Saturday, December 08, 2012

Does she. . . or doesn't she?

carefully photographed, possibly oversaturated
I'm going to finish Burma with a burst of energy and enthusiasm.

That doesn't mean everyone else in the house is going to take part. Last night Owen threw a major fit over the Burmese coconut chicken noodles. Am I allowed to write that a 12-year-old thew a fit? Is this a breach of his privacy? I'll ask.

Me: Owen, come here for a second.

Owen: Coming.

Me: Do you care if I write that you had a fit about the noodles? In the blog?

Owen, shaking his head: I don't care. It's not like anyone's going to get angry at me.

Me: You're not embarrassed?

Owen: Why don't you say, 'I wasn't very fond of them.'

He wasn't very fond of them. And so he threw a fit. A gratuitous fit, in my opinion, because these noodles were the definition of inoffensive. Like: "This tactic used to work when I felt like having a box of Ritz crackers and egg nog for dinner, so let's try it again and see if it still works."

It still works. We were watching Homeland and no one was willing to interrupt the show to fight. Except Owen. I ate the rest of his noodles. Yes, we were eating in front of the TV.

The noodle recipe is here. I served with limes and sliced shallots, but did not make the fish balls, fried noodles, or hard-boiled eggs, though I would recommend doing so. The soup (it is more of a soup than a noodle dish) is mellow, comforting, and delicious, an excellent facsimile of the coconut chicken noodle soup my mother used to order at The Mandalay in San Francisco. If you can't find Chinese egg noodles, you can use spaghetti.

Other Burmese dishes we ate this week

-warming beef stew. Like Naomi Duguid's beef stew with shallots, it had little body and the meat was dry and gray. Indifferent.

-three layer pork casserole with preserved mustard greens. You're supposed to slice pork belly very thin, sear, and cook very quickly with rectangles of tofu, and chopped Chinese preserved mustard.
preserved mustard
I was unable to cut the pork thin enough, so the pieces of meat were big and chewy. The dish tasted good, but wasn't quite right. Freezing the meat would have helped with the slicing.

-Burmese carrot salad. This is the second time I've made Duguid's carrot salad and it is fabulous. Unlike American carrot salads, which tend to be sweet, this is forceful, peanutty, and rib-sticking. Eat with rice and you don't need anything else.

The recipe is a hassle, though, because you need to make three of the salad's components (dried shrimp powder, toasted chickpea flour, fried shallots) before you can make the actual salad. I'm not sure how many people are willing to do this. I'm putting the recipe at the bottom of the post in case you're interested, because this salad is one of my favorite recipes from the book.

-semolina cake. The technique of mixing this was one of the funkiest I've ever come across.

very good likeness
First you toast semolina flour in a skillet (it smells incredible), then pour it into a bowl and mix with brown sugar, coconut milk, water, and eggs. Heat peanut oil in the skillet you used to toast the flour, pour the batter into the skillet, and cook, scraping and stirring, until it turns thick and clumpy. Scoop the dough into a cake pan and pat it flat. Pour melted butter over the top, strew with sliced almonds, and bake.

Duguid describes this as a "version of Indian semolina halvah," something I've never eaten. It isn't at all like Middle Eastern halvah, which is fudgy/chalky. This has the texture of cooled of Cream of Wheat. The flavor is subtle, a little nutty. Is "subtle" another way of saying bland? Maybe. I liked it, though. Mark took a bite, made a face, wouldn't eat any more. Asian desserts aren't for everyone. If you'd rather eat any of these than this. you will probably like Burmese semolina cake. Otherwise, not.

Remember Contac?
-Finally, I used colored tapioca from the Chinese market to make Duguid's tapioca-coconut delight.  Yesterday, I discovered I can boost colors and heighten definition in pictures with iPhoto. Can you tell? Do you think Dolly Parton wears a wig?
Looks like French's mustard. Overdid the saturation.
The bottom layer consists of tapioca cooked with water and sugar. You chill this and then top with a blanket of coconut custard enriched with egg yolks and sweetened with brown sugar. The dish is jelly-like, beady, slippery, chewy, and creamy, all at once. I could eat the whole plate and everyone in the house would be relieved if I did.

Ok, here is the carrot salad recipe.

First, you need shrimp powder. You can make more or less, but I would make enough for additional salads.

