Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Week Fourteen: A Journey to Myanmar

Before I organized my schedule for this year’s weekly projects, I scanned through online lists of cookbook titles categorized as International Cuisine.  For the most part, this activity served to assist in creating a concise list of fifty-two countries/cuisines that I probably would have selected without the assistance of a list; however, the multiple titles for Burmese cuisine piqued my interest.  For me, the mention of Burma or Myanmar provokes questions of the political and human interest nature.  With so much turmoil, I had not considered its cuisine as a topic of particular concern, but adding it to my schedule seemed an intriguing way to better educate myself about the culture.  In addition, one must assume that its cuisine will be interesting just by close association with its neighboring countries of China, Laos, India, Bangladesh, and Thailand.

Burmese cuisine’s primary flavoring agents are fish sauce and ngapi, a pungent paste made from fermented shrimp and then sun-dried.  As with most countries, consumption of fish and meat vary based on geography.  Most commonly, inland cities consume poultry and pork, while coastal cities located on the Bay of Bengal serve seafood more often than meat.  The primary proteins eaten within a certain region also vary based on the area’s religious affiliations.  Rice is the most commonly served starch although rice and vermicelli noodles are used consistently in salads and soups.  Tropical fruits are often served as desserts.  Mango is pickled and served as a popular condiment, as well. 

Reading recipes for Burmese cuisine proved to be an interesting study in how a region’s different influences can combine to create dishes that define it because of the combination of approaches and ingredients.  For instance, I would describe Burmese Curry dishes as Indian curries with the addition of ngapi or fish sauce, influenced by Thailand, prepared as a stir-fry, as influenced by China.  This blend of flavors and styles culminates in a distinctly Burmese-flavored dish.

As I approached my menus for the week, I considered my goals for the week. 
  • Incorporate ngapi in as many dishes as possible since it serves as the primary flavoring agent in Burmese cuisine. 
  • Make a Burmese Curry to experience the flavor profile of a curry influence with Thai and Chinese flavors and styles.
  • Read multiple recipes for Mohingar, Myanmar’s National Dish, to determine the most commonly used ingredients to create this diverse, regionally-influenced dish.
Breakfast for Dinner:  Mohingar
As a child, I was always excited to find out that our dinner would be breakfast.  Sausage, biscuits, sausage gravy, and eggs scrambled in the sausage fat fit the bill for a dinner where no one complained.  When I read about Myanmar’s national dish, Mohingar (also Mohinga), traditionally served as a breakfast dish, I just decided that we would be having breakfast for dinner one night of the week, because there was no way I could manage this dish before work.
The base of Mohingar is fish stock and fine noodles.  The herbs, spices, and garnishes served with the dish are determined by the chef’s regional origin.  The variations of the dish differ so greatly that urban street vendors often display signs showing the chef’s name and native region to indicate which particular version is served at a cart.  After reading several recipes and bloggers’ personal accounts about its significance, I selected a recipe from a blogger who wrote about his fond childhood memories of morning visits to a mohingar stall near the Shwedagon Pagoda.  He notated that every family has its own variation of the dish, and I chose to make his family’s recipe.  (Unfortunately, the blog has been offline for the last three days, so I have not provided links to the recipe in this posting.  I'm so glad I save a copy of the recipe when I read it the first time!)

I began with a broth made from fish, lemongrass, and turmeric.  The dish's strong flavor profile is imparted by a caramelized paste of onion, garlic, fresh ginger, lemongrass, dried chiles, shrimp paste, paprika, and turmeric.  Flaked pieces of the fish are added to the paste and cooked for about fifteen minutes in order to take on the fragrant flavors of the paste.  To make the soup, the reserved fish stock, a slurry of rice flour, and the soup paste/flaked fish are added to a stock pot and brought to a boil.  Traditionally, banana stems are added and simmered until tender, but without banana stems I added the recipe’s recommended substitute of whole, peeled shallots to the broth.  Fish sauce and black pepper are added at the end for final seasoning.  To serve the Mohingar, ladle the soup over a handful of cooked rice noodles in a bowl.
The garnishes served with Mohingar vary based on regional traditions and on what products are in season.  Based on the numerous listings of garnishes I read, I am fairly confident that the most often used garnishes include sliced boiled eggs, fritters (either gourd or onion), fresh cilantro, and lime.  I also found the following recommendations:  fried garlic, split pea fritters, chili flakes, shredded green beans, sliced scallions, and fish sauce.

All in all, I really enjoyed this dish.  As mentioned in previous postings, I generally do not like fish soups or stews, but the creaminess and balance of flavors produced a delightful, filling main dish.  So good that the hubs went back to the kitchen to finish everything left.  I served it with hardboiled eggs, cilantro, lime wedges, and onion fritters.  The hardboiled egg was the only garnish that did not make sense to me.  I tried a little crumbled on the soup, and I tried a bite as I was eating the soup.  In both cases, it seemed a heavy addition that did not provide an interesting contrast in flavor or texture to the main dish.  The cilantro and lime complemented the richness of the soup by added a fresh, tart aspect.  I crumbled part of an onion fritter on top of the soup, and that was a really nice touch. 

Traditional Dinner
A traditional dinner includes soup, meat curries, steamed rice, and ngapi yay served with raw vegetables.  For our dinner, I served soup, meat curries, and steamed rice.  After countless searches for more information about ngapi yay, I found that it is a dipping sauce seasoned with ngapi (shrimp paste), but I could not find any recipes or formulations for what actually makes ngapi yay.  I gave up on that aspect and focused on the other elements.  As I prepared for this meal, I discovered that has an extensive listing of recipes for Burmese cuisine, which I used as guidelines for the Chin Hin, Chicken Curry, and Pork Curry.

Chin Hin is a “sour soup” served at the beginning of a meal.  I read several different recipes and discovered that the sour elements may be delivered by various ingredients:  sorrel leaves, green tomatoes, tamarind, and even rhubarb.  For my preparation, I made a tamarind broth and added onion, turmeric powder, green tomato, and fresh spinach.  While I found the flavors to be interesting, this was not a soup I could eat in large quantities.  After a few spoonfuls, I was overwhelmed with its sour, bitter quality.

The bright, fresh flavor of this Chicken Curry resulted from the use of multiple fresh ingredients to create its flavor profile:  thin slices of fresh Serrano chiles, grated gingerroot, onions, garlic, tomatoes, lemongrass, and lime juice.  For this curry, the addition of turmeric and cardamom provided the “curried” seasonings.  It also included fish sauce, which offered an interesting background flavor and gave the dish a different profile than an Indian curry.

The Pork Curry included several of the same ingredients (onion, garlic, fresh gingerroot, turmeric, and lemongrass), but its flavors differed significantly from the Chicken Curry.  The addition of brown sugar, curry paste, ngapi, dried chiles, and soy sauce resulted in a dark, rich sauce with a depth of flavor similar to mole.  With every bite, I tasted something new.  I loved this dish!

After a week, I’m still not sure if I should be calling this Burmese cuisine or Myanmarese cuisine, but I am confident calling it unique, interesting, and delicious.  This week’s meals felt more experimental than others, perhaps because I was familiar with the ingredients but not their composition as it relates to this cuisine.  In the case of Burmese cuisine, the whole is certainly greater than the sum of its parts.

1 comment:

  1. The Pork Curry sounds yummy ! I'd also be interested in trying out the Mohingar