It was a daunting assignment, this invitation from Artisan, one of our favorite cookbook publishers. They asked us to sample recipes from their upcoming cookbook Burma: Rivers of Flavor by Naomi Duguid. We were familiar with Ms. Duguid's previous books (Mangoes & Curry Leaves, Hot Sour Salty Sweet, among others), always beautifully photographed and specific to the rarer corners of culinary Asia. But Burma? Our scant knowledge of the place — the stricken Myanmar of so many depressing news reports — evoked a dangerous land filled with guerrillas, juntas, despotic regimes, and cold meals in desperate conditions.
Of course, one pass through this beautifully photographed book corrects those pedestrian misconceptions. The photos are alive — mostly shot by Duguid herself — all colorful food, majestic scenery and cheerful faces.
But would we be able gather the necessary ingredients in our own humble, isolated Mississippi town, a place of similar mystery and murky repute? This is a town — and more specifically, a grocery market — where we would, while purchasing some of the chief ingredients (i.e. shallots, ginger, cilantro), be asked by the register attendant, "Now what is this?"
Despite a lack of high-end food resources, Greenwood is a place that appreciates fine and unique food. We regularly run into some of the country's top chefs who come to conduct business and trade homage with local kitchen corporation Viking Range. Since moving here six years ago, one of our favorite pasttimes has become exploring exotic world cuisines. We've attempted Indian and various forms of Asian fare, so why not Burma? We decided to host a dinner party at the bookstore with some of our fellow adventurous home cooks, everyone taking a shot at one or more of the book's recipes, and see what this obscure and troubled land had to teach us.When the cookbook arrived, we were interested by how thoroughly Duguid has delved not only into the food of Burma but also its wider culture, history and people. Burmese cuisine falls, as does the country geographically, between India and Thailand. A mountainous, isolated country, the flavors are distinct and redolent of the country's various regions. Duguid's emphasis seems to be on home cooking, so the recipes have a simple basis — shallots and peanut oil (one of the great revelations from this book is a combination of the two, shallot oil, which can be stored and used as a versatile kitchen staple), turmeric, lime, ginger, dried and fresh chiles. Slightly more exotic are your fish sauce, shrimp powder, lemongrass and chickpea flour.
Sorting out the recipes, we knew we were hopeless to find sorrel leaves, galangal, chickpea flour, even fresh lemongrass and not the tube of paste. We were not averse to traveling to the nearest Asian market, nearly two hours north to Memphis or south to Jackson, but how could we sell this book to local home cook if we couldn't first throw it together from local sources?
While it required a bit of foraging, we found most everything we needed without a long drive or online ordering. The adventurous cook will adapt, and this cookbook makes several useful suggestions and leaves room for experimentation. One thing we wouldn't be able to skimp on, however, was shallots, the most prevalent ingredient in these recipes. A good three pounds worth — nearly the entire local grocer's supply — went into our Burmese feast. Somewhere between garlic and onion, with a milder flavor, the shallots gave these dishes a distinct and unifying flavor.
We gathered at the bookstore on a lazy Sunday, laid out the spread and poured drinks and swapped stories. Everyone was pleased with the book's casual style and the food's vivid and subtle twists of flavor.
Everyone agreed it was difficult narrowing down their cooking selections. So many of the starters and sides sounded amazing and easy to prepare. We selected several that presented a unique turn on local staples. Late-season okra was plentiful at our local farmer's market, so we made Okra-Shallot Stir-Fry, surprisingly subtle and tender fried in ginger, chiles, shallots and fish sauce.
Local grower Hal Fiore supplied us with Asian eggplants for the Egglplant Delight, a fried puree of grilled eggplant, egg, shallot and cilantro. New Potatoes with Spiced Shallot Oil was a great way to throw some zing into red potatoes. This flavorful dish utilizes the aforementioned shallot oil, infused with just the right amount of heat from a dried chile, a layered fusion that coats the potatoes. The recipe calls for tangy sorrel leaves, which were nowhere to be found around here, but allows for a tart substitution of green tomatoes or tomatilloes, which worked just fine. These dishes were roundly celebrated, but the most popular was surely the Mandalay Carrot Salad, which combined the wonderfully complementary flavors of carrots, lime, peanuts, with a savory essence (umami) from shrimp powder (ground-up dried shrimp from the Cajun section at the grocery store) and fish sauce.