1 cup dried shrimp (Chinese markets carry these and you should look for big, dark orange shrimp.)

1. Soak the shrimp in water for 20 minutes. Drain and pat dry.
2. Put in a food processor and grind until reduce to a fluffy pile of fine filaments. Store in a jar in the refrigerator. Mine is still good after 1 month.
 imo, a cool picture
Then you need toasted chickpea flour. 

1/2 cup chickpea flour

1. Spread the flour in a heavy skillet and toast over medium heat, stirring frequently. Lower the heat if it starts to burn. The flour should be sufficiently toasted in 15 minutes. Cool and store in a jar in the cupboard. Mine is still good after 1 month.

Finally, you need fried shallots.

peanut oil to generously cover the bottom of a wide skillet
as many thinly sliced shallots as you and your eyes can stand to slice, but at least 1 cup, as they shrink

1. Heat the oil until a shallot sizzles when you drop it in. Add the rest of the shallots and cook over medium heat, stirring regularly until they turn golden brown. Turn the heat down if you have to do other work in the kitchen; these burn easily.

2. When the shallots are fried, remove from the oil and place on a paper towel to drain. (Keep the oil to use in other Burmese dishes, or, really, anything that would benefit from a hit of shallot flavor.) My shallots have never gotten very crispy, but they're tasty nonetheless. They keep for a few days in a bowl on the counter if you can resist snacking on them.

Now you can finally make the salad. 

Carrot salad

1/2 pound carrots, peeled and grated
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice, or to taste
1 teaspoon fish sauce, or to taste
2 teaspoons dried shrimp powder
1 teaspoon toasted chickpea flour
1 teaspoon minced serrano pepper (or any hot pepper you have)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
1 tablespoon chopped roasted peanuts
2 tablespoons fried shallots
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

1. Put the carrots, lime juice, and fish sauce in a mortar. Pound. Don't try to turn the carrots into a paste, just hit them for a minute. You're breaking down the fibers and pummeling the flavors into the vegetable. 

2. Place the carrots in a serving bowl. Add everything else. Toss. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serves 4, with a little left over.


  1. Carrots are my favorite vegetable, but I am too lazy to make all the things necessary to make this salad. There, I said it. It sounds divine, but if I made it no one in the house would eat it but me. I find this discouraging. How do you deal with it? I am going to make the noodle dish. I am just not going to tell anyone what it actually is when I serve it. I see that you are still not happy with your food pictures, but I must reassure you again that they are fine! Oh, and I admit I do not like any of the Asian desserts I have tried.

  2. wow! youve been busy.

  3. We are squarely in the Asian dessert camp and have had most of the desserts pictured. I am so grateful for the carrot salad recipe! Awaiting your final pronouncement to see if Burma should be on my shelf. I bought my MIL MTBBTB for Xmas because she lived it when they were here at Thanksgiving!

  4. A line I love from Jeffrey Steingarten's book, The Man Who Ate Everything, where he quotes some historical figure as having said, "My first impulse was to fall upon the cook. In an instant I understood perfectly how a race who ate such food must necessarily believe in another God and hold essentially different views of human life from our own....There was a suggestion of soap, wax, pomatum, of unguents, dyes, cosmetics; of everything, in short, most unsuited to enter a human mouth." Steingarten said he feels exactly this way about Indian desserts. As do I.

  5. Do you have a favorite brand of fish sauce to recommend? I tried Tiparos because that's what I could get at Whole Foods, but didn't think much of it. I live in NYC and could easily get to Chinatown if you have a better idea.

  6. beckster -- I wish I could ship you some of my shrimp powder. At some point soon it will be going to the chickens.
    g.lo -- so glad!
    Kristin -- I think I must have some Indian or Chinese genes, complexion and features notwithstanding. I remember that part of his book. Doesn't he have something against blue food, too?
    witloof -- I use Squid, but I don't think it's the best. I just bought a bottle and it lasts forever. Andrea Nguyen recommends Viet Huong's Three Crabs and Flying Lion's Phu Quoc brands. My father bought a bottle of one of those and shared some and it was much lighter than the Squid.

  7. Beckster stole my brain, or palate, or at least my comment. Also possibly my family, as I too am the only one in the house who would eat the carrot salad. Sigh.

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