Friday, 31 May 2013

Back to Mandalay (Part 2)

MiMi's Burmese Kitchen
My grandparents' cook on the left and nanny on the right

"No! you won't 'eed nothin' else   
But them spicy garlic smells,   
An' the sunshine an' the palm-trees an' the tinkly temple-bells;   
On the road to Mandalay"

My father’s family hails from upper Burma, from the much more old-world town of Mandalay, and this is where most of them still reside, and so, whenever we visited Burma, we’d make the long trek up from Yangon to see them all.

The distance from Yangon to Mandalay is equivalent to that from London to Edinburgh, but modes of transport were decidedly more antiquated in these parts.

MiMi's Burmese Kitchen
Train snacks

Yet, although it entailed a fifteen-hour bone-juddering train trip overnight on the hardest seats known to man, to an eight year-old MiMi with food on her mind, the journey to Mandalay seemed wildly exciting. At every stop (and there were many), countless smiling and chattering vendors would suddenly appear from nowhere and flock to our open windows, bearing baskets of wondrous things. 

Bunches of fat, sweet bananas and prickly rambutan; kettles of steaming green tea; banana-leaf parcels of hot sticky rice and dried fish; "twigs" of chewy goat jerky tied into bundles with straw knots we'd have to unpick; and packets of boiled quail eggs which we’d peel clumsily and pop into our mouths one by one, savouring the pale creamy yolks.

MiMi's Burmese Kitchen
Breakfast at my grandparents

On our bleary-eyed, early-morning arrival, we’d be whisked straight to my grandparents’ house in the centre of town for bowl after bowl of mohinga, heaped with crispy split-pea fritters, slices of soft duck egg, bouncy fish cakes, roasted chilli flakes, and shredded coriander leaves, with salty fish sauce and lemon wedges to squeeze on the side.

A bounty of piquant textures and tastes, mohinga is a breakfast of fish chowder and rice vermicelli, renowned as the national dish of Burma and a firm favourite of my two older brothers. 

Mohinga, the national dish of Burma

As someone addicted to rice however, I was often more interested in the see-htamin that was also presented to us – a moreish golden sticky rice infused with banana leaf and scattered with ground sesame, garlic-fried onions, gloriously mushy yellow peas, and freshly-fried fish jerky called nga-boh(k) chao(k) which I’d demolish in seconds when no-one was looking.

The next morning without fail, my grandmother Pwa Pwa and her staff would be up at the crack of dawn to cook up huge pots of delicious curry and fluffy rice, in order to give alms to the local monastery.

Giving alms to the monks

An endless line of monks would solemnly parade past our house, as I attempted to be respectful whilst simultaneously ladling out equal portions into their offering bowls and trying not to drool as the tantalising scent of sweet cinnamon chicken or spicy soy beef wafted up to me.

Unsurprisingly, only the choicest ingredients and the leanest meat would be served up to the monks. I remember being grief-stricken when my grandfather Po Po told me they’d thrown out all the fat that they’d removed from the belly pork and bamboo shoot stew, as I’d greedily ear-marked the glistening chunks for myself.

Thus the food at home was always wonderful and plentiful, but where Mandalay really came into its own was lun-bay zah – literally “roadside fare” aka street food. The rules and regulations that gripped and sanitised Yangon had yet to infiltrate Mandalay – and this held true in other ways. 

MiMi's Burmese Kitchen
My cousin and me on a side-car rickshaw in Mandalay

Just one example: in Mandalay even these days, cyclists, motorbikes and side-car rickshaws outnumber cars and lorries, and there’s little in the way of signals and road-markings, so crossing the street means holding your breath, walking straight into traffic and hoping for the best. But the heat of Mandalay means that the pace of life is slow, so casualties are (relatively) rare.

And as for the street food – every day, my 6’4” Po Po would sit in his huge wicker chair in the open garage at the side of the house, so he could watch life go by and, more to the point, flag down every passing snack-seller. I’d be dancing around in the living room with the radio blaring, only to be interrupted constantly by my parents yelling, “Coconut chicken noodles are here!”; “There’s steamed banana pudding!”; “Come and get some pickled marian fruit!”

