Union of Burma (aka Republic of the Union of Myanmar)
Think of the stuff that you know about Burma:
But what else? Candidly, I had never really thought much about this exotic-sounding country, tucked between some of the biggest players in Asia – China, India, Thailand… The potential for deliciousness was sky-high, but I never knew it until I started researching for this entry. Coincidentally, at the same time that I was desperately groping for a reliable source of Burmese recipes, a rightly-acclaimed writer named Naomi Duguid released precisely that: a gorgeous cookbook entitled Burma: Rivers of Flavor. Burmese cuisine is covered so exhaustively, so sensitively and so accurately in this book that I feel a little funny even attempting to add anything to the conversation. Naomi walked the path and now has a brilliant jewel to show for it. Her book was indispensable to me as a reference. So, instead of rehashing what can easily be found in her book, I’m going to get right to the food.
I love noodles. Possibly more than I love myself. They are without a doubt the single greatest accomplishment of our collective human history.
I also love FIXINS. You know that crazed feeling in your heart when you get some fro-yo, and you walk over to the den of sin where they keep the chocolate chips, crumbled Oreos, peanut-butter cups, caramel sauce, etc.? I go batshit crazy. (I also can’t seem to spend less than $10 on a cup of frozen yogurt.) It seems to me that the Burmese get to have that kind of personalized fun at every meal, and I honor them for their spirit. Both of the dishes I’m making for this entry feature a mostly skeletal framework that is augmented by a multitude of crunchy, nutty or spicy fixins that can be added according to each diner’s preference and whim.
For these reasons, my first Burmese dish, and one to which I have excitedly counted down on my list for over a year, is a coconutty, chicken-y, fixin-laden noodle soup called ohn no khao swè. It involves quite a lot of prep work, since most of its elements are prepared separately and then combined at the end – noodles, broth, chicken, hard-boiled egg, shallots, scallions, rice-noodle crunchies, chili oil… There’s nothing too scary going on here, just a lot of elbow grease and numerous dirty pots and pans to wash. But the end result is a marvel.
Without exaggeration, this might be the best soup I have ever had. It’s rich like a chowder, but light and elemental like chicken soup. When you get a good mouthful with a bit of all the garnishes, there is a textural diversity that hits all the corners – Americans, just think of clam chowder with oyster crackers and you’re basically there. The “broth” is more like a sauce, and it has a deep, savory flavor that is permeating without being too assertive from any particular direction. Simmered coconut milk makes a velvety backdrop against which glimmer the flashy jewels of lime, chili and raw allia. There’s also a funky little note of fish sauce behind every sip of the broth, too, which is actually what makes this soup feel “Asian” and not, say, British or American. And the bright streak of Chinese-style la jiao also highlights the wild mix of influences going on here. Overall, it reminds me a little of my favorite Thai soup, tom kha gai, but it’s thicker and earthier thanks to a chickpea flour slurry that is stirred in halfway through. It’s also not so very far in spirit from laksa, another incredible soup that is heavy on the condiments but also a little funkier.
Oh, and the noodles! The noodles. My god.
Ohn no khao swè has been named as the progenitor of numerous variant dishes in Southeast Asia, and a great article on this cultural exchange is available here. I learned a whole lot from this impeccably-researched article, and the photos are breathtaking. There is a lot of controversy over which noodles are the correct ones for this soup – all my Burmese sources pointed to egg noodles, but did not specify a width. So I picked some that looked as thick as the ones I saw in the aforementioned article. If I am way off, I hope someone from Burma might be so kind as to provide a correction… I would not be at all upset at the chance to make this dish again. Heh.
Time for tea! Not to drink though, to eat. Yes, I’m serious. No, not as ice cream.
This stuff was hard to get! I read a great article that mentioned a Burmese Baptist church community in Queens. Sadly, the store mentioned in the article has since closed, so I was out of luck. I emailed the church about where I might find some laphet, but never got a response. (NB: since most laphet in the U.S. is imported and sold illegally, I can’t really blame them for ignoring a random email from some insane white dude. So no hard feelings, my friends! But the embassies of Brunei, Burundi and Cambodia? MAJORLY HARD FEELINGS. Seriously, write me back.)
I then made a sweep of about five or six Asian groceries in Elmhurst and Jackson Heights, but came up dry as well. In a serendipitous twist, a Burmese Buddhist temple in New Jersey was running a food bazaar one weekend, but I really struggled with the wisdom of spending over $100 on transportation to potentially buy about six dollars worth of pickled tea. I finally settled on the boring-but-cost-effective – and supremely sketchy – mail order option. Relatedly, I do hope this little project of mine is worth the constant risk of identity theft and/or credit fraud to which I am exposing myself.
I was a little choosy about the brand of laphet I was buying since I had read that a number of top brands had been contaminated with a cancer-causing dye in recent years. This one, Golden Hinthar, didn’t make the list. I think.
Anyway, when you open a bag of pickled green tea, it smells of jasmine, Froot Loops, rubbing alcohol and new tires. It’s not wet, but it is sticky and a little waxy, kind of like jerky or Twizzlers. Sampled undressed and on its own, it tastes like the smell of a new He-Man action figure, or even like a particularly sour weissbier. In other words, “fermenty”. The twisted little leaves look and feel at first that they will be quite dry and stringy, but after the recommended short soak in water they actually become as tender as cooked spinach.
