Monday, January 14, 2013

Burma: earnest summation

I agree with almost everything this reviewer writes about Burma by Naomi Duguid. It's an important book, an informative book, a beautiful and thoughtful book about a little known country and cuisine.

Having said that, I did not find the recipes to be universally spectacular or even universally good. Of the 26 recipes I made, an alarming number fell on the bottom of the ratings chart. Check it out:

worth the price of the book (Kachin pounded beef)  --- 1
great --- 3 (the silky Shan soup, the carrot salad)
good -- 9
so-so -- 12
flat out bad -- 1 

Looking through my notes, I find "not that great" scrawled in the  margin of the recipe for three layer pork with mustard greens and tofu. On the next page beside the recipe for lemongrass ginger sliders: "not my thing in terms of flavor -- very pungent." Next to warming beef curry with tomato: "Unimpressed. Thin. Small chunks of meat in thin spicy broth."

What I'm remembering are a lot of dishes that didn't quite take off, lacked zip, needed serious tinkering. It's always possible the problem was in the execution, but there are enough mediocre results here that it can't be all my fault. And maybe it's not even Duguid's fault. Myanmar hasn't exactly prospered over the last few decades, culturally or economically, and why wouldn't its cuisine reflect its troubles? Why wouldn't its beef stew be thin? It feels snotty to dip into a book about Burmese cooking and complain that not every dish pleases my dainty Western palate.

So let's pretend I didn't just do that and move on to my rapturous praise for the handful of dishes that were totally stunning. Long after I've forgotten the meals I didn't love, I'll remember those that I did, because the winners here were among the best things I've ever cooked. They were so incredibly good I don't regret for a minute buying this book and devoting a couple of months to cooking from its pages.

I'm talking about three dishes in particular: Kachin pounded beef with herbscarrot salad, and the strange, wonderful silky Shan soup.  These happen to be the most exotic dishes I tried in the book and I'm wondering if that might be more than a coincidence. The Kachin beef and carrot salad both involved pounding the central ingredients to break down their fibers. The soup, thickened with chickpea flour, was like a dense, scrumptious porridge. Are the real rewards in Burma found among the recipes that take us furthest from our comfort zone? Did I do myself and the book a disservice by gravitating toward the easier, more familiar dishes?

If I were to throw myself into the book anew I would go straight for the Shan tofu salad made with Shan "tofu," which is not in fact tofu but a simple paste of chickpea flour that you cut into squares. Duguid calls it "one of the great unsung treasures of Southeast Asia, beautiful to look at and a pleasure to eat." I would make the Kachin rice powder soup with chicken and ginger, which appears to be another divine porridge. I'd make the Inle lake rice with garlic oil, which involves kneading jasmine rice with boiled potato, poached fish, and garlic oil. The recipes that call for kneading or pounding -- those are the ones I'd pick if I had it to do over. I'm almost tempted to dive back in.

The book isn't perfect, but given the dearth of books about Burmese cooking, I'm calling it a shelf essential. 


  1. I was going to ask for your summation early, but here it is! I made the carrot salad again and it was gone in a NY minute. The Shan tofu caught my eye as well, will put that on the list. Thanks so much for all your advice throughout the year.

  2. Very interesting. I've been hesitant to dive into this book because I've heard mixed reviews on the recipes (and Duguid/Alford recipes in general).

  3. I'm glad you wrote this; I bought this book on first hearing of it, and now own three copies (long story). As a big fan of Burmese food I thought this book would get a lot of use but after going through it I didn't find very many recipes that enticed me. I think it's a shelf essential too, but not a kitchen essential.

  4. Just to rule out one of the possibilities, we have a Burmese restaurant in my city. The food there is varied and highly spiced (and spicy) and completely delicious. A lot of what you made was also unfamiliar to me, so I don't know what to think.

  5. I appreciate reading your experiences cooking from Burma. I bought it for my brother, and before giving it to him I cooked a few recipes to see if I should grab a copy for myself. I made the Golden Egg Curry, which we all loved (I've never fried hard boiled eggs before - quite good, and the spicy sauce is terrific), the Peas for Many Occasions (I've made black-eyed peas twice now and inhale them - love the combo of fish sauce and lime juice to flavor) and a cabbage salad that was rather ho-hum. I'm leaning towards getting the book now so I can make the recipes you recommend here. Thanks for sharing!

  6. I bought this book a month or so ago, and have made a few recipes from it--mostly fish ones as my partner doesn't eat meat--and I'd agree that they're a mixed bag. As a friend said, "a lot of squeezing for very little juice." However, I've made the okra shallot stir fry several times, would make the traveler's eggplant curry again, and found the chicken salad burmese style easy and tasty for lunch. Actually, that last recipe was an outlier not only because it was so easy but because the portion size seemed huge compared to her other recipes. Maybe it's just my American palate, but her recipes that fed four were more like 2-3 servings round here (though maybe that's because you're supposed to serve a bunch of side dishes too).

  7. Marta Ramirez7/19/13, 2:56 PM

    Hi all I bought the book I m from Argrentina, and I m looking for the translation of the Kachin rice powder soup with chicken and ginger in original Burmanes language, as I do south asian food and I allways put the original name in my menues. Thai and Vietnam names are more easy to find. The only problema I found in the book thast all dishes name are in english and node is is original name. If someboy could help me I will be really happy