe provides a ratio that is perfect for older, higher quality rice. I gamely followed it for my cheap bitch rice, and it tasted lovely but was very soft. I have only myself to blame. During subsequent attempts, I found that cooking 1 part new rice to between 1.1 or 1.2 parts water works best for me, especially if there are other ingredients with water content (butter, soaked pulses, meat, &c).
For 1 hungry person, I used 120 ml basmati rice + 140 ml water, which just about covered the rice and split peas. Then I set the heat on low, put the lid on, and forgot about it for 15 – 17 minutes in total, not even bothering to bring it to the boil first–I know this method works best for my scorchy stove. The rice came out fluffy, gently spiced, the split chickpeas providing a just-tender nutty contrast, a perfect accompaniment for rich chicken curry.
Burmese Falooda (Hpaluda)
Oh my god, if you love rose flavoured things, you need to make this. This is rose milk with all kinds of wonderful sweet jelly textures and a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. My parents gave me some basil seeds ages ago; in Thailand it’s always lemon basil seeds (maenglak) and people swear up and down this is the best kind of basil seed, but really, any kind of basil seed will do.
Since I couldn’t find rose syrup in the shops, I made a third of this vanilla-rose falooda syrup recipe. It sounds elaborate, like you need to wrestle with organic rosebushes at first light and boil armfuls of petals in a copper vat until you have a gorgeous thimbleful of pink nectar, but it is really elegantly simple: simple syrup made with rosewater, vanilla, and a healthy dose of food colouring.
For a small batch of rose syrup (approx 200 ml), stir together the following 3 ingredients in a small pot over a low heat until dissolved: 80 ml (5 tbsp + 1 tsp) rosewater, 40 ml (2 tbsp + 1 tsp) plain water, and 130 g (2/3 cup) granulated sugar. Boil for 5 minutes or so. Off the heat, pour in an additional 20 ml (1 tbsp + 1 tsp) rosewater, 3/4 tsp vanilla extract, an extra few drops of rose extract and enough pink food colouring to turn it a deep pink; it will be more than you’d prefer. You should have a rich pink syrup. Allow to cool, then store in the fridge for up to 1 month. (This is a thin, silky syrup. If you want a thick sticky mixture, use a higher ratio of sugar to total liquid by weight. A two-one syrup for this recipe would require 280g sugar.)
Also, I love all the stories MiMi tells about herself and her family, and the story that accompanied the falooda recipe was the one that I enjoyed the very most–there is truly nothing like experiencing the generosity of an awesomely terrifying Grand Auntie.
- I got ‘Mandalay’ from Hive. There’s also an eBook edition.
- In very exciting news, on Sunday 7th July, you can experience MiMi’s cooking for yourself at the Mandalay Charity lunch in aid of World Child Cancer. Book tickets here! I already have plans but this is a wonderful chance to contribute to a good cause and have delicious food.