Burmese cooking borrows freely from its neighbors
I’ve long been an admirer of Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford’s books. Their passionate cookbook-travelogues, posted from the Near, Middle, and Far East, are a kind of cook’s National Geographic — well-suited for the coffee table and leisurely browsing. Often, though, I found them less satisfying to cook from. At times I suspected them of oversimplifying recipes for a Western audience, and the heavy, glossy books made it a bit awkward to use them in the kitchen.
But “Burma: Rivers of Flavor,” Duguid’s first solo venture (the couple parted ways in 2009) strikes a fine compromise between photogenic reportage and cookbook usability. Format-wise, it looks more like a cookbook, with big photographs of finished dishes and more page space for recipes. And Duguid speaks more directly to cooks in this volume, encouraging us to work with unfamiliar yet essential powders and pastes while offering homemade and store-bought alternatives that help bridge the gap between authenticity and convenience.
But most of the time, Duguid evokes the flavors of Burma with ingredients more readily available than you’d expect: fried shallots, toasted chickpea flour, fish sauce, lime, and turmeric. In particular, shallots are to Burmese cooking what garlic is to the Mediterranean: Duguid urges cooks to have both shallot oil and fried shallots on hand (you make them simultaneously). Frizzles of fried shallot render irresistible even the simplest of dishes, like a long bean salad with roasted peanuts and a turmeric-gilded fried rice and peas.
Vegetables seem to borrow freely from Burma’s neighbors. A smoky cabbage stir-fry with oyster sauce and ginger could have sprung straight from the pages of a Chinese cookbook. Yet an okra stir-fry expressed itself in a more South Asian idiom, with a fiery bite from green chili and the caramel crispness of shallots.
The more involved dishes I tried as main courses seemed at times to come out fragrant but strangely watery. A chicken curry from northeast Burma steamed away in a coat of turmeric, ginger, and garlic, only to drown in a thin bath of its own juices. A fish stew began with the heady promise of lemongrass, miso paste, Thai basil, and coriander roots, yet the fish failed to take up the flavors as it simmered. A sweet-tart pork belly stew delivered more of a reward, its broth yellow with turmeric and intriguingly sour with green tomatoes, though you do have to be very comfortable with big chunks of fat to eat it.
Small courses rather than large entrees are the norm in Burma, says Duguid, and that may account for the dilute character of some of the stews, which are scaled to feed four or more. Or perhaps the proteins I bought retained more water. Regardless, I found them a strange contrast to the intense, vibrant salads and sides elsewhere in the book.
A shrimp salad turned out brisk, crisp, cool, and savory from a quick dousing of fish sauce and lime. And two other small dishes showcased toasted chickpea flour, which lends an earthy, nutty note to whatever it graces.
In a memorable chicken salad, razor-thin sliced shallots (soaked to remove some of their bite) provided a pungent crunch, while chickpea flour offered a granular one. And in coconut sauce noodles, one of Burma’s most recognizable dishes, addictive sweet coconut milk and broth gets thickened with that same chickpea flour. Here it lends the soup a satiny texture that bathes fish balls and chunks of chicken luxuriously amid their clouds of noodle.
Change is coming quickly to Burma these days, and perhaps democratic reforms will soon mean that this historically turbulent country opens more widely to casual tourism. In the meantime, Duguid’s thoughtful efforts to capture the taste of the country more than satisfy homebound, curious palates.
Naomi Duguid will talk about and cook from “Burma: Rivers of Flavor” on Oct. 10 at noon at Northeastern University’s Xhibition Kitchen, in the Stetson West Dining Hall, 10 Forsyth St., Boston. For more information contact Deb Fantasia, 617-373-2472, or write to debra