We’re using this stuff to make a tea-leaf salad, laphet thoke. It has the important social function of being a dish of welcome in Burma, and is apparently eaten constantly. It’s also pretty high in caffeine, which means that people must be just bouncing off the walls in Burma.
The first and easiest step is pounding out the tea leaves with a little green chili. Then you have to get started on the fixins, which, much like those for the ohn no khao swé, require a good amount of prep. Typical toppings for this salad can include sliced tomato, shredded cabbage, roasted peanuts, toasted sesame seeds and an assortment of fried beans. I went for what I had seen included in laphet thoke “kits” on that mail-order site: chana dal (split, dried black chickpeas) and Indian butter beans (aka val dal aka lablab purpureus – I found this at Kalustyan’s). PROTIP: As I and my dentist learned, it is absolutely crucial that you soak these beans overnight before you fry them. If not, they become rock-hard (and burn easily, too).
Once you have all your ingredients ready, you arrange them all on a plate in a pinwheel shape and everyone gets to make their own bowls or mouthfuls as they like. Be sure to squirt on a little lime and drizzle some fish sauce, too. It’s meant to be a communal dish, and serving it this way invites everyone to gather around and catch up with each other.
This salad is actually very refreshing and makes for a fitting dessert after a rich soup. The commercial laphet comes in a few flavors, and I guess I must have chosen the “sweet” option since it ended up tasting that way (there is not much available in the way of Burmese-English translation), which is assuredly better than the “extremely violent spicy death” variety. Load up your chopsticks with a good bite and you get some soft vegetal matter, a little crunch from the beans and a bit of moisture and sugar from the tomato. The beans came out a little darker than I wanted – go for a bit less color if you fry them yourself. Also, expect to be awake for a few days – the caffeine seems rather reluctant to leave your bloodstream. Time to get started on that novel!
Burma, you’ve had a rough go of it, and things are still not going so great. Your snakes are way too big. Your country has a lot of problems, but your people have a lot of good in them and your food rules. I wish the best for you, no matter what your name is.
Now you go:
Ohn No Khao Swé (Coconut Chicken Noodle Soup with Fixins)
2 medium white onions, diced
1/2 inch chunk of ginger, mashed into paste
4 cloves of garlic, mashed into paste
2 shallots, thinly sliced, soaked in cold water for about an hour
2 scallions, thinly sliced
1/2 lb. (250 grams) Chinese or Thai egg noodles (or Burmese, if you can get them – I couldn’t)
4 boneless chicken thighs, thinly sliced
2 tbsp chickpea flour (aka gram flour aka besan flour)
200 ml coconut milk
Small handful of dried flat rice noodles
3 tbsp dried chili flakes
3 tbsp paprika
1 lime, sliced into wedges
2 eggs, hard-boiled, sliced in half
1 chicken stock cube
First make the fixins:
Mix the chili flakes, 1 tbsp paprika and 1/2 tsp salt in a heatproof cup. Heat 1/2 cup of vegetable oil in a small pan. When it’s hot, pour the oil over the chili flake mix. CAREFUL – it will sizzle and spatter. Set aside to cool. This will keep covered for about one week.
Snap the dried rice noodles into small pieces. Over medium heat, add 1/2 cup of oil to a small pan. When hot, gently place the noodles in the oil in small batches. They will immediately puff up. Using a slotted spoon, remove from the oil and place on towel lined plate to drain. Set aside.
Boil the egg noodles and drain. Set aside.
Now make the broth:
In a large pot over medium heat, add about 2 tbsp oil. When hot, add the onions and gently saute. After about 5 minutes, add the garlic and ginger. Let cook for another 10 minutes.
In a small bowl, whisk the chickpea flour with 1/4 cup cold water and then add to the pot. Add 1 tsp of fish sauce and the stock cube. Add 2 cups cold water and bring to a simmer.
While that comes to a simmer – in a small frying-pan over high heat, add 1 tbsp of oil. When hot, add the chicken, a pinch of salt and 1 tbsp paprika. Stir-fry until cooked through. Add this to the pot of broth along with the last tbsp of paprika and the coconut milk. Stir once and bring to a boil. Remove from heat.
Place the egg noodles in deep bowl, then add enough hot broth to just barely cover. Top with shallot, scallion, egg, crispy rice noodle, chili oil, lime and fish sauce as desired.
Lahpet Thouk (Tea-Leaf Salad with Fixins)
5 tbsp pickled tea leaves, soaked in cold water for about 10 minutes and then drained
1/2 cup peanut oil
5 garlic cloves, sliced into thin chips
2 tsp dried chana dal
2 tsp dried Indian butter beans (aka val dal)
2 tsp unsalted peanuts, roasted
1 tbsp sesame seeds, toasted
2 green chillies, thinly sliced
1 tomato, thinly sliced
1 tsp fish sauce
1 lime, sliced into wedges
Soak both the chana dal and Indian butter beans in separate bowls of water for at least 8 hours. Drain and dry thoroughly with paper towels.
Heat the oil in a pan and add the garlic. Fry until golden. Remove from the oil and drain on paper towels. Do the same for chana dal and Indian butter beans. Reserve oil.
Pound the tea leaves and green chili together in a mortar (or pulse in a food processor? I don’t know) until they are well-incorporated. Transfer to a bowl and add 3 tsp of the reserved peanut oil. Set aside for about 20 minutes.
Arrange all the fixins on a round plate or platter, with the tea leaves in the center. Serve with lime wedges and fish sauce as desired. Small bowls and chopsticks would help, too.