I have very limited familiarity with Burmese cuisine. It's a country I have wanted to visit, but I never felt comfortable contributing to a government that was so unabashedly oppressive to its people. For years the military dictatorship used any and all means to crush the slightest dissent. Recent reforms suggest that the country may be transitioning towards a more democratic government. Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and daughter of the man who negotiated Burma's independence from Britain in 1947, was released from prison in 2010 (she had been sentenced to 3 years hard labor because an American had swum across a lake to her house where she had been under house arrest for almost ten years; her sentence was commuted from hard labor to an additional 18 months of house arrest). In May of this year, Suu Kyi was sworn in as a member of parliament.
While this apparent willingness to allow their people a voice is undoubtedly good news for the people of Burma, I fear Starbucks, McDonald's, and Pizza Huts may also be on their way to the country. With the end of isolation, regional and cultural differences may also be threatened. Traditional foods and customs come to be seen as quaint, out of touch with the modern world, kampungan, and are abandoned in favor of mass processed and marketed food that connects to the world outside. One of the worst things I have eaten in Indonesia was a slice of Pizza Hut pizza that my nieces (whose mother is an excellent cook) pleaded for. I still remember years ago when I was traveling in Padang (a city renowned throughout Indonesia for its food) and asked some teenagers where I could find the best food in town. They thought about it and discussed it amongst themselves for a few minutes before telling me, triumphantly, "California Fried Chicken." What will happen in Burma in 20 years?
Fortunately, Naomi Duguid has been visiting Burma and actively exploring its foods and markets for much of the last four years. Burma: Rivers of Flavor, is her most recent cookbook exploring an Asian cuisine. Having first gone to the country in 1980, Duguid's interest in and affection for the people and cultures of Burma are clearly apparent in the photographs and writing. Like her previous books which she co-authored with Jeffrey Alford, Burma is as much an exploration and celebration of the culture and people of the country as it is of the cuisine.
Duguid's books are visually rich with photographs of the lands and people of her focus. They are not traditional cookbooks that simply present a collection of recipes. Cooks looking for elaborately staged photographs of finished dishes or step-by-step photos of how to prepare the included recipes may be disappointed by Duguid's Burma. However, those who are interested in getting a glimpse of this long isolated nation will likely enjoy her anecdotal, informative approach.
The recipes presented in Duguid's book are straight forward, unfussy dishes. Most of the ingredients can easily be found in any Asian supermarket. Shallots, tomatoes, and various herbs (cilantro, lemongrass, Vietnamese cilantro (rau ram--daun laksa) are featured in many of the recipes. I have only tried a few of the recipes so far, but the book contains many that I look forward to trying.
I first served this shrimp curry with roti jala. I have also served it with rice. It is similar to sambal udang, but it is milder than most and contains no coconut milk. For anyone put off by incendiary curries, consider giving this one a try.
Shrimp Curry, adapted from Burma: Rivers of Flavor
Generous 1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/4 cup minced shallots
1 small clove of garlic, peeled and minced
3 TBS peanut oil
1/8 tsp turmeric
1 1/2 cups chopped ripe tomatoes or canned crushed tomatoes
3/4 cup water
2 tsp fish sauce
2 green cayenne chiles, seeded and minced, or to taste
1/2 tsp salt, or to taste
About 1/4 cup cilantro leaves (optional)
1 lime, cut into wedges (optional)
Rinse the shrimp and set aside. (I boil the shells in water, strain and reserve the water and use this in place of the water called for in the recipe.) With a mortar, pound the minced shallots and garlic to a paste.
Heat the oil in a wok or a wide heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add the turmeric and stir, then toss in the shallot and garlic paste. Lower the heat to medium, and cook, stirring frequently, about two minutes until softened but not browned. Add the tomatoes and cook for several minutes at a medium boil, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes are well softened and the oil has risen to the surface.
Add the water and fish sauce, bring back to a medium boil, and add the shrimp. Cook just until the shrimp start to turn pink, then toss in the minced chiles, stir briefly, and remove from the heat. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary.
Turn out into a bowl, top with the cilantro leaves, if using (and they certainly add to the dish), and put out lime wedges if you wish. Serve hot or at room temperature.