That last was the most entertaining to me as a child, as the pickle vendor would herald his arrival by beating a small gong, which to a Burmese ear sounds like “Naon! Naon!” and, as a result, such vendors are called naon naon thair ie “the bong bong sellers”.

Pickle seller, Shan State
Passing pickle man

In the rare likelihood that no vendors chose to pass by that day, there was a mohn(t) yay-bah pancake seller who sizzled her wares to order just in front of the house, sending seductive aromas of frying onion and garlic our way, and around the corner was a tiny night market (nyah(t) zay dun) which touted all manner of fantastic snacks and fritters such as mohn(t) lin-myah – crispy shells of batter stuffed with tiny boiled peas, shredded spring onions, tomatoes and quivering quail eggs. 

Mohn(t) yay-bah pancake

And in every direction as far as the eye could see, there were more roadside stalls with their own irresistible specialities. I remember watching “The Burma Road” at the age of nine back home in England, when I spied the presenter Miles Kington eating Mandalay mohntee noodles – a delectable “salad” of fat, blowsy rice noodles, tomatoey chicken curry, chillies, leafy coriander and sharp, sliced raw onions. 

In raptures, I jumped up and shrieked to my mother, “I KNOW that stall! I've BEEN to that stall! It’s right next to Po Po and Pwa Pwa’s house! I’d kill to be there right now”.

Noodle seller

Even now, although my grandparents have since passed away, the pancake seller is still frying away in front of the house driving everyone wild with the scent of sizzling onions; the street vendors continue to strut past daily with their panniers of plenty; and that night market still bustles away, surrounded by crowds satisfying their snacky cravings. 

The only difference is that these days we catch a plane from Yangon to Mandalay – the railway romanticism is lost, but our eager stomachs are filled that much sooner.

Next time: To the hills of Mogok and beyond

Frying away at the night market

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

A Burmese Background (Part 1)

MiMi's Burmese Kitchen
Larking around in Bagan, the land of pagodas

Burma or Myanmar? Myanmar or Burma? Apart from the fact that it makes my ears bleed to hear people butcher the pronunciation of its official name (it’s “Myuhn-MAR”, not “MY-An-Ma” - click the play button below to hear), I have always called my spiritual homeland Burma as that’s how I've always known it.

Pronunciation no longer available Sorry, pronunciation no longer available. Check Forvo for alternatives.Pronunciation no longer available Sorry, pronunciation no longer available. Check Forvo for alternatives.

I say “spiritual”, since I was born in the slightly more prosaic seaside town of Margate and I grew up in the UK. But my parents (and both my brothers) are Burmese born and bred, and have taken us back to visit their homeland ever since I was tiny, so it’s natural I feel an affinity with the place.

My folks, especially my mother, were deathly afraid that I would reject my “Burmeseness”, so in order to instill a “proper” sense of culture, at home they taught me the beautiful Burmese language, raised us as strict(ish) Buddhists, and reared us on brilliant Burmese food. 

I guess my parents were anxious they were fighting a losing battle, as at the same time I was attending a convent school run by some French nuns called Sister Denise, Sister Marie-Antoinette, Sister Marie-Claire and Sister Marie-Therese (strange but true).

Eating roast duck at my eldest aunt's house in Yangon. Can you see the heads?

And 25 years later, on the way to Mount Popa. Yes, that is a fried chicken's butt.

Rangoon and beyond

My parents also took us to visit Burma year after year, where most of my family still lives. My mother’s side is mainly based in the former capital city of Yangon aka Rangoon (though they’re originally from Mogok – of which more another time). They’re lively, brash and lots of fun, rather like the town itself.

This attitude translates to the food in Yangon – it’s more modern and flashy, the first to adopt new trends and to embrace foreign influences. There are hip cafes and bars everywhere, plus a relatively recent influx of chain restaurants, whilst, due to a government crackdown, genuine street food is almost a thing of the past, except in markets or Chinatown.