Among the main dishes was a flavorful skewer of Easy Grilled Chicken, marinated in fish sauce, chili powder, garlic, ginger and turmeric. The recipe was attempted for its alleged ease, which it was, though there are a number of mouth-watering chicken recipes in the book. For a quick grill, though, it will be hard to beat this tasty bird, a real treat with grilled nan flatbread.
One friend agree to make the Lemongrass-Ginger Sliders with ground pork but found that he'd waited too late to get fresh-baked rolls from our excellent local Mockingbird Bakery. He adapted the recipe as a meatball dish, which went well with a yogurt dipping sauce. Another cook signed up to make the Shrimp Curry. There's a real character at the local farmer's market who makes weekly trips south for Gulf shrimp, but he was missing that week, and it's a lost cause to look for U.S. shrimp at the grocery store. (It is increasingly rare, we've found, to acquire this far inland a nice fish that has not been flown in from some China farm. Are our rivers, streams and ponds so polluted, or is there no enterprising hand with the rod and net, that there isn't a viable homegrown fish market?) A quick substitute for chicken worked just fine with this nice soup and rice dish laden with tomatoes and spritzed up with cayenne and lime.
The undisputed champ, though, of this Burma feast was the Coconut Sauce Noodles. It is, as Duguid tells us, the common Burmese favorite among foreigners. We made a lovely, fragrant broth from chicken, gingers and shallots. That combines with a paste made from chickpea flour, which was nowhere to be found in Greenwood. (The proprietor of the new Whole Foods Store in Greenwood advised us to grind up dried chickpeas, and recommended in a pinch spelt flour, which worked just fine.) Chicken is stir-fried with shallots, turmeric and garlic in peanut oil, then combined with the thickened broth and coconut milk. Simmered for ten minutes or so, it is ladled over egg noodles, which we were lucky to buy fresh at the farmer's market from local chef Martha Foose. The soup was topped with fried shallots, chili powder, lime wedges and fish balls, made from a King Mackerel caught a few weeks back in the Gulf of Mexico by one of our party. All cooks agreed that this would become a comfort food staple in their world cuisine repertoire. If you make nothing else in Burma — which will be difficult to restrain yourself — this recipe makes it worth the purchase.
We even brought in some hot dogs in case the kids weren't willing to sample this uncommon fare. They were more interested in having their faces painted with traditional Burmese flair, as administered by our South African friend Yolande, who served as face painter and photographer at this memorable meal.
It was quite a spread, though we barely scratched the service of the promising food in this cookbook. Even if we made a safe entry point into this mysterious cuisine, everyone present who cooked or simply dined enjoyed their meal. Now, emboldened and eager, we could easily host two or three more feasts using different recipes. We're already on the look-out for ingredients to make Easy Coriander-Tomato Omelet, Golden Egg Curry, Lima Beans with Galangal, Herbed Catfish Laap, Village Boys' Chicken ("the kind of dish that village boys who have stolen a neighbor's chicken would cook up for themselves"), Aromatic Chicken from the Shan Hills, Deep-Fried Street-Stall Chicken and the indispensable Curried Chicken Livers, not to mention a host of dips, chutneys, sweets and rice and noodle dishes that have our advanced copy looking like a turmeric-stained, dog-eared wreck of passed-down family recipes. We didn't even prepare the national dish, mohinga, a noodle and fish soup concoction represented in its various regional incarnations.
Preparing this meal reminded us why it's advantageous to cook outside of one's own culture and comfort zone. It expands cooking confidence and ability by introducing new tricks and ingredients into the home cook's arsenal. So we heartily encourage adventurous cook to purchase a copy of Burma here when the book is released in late September. You may surprise yourself. And don't forget, cooking exotic is so much more rewarding if attempted with friends.