As I mentioned last week, I’m making more of an effort to combine countries to be more regional if the cuisine so allows. As such, the original plan was to do Burma and Laos together in one week. At that point, I heard in the back of my head, the voice of my dearly departed father, the Big Buddha, berating me for so disrespecting his homeland by giving it such limited attention. After looking through recipe upon recipe online and in books, I could see my little Auntie May cooking up all of these delicacies in her Pittsburgh kitchen, and I knew that his voice in my head was right.
BURMA, official the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, DOES deserve its own week and since I hadn’t had a chance to go to the Asian market last week or have a weekend day to prep, I pushed it back to this week so that I could give it my full, undivided attention. This was an excellent, excellent decision.
Warning: some of these dishes below require odd ingredients, and if you have an Asian supermarket nearby, this may be the week to pay a visit. I always forget before I go to mine that it won’t be like my trips to the neighborhood Jewel-Osco. I won’t be in and out in ten minutes, but rather it’ll be an extremely frustrating experience. To my very Westernized mind, the market lacks a cohesive set up. I tend to walk in not knowing what packaging I’m looking for, let alone with these ingredients look like without their packaging. The shopkeepers don’t really speak English that well either, so most of the time I can’t even ask for what I need. All of the above reasons meant that I left the market yesterday close to 90 minutes after I arrived; tired, hungry and annoyed that I had to go to yet another store to finish checking things off of my list. Unfortunately because Burmese ingredients tend to be a bit unique, successful shopping wouldn’t have happened any other way.
Burmese food is generally prepared from fresh ingredients and from scratch. Basic ingredients include a lot of shallots, shallot oil, chilies, ginger, shrimp paste and fish sauce. Salads are from the garden fresh and spectacularly dressed, and soups star as all breakfast, lunch and dinner. And, perhaps most importantly, condiments such as chili sauces, chutneys and garnishes help all of the above shine.
I had a really hard time narrowing down what to make, and so I may or may not have gone overboard, depending on your point of view. Some of these are a little unorthodox-…fish stew for breakfast? Anyway, I couldn’t decide, so I hope you enjoy all these ridiculously wonderful dishes from my childhood. I may be adding more as the week goes on…
Khaut Swe (pronounced kao sway, which is a chicken coconut soup)
Lapht Thoke (tea leaf salad)
Shwe Gyi Mont (classic semolina cake)
Tart-sweet Chili Garlic Sauce (Nga Yoke Thee Achin)
In a way, I see this week’s menu as a tribute to the Big Buddha. This was his food, the food that he grew up eating, food that Mama Buddha learned how to make so that it became part of my and Little Buddha’s heritage, too. As I’ve started working on this so far, I’ve wanted so many times to call him up and say, “Guess what I made today!” and, each time, knowing that I can’t, I feel a ping of sadness. However, I know he’s watching over me giving me a thumbs up for a job well done.
Here’s to you, Big Buddha.