Snack stalls near Karaweik, Rangoon
Burger Queen near the Karaweik. Oh yes.

The first time I saw a Burmese supermarket was in Yangon – although the supermarket is a common sight back in England, in the Burma of 1998 it seemed truly astonishing. So alien were they that, when a cousin came to the UK a few years before that, we popped to the shops and she put everything straight in her rucksack as she didn't know she should use a basket (I wondered why a member of staff was following us around).

I remember when burger bars and spaghetti joints started to open up in Yangon, and thinking how incongruous they were, even though there were still very Burmese touches such as pickled chillies spiking the silky pasta, or bacon comprising more juicy, caramelised fat than lean meat.

MiMi's Burmese Kitchen
Chilli pic and mix at a Yangon supermarket

The reason for my awe was, and still is, the peculiar juxtaposition of Westernisation and staunch traditional values. I hesitate to say Buddhist values; whilst ninety per cent of Burma is Theravadin Buddhist, its conservatism is, I believe, a result of Burmeseness (and isolation) rather than Buddhism per se. For example, both men and women, for the most part, still wear traditional Burmese clothes on an everyday basis: sarongs called longyis - pasoe for men and htamein for women.

Though many men do wear trousers, until recently women didn't even tend to wear skirts (at least not ones which show anything more than an ankle), and those that did deign to wear trousers were looked at askance or assumed to be from abroad.

Any public displays of affection between couples are also frowned upon – although weirdly, it’s fine for those of the same sex to hold hands or link arms, even men, as it’s assumed that such friendliness must be platonic ...

Alcohol is also considered a bit of a no-no, and specifically discouraged by Theravadin Buddhist precepts (though eating meat is not). Although there has been a recent proliferation of roadside pubs peddling Myanmar beer and rum, those that frequent them are not very well thought-of. If a Burmese man drinks regularly, he is considered a drunken reprobate, and if a Burmese woman drinks at all, she is deemed beyond the pale.

Burma old album
Chillaxing with my cousins, Burmese-style. That's me in the pale gingham dress.

Smoking, however, is greeted with tolerance, if not approval, for both men and women. Kipling’s Burmese maiden and her “whackin’ white cheroot” is still a relatively familiar sight, although these days you’d substitute the older generation for the "maiden" (the same for betel-chewing), as Yangon’s youth is more likely to prefer Lucky Strike.

This sense of tradition translates to the Yangon kitchen. Whilst it may be more common to go out for dim sum or pizza, at home it's more usual to have a Burmese menu of rich curries, fragrant rice and saucy noodles. The variety of flavours and spices are endless, so there’s never a dull meal.

And occasionally, due to the flourishing Indian community in Yangon, the odd South Asian element creeps in, such as crunchy potato and pea-packed samosas with fresh mint coleslaw, or onion pakoras with a yoghurt and cucumber sauce.

Chinatown, Rangoon
Yangon Nightlife

So Yangon was, and still, is the part of Burma most familiar to someone hailing from the West - if you squinted your eyes, you could almost imagine you were in Bangkok or Singapore. 

Next time though, I'll tell you about Mandalay.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Burmese Creamed Corn with Fried Onions

Creamed Corn 02
Burmese Style Creamed Corn with Fried Onions

Like many South East Asian countries, dairy isn't a big thing in Burma. A number of factors are involved: little pastoral land, a historical lack of refrigeration, and a respect for cattle in agriculture - milk is considered to be for the calves; cows and bulls are part of a Burmese farmer's family.

In fact, for a long time I never realised that, although scarce and extremely expensive, milk and butter *was* actually available for those in the know. Until 20 or so years ago, there were no supermarkets in Burma, and food was always bought daily - fresh from open-air markets so early in the morning I was usually still in bed. 

We even used to pack Lurpak in our suitcase for my grandparents in Mandalay - frozen and quadruple-wrapped in tin foil along with a tub of Brylcreem and a fruit cake and countless bars of Dairy Milk (my grandparents have since passed away, but we still take chocolate for the rest of the family every time we go home).

