What’s Burmese Food? An Introduction & Mohinga Recipe
You’ve probably tried Asian food. Your first forays into the exotic delicacies of sweet and sour chicken, egg fried rice or curry were likely tasted in your local Chinese or Indian restaurant, which every town in the UK seems to have. Unless your family cooked food from the region at home, these food experiences laid the foundation for your Asian food expectations for many years to come. Watching the recent series of Ugly Delicious (David Chang, Netflix, 2020) during Coronavirus lockdown and had me thinking more about this.
Chang, a second generation Korean-American, holds Asian food as superior, and questions why others don’t see it this way. It appears that when eating out, Asian food is cheaper, less of a formal experience and critically reviewed much less often compared with European food. Throughout the series, the reasons for this seem pretty synonymous. Generally, people want the Asian experience - the red velvet carpet underfoot in the Chinese restaurant, the big fish tank with plastic coral and of course crispy and fluffy prawn crackers. It evokes the childhood memory of something different, yet this difference is something you become so accustomed to over time, that anything that offers to take its place can seem overwhelming, or even inauthentic.
In the past 5 years there has been an explosion, especially in larger cities, in the amount of new Asian restaurants on the scene. Thai and Vietnamese are especially thriving as the population becomes hungrier for the next new flavour, something spicier, something trendier. This has meant your average consumer could tell the difference, between what the West perceives to be at least, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Thai or Indian.
Myanmar/Burma is under the radar where food in concerned. The vast majority of media coverage revolves around politics and ongoing conflicts in the region. Myanmar is such an interesting place, a huge melting pot of different ethnicities and cultures. This is compounded by its location, bordering India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand. It has a rich history of diversity and trade - the food culture reflects this, since different ethnic groups supply their own food culture to the greater scene.
In one walk down a street in Yangon, it is extremely likely you would come across at least one tea shop, selling tea and Myanmar classics (fried rice, fried noodles, some form of broth), a shredded papaya or samosa salad stand, served drenched in lime and dried chili, and a deep fat fryer stand, selling crispy chillies, fried vegetables and other such things terrible for your arteries. Personally I like what I call the steam stand, selling steamed corn and various potatoes, perhaps peanuts still in shells, with clouds of steam billowing theatrically from under the bamboo trays.
Yangon is diverse in terms of the types of foods available, due to centuries of migration to the commercial capital. Its Chinese style restaurants selling BBQ skewers and beer are extremely popular, as are its thousands of street vendors. In the north-east of Myanmar, Shan State is known for its fertile land and fresh vegetables, lending to dishes such as Shan tofu and tea leaf salad. Rakhine State to the west is known for its use of chillies, its access to the Bay of Bengal means spicy seafood is its signature. In the southern Tanintharyi region, seafood also reigns supreme, although in the northernmost region Kachin State, pounded salads and the heavy use of fresh herbs are customary.
Most Myanmar dishes have a combination of richness from using fermented ingredients, such as pickled tea leaves and dried shrimp, freshness from using various vegetables and aromatics, warmness from underlying tumeric and chilli, and a saltiness from sauces like tamarind. There are several iconic dishes homogenous to Myanmar which you have probably only seen if you have been to the country and these are eaten on a daily basis by locals. Cooks are happy to explain why their dishes are so good. You should ask, their ingredients may surprise you.
So here is a recipe for Mohinga style noodles, feasible under Coronavrius lockdown providing you have access to a generic supermarket for supplies. Commonly known as Myanmar’s national dish, Mohinga is usually eaten at breakfast time, although it is delicious at any time of day. It is a noodle and broth dish which is the perfect balance between warming, tasty, salty and fresh - it really is a must try.
Mohinga is one of those recipes where everybody has their own take, and each region has its own stamp. In Rakhine it’s spicier with a thicker broth, in Yangon the broth is more delicate - it has more of an earthy flavour due to its use of freshwater fish. Mohinga has various toppings and these vary between regions. Commonplace toppings include fresh coriander, fresh lime, dried chilli, and ‘a kyaw’ - deep fried foods, including split pea fritters and shallots. In this recipe I have based the broth on ingredients that feature in the majority of recipes I have researched and, of course, the variations of Mohinga I have had the pleasure of eating! Unfortunately, banana stem or catfish isn’t widely available in my location, although if I had access to it I definitely would have used it. The same is to be said for yellow split peas. However, using what I had available meant that I chose to indulge in my crispy fried prawn addiction to constitute for the ‘a kyaw’ element.
Burmese Food Recipe: Mohinga Style Noodles
Oil – 2 tbsp
Ginger – 25g minced
Garlic – 3 large cloves minced
Shallots – 230g minced
Lemongrass – 4 stalks
Paprika – 2 tbsp
Dried chilli flakes – 1 tbsp
Tumeric – 2 tbsp
Fish (we used hake) – 230g flesh
Fish sauce – 5 tbsp
Toasted chickpea flour or toasted rice flour – 50g
Shallots – 5 halved
Banana stem – 100g silced (if available)
Boiled eggs (optional)
Rice noodles – 6 nests (or more if you’re hungry)
Crispy things (I made prawns– see recipe below, although in Myanmar it would be a yellow split pea fritter, crispy shallots)
Boiled eggs – quartered
1 egg beaten
Crispy fish skin
If making crispy fish skin, preheat the oven to 200 C.
In a food processor, blend the shallots, garlic, ginger.
Heat oil in a heavy large pan and fry the blended ingredients on a low heat.
Add the turmeric, chilli flakes, and 1 tbsp paprika to the pan. Stir well.
Crush three of the lemongrass stalks with something heavy (and clean) before adding the pan.
Remove the skin of the fish carefully with a sharp knife. Place the skin what would be the scale side up and season well, adding a little oil to its surface. Place on baking paper in the oven.
Add the white fish to the pan, slightly mashing it with the other ingredients as you stir. Season to taste.
One the fish is mixed well and coated in spices, add 1.5 litres of water to the pan to make the broth.
Add the toasted flour to the broth to help it thicken.
Add the fish sauce, season and stir.
Add extra 1 tbsp of paprika and 1 crushed lemongrass stalk.
Leave to simmer, stirring every now and then.
If you are adding boiled eggs to the broth (which is how mohinga is served sometimes), now is the time to add them, cut into quarters. Also add the extra shallots.
Whilst the broth is simmering, you can make the crispy toppings so they are nice and fresh.
Put 100g rice flour seasoned with dried chili, salt and pepper in one bowl, and a beaten egg in the other.
Dip a prawn into the rice flour, then the egg, drain the egg slightly, and then dip into the rice flour once more. Add to heavy skillet pan with 100ml oil heated.
Repeat for all the prawns.
Turn after it begins to crisp, and cook on the other side until golden.
Drain the prawns on kitchen towel.
Add boiling water to rice noodles in a bowl. You do not need to cook these on the hob.
Place the rice noodle portions into bowls once soft. Ladle over the broth.
Place the crispy prawns on top and serve with lime, coriander, boiled egg and dried chilli flakes.
Send us your photos of your mohinga style noodles and tag us @ygncollective!