Burma shares borders with India, China, Laos, and Thailand as well as having a long coastline, and the food has similarities with that of its neighbors. Although, I thought it was interesting that coconuts don’t grow well in most of Burma, so coconut milk isn’t a very common ingredient. Chiles fresh and dried, chile powders, shrimp powder and paste, toasted chickpea flour, roasted peanuts, fermented soybean paste, shallot and garlic oil, peanut and sesame oil, and turmeric are some of the basics of a Burmese pantry.
During the class, we were served a tray of some fresh and some blanched vegetables with a Tomato Chutney made with tamarind pulp, dried chiles, fresh chiles, cilantro, and shrimp paste. It was a tangy, spicy, savory sauce to return to throughout the meal. The next dish was one of the simplest and most intriguing soups I’ve seen. A Silky Shan Soup was made by whisking chickpea flour, salt, and water in a bowl. More water was brought to a boil, and the chickpea flour mixture was slowly stirred into the boiling water. That was the soup. It was cooked until smooth and thick. The soup was served over rice noodles with several garnishes like chile oil, chopped roasted peanuts, shallot oil, palm sugar water which adds more of a smoky flavor than sweetness, and blanched pea tendrils. You can also make the soup as described and then pour it into a shallow pan and chill it. It will set up into a consistency like tofu, and that is sliced and used in salads. Other dishes included a roasted eggplant dish made sweeter with the addition of an egg; a chicken curry in which the chicken pieces had been marinated with a flavor paste of ginger, garlic, turmeric, and mild red chiles; and a salad made with blanched spinach that tasted so fresh and zippy I couldn’t wait to go home and make it myself. All of those dishes were served with rice, and the idea of the meal is to move about the plate and experience the different kinds of tastes. Nothing was too spicy, but taking a bite of a vegetable dipped into the tomato chutney delivered a kick. The chicken and eggplant were mild, and the salad dressed with lime had such big, bright flavors.
After the class, I set about creating my Burmese pantry. I fried shallots and saved the shallot oil, and then fried garlic. I toasted chickpea flour which is sometimes a main ingredient and sometimes more of a seasoning. I bought dried shrimp and ground it in a food processor to make shrimp powder. And, then I made that fantastic Tender Greens Salad at home. Some spinach was blanched, drained, and squeezed of excess water, and then it was tossed with fried shallots and garlic, dried shrimp powder, chopped roasted peanuts, toasted chickpea flour, shallot oil, lime juice, fresh shallot slices, and fish sauce. I’m looking forward to mixing those flavors in other dishes like a beautiful Chicken Salad Burma Style, Chickpea Soup with Lemongrass and Ginger, Golden Egg Curry, Kachin Salsa, Shrimp Curry, and Fried Rice with Shallots. It’s been a pleasure to get to know Burma from this book, and the food has been every bit as delicious as it looks on the page.
Tender Greens Salad with Crispy Fried Shallots
Recipe reprinted with publisher’s permission. Excerpted from Burma: Rivers of Flavor by Naomi Duguid (Artisan Books). Copyright 2012.
Serves 4 to 6
I learned this central Burmese version of the Shan dish Chinese Kale with Pork Cracklings from a friend in Rangoon. It’s very quick to make if you’ve got your pantry basics on hand, and it’s an easy and flexible dish to turn to when you have plenty of greens around. Start with any tender greens, briefly boil them to soften, and then chop and dress them. This dressing also works well for uncooked greens such as watercress or lettuce leaves (omit the fried garlic and reduce the dried shrimp powder slightly).
About 1 pound tender greens, such as Taiwan bok choi, baby bok choi, pea tendrils, spinach, or pumpkin or cucumber vine tendrils, trimmed of tough stems and well washed
2 tablespoons thinly sliced shallots, soaked in water for 10 minutes and drained
2 tablespoons Fried Garlic, or a mix of Fried Garlic and Fried Shallots
2 to 3 tablespoons Dried Shrimp Powder
2 tablespoons Chopped Roasted Peanuts
1 to 2 tablespoons Toasted Chickpea Flour
1 tablespoon Shallot Oil, or more to taste
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice, or to taste
1 tablespoon fish sauce, or 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
About 2 tablespoons Fried Shallots
Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Toss in the greens and boil until just tender; timing will vary with the greens, but it should take no more than 5 minutes, and in many cases (spinach, for example) much less than that. Drain the greens and press out the excess water.
When the greens are cool enough to handle, cut them into approximately 1 1/2-inch lengths and place in a wide shallow bowl. (You should have about 3 cups.)
Add the sliced shallots and the fried garlic or fried garlic–fried shallot mixture, and toss a little. Add the dried shrimp powder, peanuts, and toasted chickpea flour and toss. Add the shallot oil and lime juice and mix well with your hands, kneading the dressing lightly but firmly into the greens. Add the fish sauce or salt, as you wish, and mix well.
Mound the salad on a plate, top with the fried shallots, and serve.
Fried Shallots and Shallot Oil
Makes a generous 3/4 cup flavored oil and about 1 1/4 cups fried shallots
Here you get two pantry staples in one: crispy fried shallots and delicious shallot oil. Drizzle shallot oil on salads or freshly cooked greens, or onto soups to finish them. You can fry up shallots each time you need them, but I prefer to make a large batch so they’re around when I need a handful to flavor a salad. The trick with fried shallots is to cook them slowly, so they give off their moisture and get an even golden brown without any scorched or blackened patches. Once they’re removed from the oil and left to cool, they crisp up.
1 cup peanut oil
2 cups (about 1/2 pound) thinly sliced Asian or European shallots
Place a wide heavy skillet or a large stable wok over medium-high heat and add the oil. Toss in a slice of shallot. As the oil heats, it will rise to the surface, sizzling lightly.