One day though - this is 15 years ago now - as I was tinkering with a radio in my aunt's house in Yangon, the doorbell rang and my cousin ran to the door. She came back holding a large steel mug, the contents of which she emptied into a small saucepan and began to heat.

"Who was that? What is that?" I asked.

"The noh(t) galah. It's milk", she replied.

"Noh(t) galah" literally means "milk Indian", and I found out afterwards from my mum that ever since she was little, the only dairy farmers in Burma were Indian, and so the genuine Burmese word for "milkman" was milk-Indian.

"Why are you heating it? D'you like it warm?"

"No, you plum. I'm boiling it to make it safe".

"Oh". That was me told.

Anyway, my cousin was fairly unusual in liking "real" milk in her coffee. Most of the rest of the Burmese world preferred those 3-in-1 packet mixes with coffee, creamer, sugar combined, though sometimes they'd add a dollop of condensed milk for good luck (known as noh(t)-zee).

My dad remembers seeing a huge condensed milk factory in Maymyo, just beyond Mandalay - condensed milk was also used in Burma to make ice cream and Indian sweets and puddings, and at least one of my other cousins was known to squeeze it neat into her mouth - sometimes it came in tubes.

Such was the desire for condensed milk, it even cropped up in savoury recipes - for example in ohn-no khao swe noodles, partly in the wrong-headed belief that it was somehow much healthier than coconut milk.

Condensed milk also appears in this recipe below for Burmese creamed corn - and although I'm not sweet-toothed, I used to hoover this stuff up as a child. 

Use double cream instead if you really must, but it's worth trying the way it should be - pure comfort food.

Creamed Corn 01

Burmese-Style Creamed Corn
Byaon-bu Jaw

Serves 4 as a side dish
  • 250g tin (or approx weight) of sweetcorn in unsalted, unsweetened water
  • Equal amount of frozen sweetcorn kernels
  • 2 medium white onions
  • 1 heaped tbsp tapioca flour mixed to a paste with cold water
  • 1 tbsp condensed milk or double cream

For the fried onion garnish

Finely slice one onion and then squeeze the slices with your hands so you get as much juice/liquid out as possible and discard this juice (I find if you can microwave the slices for a minute, this makes the job much easier). 

Fry the onion slices in a little groundnut or other plain oil for 15 minutes on a medium heat, and then 5 minutes on high so they brown and crisp up a little. 

This will make more fried onions than needed for this dish, but they make a good garnish generally - on noodles and salads for example.

For the creamed corn

The two types of corn are necessary to get the right texture to resemble Burmese sweetcorn.

Blitz the sweetcorn (including the liquid from the can) with a blender or mini-chopper till most of the kernels break down into a mush.

Dice the other onion and fry the pieces in groundnut or other plain oil in a wok or frying pan for 10 minutes on a medium heat till they become translucent. 

Add the blitzed sweetcorn, the tapioca flour and the cream or condensed milk, mix thoroughly and fry for another 10 minutes.

Top with the fried onions and serve warm as a side dish - as in the photo above, it makes a good accompaniment to Burmese egg curry and rice (recipe here) or even as a topping for toast.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Gong Bao Chicken, Burmese Style

Gong Bao or Kung Pao Chicken

As a child, my musical tastes were dictated by my parents. Having arrived in the UK just before I was born, their choices largely consisted of the "safe" Western music that had been allowed into Burma - for example, ABBA, Andy Williams and a certain Cliff Richard - as well as old-time Burmese songs dating from before World War II as far as I could tell.

Later on however, as we kept in touch with the family back home, our playlists began to be dominated by a man called Zaw Win Htut

I say 'a man' - he was (and still is) vaunted as a rock legend - a Burmese Bruce Springsteen at the height of his powers. I adored every single one of his songs - the ballads and the anthems - and I would lustily yell along to the many tapes we brought back from our visits to the old country.

One fine day here though, I remember very clearly we were in the car on the way to see some cousins. We had the radio on for once, and suddenly the voice of John Lennon filled the air. 

Confusion clouded my features, till I unwrinkled my brow and suddenly yelped, "Hey, this is a cover of one of Zaw Win Htut's songs. I never realised he was so famous".

Of course, I was wrong. In fact, this was just the first time I'd heard the original version of "The Ballad of John and Yoko". Zaw Win Htut's version was the cover, not The Beatles'.

The Beatles with The Ballad of John and Yoko

Zaw Win Htut's cover of The Ballad of John and Yoko

My youthful world came tumbling down*

"Cocaine" was actually an Eric Clapton song. "The First Cut is the Deepest", a Rod Stewart number.
And a few years later, I had another rude epiphany when I finally twigged that one of my favourite dishes jet thar gohn baon-ji jaw was actually a culinary cover version of the Szechuan / Sichuan dish gong bao chicken (or Kung Pow as the Americans would have it).

But you know what? I still prefer Zaw Win Htut, and I still prefer this Burmese version of gong bao chicken. 

Neither may be as edgy as the original, but there's a sweetness to both that is irresistible.

Je(t)-thar Goh(n) Bao(n)-ji Jaw 
(Burmese Kung Pao Chicken)

Serves 4-6

  • 1 kg boneless chicken thighs, sliced into 1 inch long strips (remove the skin and use for cock scratchings)
  • 2 medium white onions, diced into large wedges/chunks 
  • Handful of chopped spring onions
  • 4 dried fat red chillies (smoky is good - all Oriental supermarkets sell in bags)
  • 4 thick slices of ginger (50p size), peeled
  • 1 tbsp dark soy sauce 
  • 1 tbsp light soy sauce 
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • Pinch of MSG or 1 tsp Marigold bouillon

Heat the oil and fry the chillies till they become smoky and fragrant and then set aside. 

Add the sugar to the oil and reheat. Add the chicken and fry until all the liquid that comes out of the meat is reduced to a sticky sauce. 

Next add the ginger, onions, MSG if using, dark and light soy sauce and then stir-fry for another 5 minutes.

Make sure the onion chunks retain some bite - you don't want them to brown or become translucent.

Sprinkle with the spring onions and serve immediately with steamed rice.

Zaw Win Htut's cover of The First Cut is the Deepest

*As an interesting side-note, Zaw Win Htut's Wikipedia entry states "[l]ike most Burmese pop singers, Zaw Win Htut became famous with Burmese language covers of foreign (mostly Western rock and pop) hits" but unlike most he "was actually embarrassed about it" saying that singing those songs was "like wearing someone else's shirt".

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Magnum and Cornetto Chocolates Review - They're Teeny Tiny

WallsChocs 001
Magnum Chocolates and Cornetto Chocolates from Wall's

Much as I hate to admit it, I'm a sucker for a gimmick, especially the type sitting at the checkout at your local supermarket (yes, I know they're aimed at children, but I'm a creature of childish impulse). 

I saw these new chocolates from Wall's Ice Cream, and obviously I couldn't resist chucking a couple in my basket.

The Magnum ones first - you get three in a packet and they really do look like tiny Magnum bars. Each one is a couple of centimetres long - about the size of a large lozenge.

WallsChocs 007
It's a Magnum, but tiny

When you bite into the chocolate, there's fluffy vanilla cream inside (bit like creme patissiere).

The taste and texture is about as close to ice cream as not-ice cream can get, though a little artificial.

WallsChocs 002

The Cornetto next. I like how there's a big warning at the top saying "No ice cream included". 

When you unwrap the silver foil, it's quite impressive how it is just a mini Cornetto. Though maybe I'm easily pleased.

WallsChocs 003

The same fluffy vanilla cream can be found inside when you bite off the top.

WallsChocs 005
Whipped fluffiness

What I really like though is that they've even bothered to include the "secret" chocolate tip.

WallsChocs 006
Money shot

Anyway, either of these can be yours for 65p, which seems like daylight robbery to me but then a standard chocolate bar costs that amount these days. I don't know.

At least these are more entertaining than a Dairy Milk.