When it’s reached the surface, add the rest of the shallots, carefully, so you don’t splash yourself with the oil, and lower the heat to medium. (The shallots may seem crowded, but they’ll shrink as they cook.) Stir gently and frequently with a long-handled wooden spoon or a spider. The shallots will bubble as they give off their moisture. If they start to brown early, in the first 5 minutes, lower the heat a little more. After about 10 minutes, they should start to color. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally to prevent them from sticking to the pan or to each other, until they have turned a golden brown, another 3 minutes or so.
Line a plate with paper towels. Use tongs or a spider to lift a clump of fried shallots out of the oil, pausing for a moment to shake off excess oil into the pan, then place on the paper towel. Turn off the heat, transfer the remaining shallots to the plate, and blot gently with another paper towel. Separate any clumps and toss them a little, then let them air-dry 5 to 10 minutes, so they crisp up and cool. (If your kitchen is very hot and humid, they may not crisp up; don’t worry, the flavor will still be there.)
Transfer the shallots to a clean, dry, widemouthed glass jar. Once they have cooled completely, seal tightly.
Transfer the oil to another clean dry jar, using all but the very last of it, which will have some stray pieces of shallot debris. (You can set that oil aside for stir-frying.) Once the oil has cooled completely, cover tightly and store in a cool dark place.
Fried Garlic and Garlic Oil
Makes about 1/4 cup fried garlic and 1/3 cup garlic oil You can use a similar technique to make garlic oil, but slice the garlic thicker (a scant 1/4 inch), rather than into thin slices, since it cooks much more quickly than shallots. Heat 1/2 cup peanut oil over medium-high heat, add 1/3 cup or so sliced garlic, and fry over medium heat until just golden, about 5 minutes. Lift out the garlic and set aside to crisp up. Store the oil as above. Fried garlic does not keep as well as fried shallots; refrigerate and use within 5 days.
Dried Shrimp Powder
Makes about 1 1/2 loosely packed cups
Dried shrimp are an important source of flavor as well as protein through most of Southeast Asia. In Burma they are often used powdered. The soft powder gives a subtle depth of flavor and also thickens sauces. Look for largish dried shrimp, more than 1/2 inch long if possible, and the darker-colored (more red than pale pink or beige), the better. Try to get shrimp that are a little soft rather than completely hard. The easiest way to grind them is in a food processor (traditionally, they are pounded in a mortar).
1 cup or more good-quality dried shrimp (see the headnote)
Place the shrimp in a bowl with water to just cover and set aside to soak for 10 minutes (20 minutes if the shrimp are very hard and dry). Drain and pat dry.
Transfer to a food processor and process until reduced to a slightly uneven, fluffy powder, from 1 to 3 minutes, depending on the toughness of the shrimp. Pause and wipe down the sides of the bowl occasionally if necessary. Store in a glass jar.
Chopped Roasted Peanuts
Makes a scant 1 cup These are handy to have when you are making Burmese salads, so it’s worth making a cupful or more at a time and storing them in a jar. Buy raw peanuts (in their papery skins or not, it doesn’t matter)—you’ll find them in Asian groceries and health food stores.
1 cup raw peanuts, with or without their papery skins
Place a cast-iron or other heavy skillet over medium heat, add the peanuts, and cook, stirring them frequently with a wooden spoon or spatula to prevent burning. Adjust the heat if necessary so they toast and change color gradually, in patches; as they heat up, the skins, if still on, will separate from the peanuts. When they have firmed up a little and are dotted with color, remove from the heat, but keep stirring for another minute or so.
If using skin-on nuts, carry the skillet over to a sink or a garbage can and blow over it gently to blow away the loose skins. Rub the nuts between your palms to loosen the remaining skins and blow again; don’t worry if there are still some skins on your peanuts. Pick out and discard any nuts that are scorched and blackened.
Transfer the nuts to a wide bowl and set aside for 10 minutes or more to cool and firm up.
Once the peanuts are cool, place them in a food processor and process in short, sharp pulses, stopping after three or four pulses, before the nuts are too finely ground. You want a mix of coarsely chopped nuts and some fine powder. Alternatively, place the nuts in a large stone or terra-cotta mortar and pound with the pestle to crush them into smaller pieces. Use a spoon to move the nuts around occasionally; you don’t want to pound them into a paste, just to break them into small chips.
Transfer the chopped nuts to a clean, dry jar; do not seal until they have cooled completely. Store in the refrigerator.
Toasted Chickpea Flour
Makes 2 cups
For this distinctively Burmese pantry staple, which is very easy to make and store, chickpea flour is simply lightly toasted in a skillet. Chickpea flour is made from ground dried chickpeas (garbanzos) and contains no gluten (see the Glossary for more). The flour is available in South Asian groceries (the common name for it in India is besan), some health food stores, and specialty stores. Keep it in a well-sealed bag in a cool place, as you would any flour.
Make this in any quantity you wish; I usually make 2 cups at a time. Use in salads to add a layer of flavor and texture, and also to thicken sauces and soups, as directed.
2 cups chickpea flour
Place a cast-iron or other heavy skillet over medium-high heat, add the flour, and use a wooden spoon to stir it frequently as it heats and starts to toast. Lower the heat to medium if it starts to brown quickly, and keep stirring to expose all the flour to the heat. After about 6 or 7 minutes, it will start to change color. Lower the heat a little and continue to stir as it gets a little more color, then remove from the heat and continue to stir for another minute as the pan starts to cool. The whole process takes about 10 to 12 minutes.
Transfer to a wide bowl and let cool to room temperature. Store in a clean, dry glass jar, well sealed.
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