Thursday, July 12, 2012

Recipes from Burma

This week we're in a land of extra large snakes and yummy food, two facts that are thankfully unrelated. 

Burma is home to the Burmese python, a snake that can grow up to 13 feet in length (the largest known specimen was a captive python just shy of 19 feet). It is also home to Burmese rolls and duck and potato curry. I know I'm a little biased because I don't actually think I've ever met a curry I didn't like, but if these two recipes are anything to go by I'm going to be cooking a whole lot more Burmese food.

Burma is in South East Asia, and though it's actually the second largest country in the region its place in modern world consciousness has been kind of overshadowed by its neighbors. India gets more attention for its call centers and US exports of incredibly smart people, and China gets more attention for being, you know, China.

Burma is wealthy in resources but poor in everything else. Its people are, for the most part, poorly educated. Its resources are mismanaged and its infrastructure is abysmal, which means that the products it does produce are difficult to move around and out of the country. And according to the World Health Organization, Burma's health care system ranks dead last out of 190 countries. Oh yeah and don't forget about all the child labor and human trafficking.

But it does have good food, which is of course very small compensation for all those things. Traditional dishes have a heavy Chinese, Indian and Thai influence and rice is the primary staple. Burma has 1,200 miles of coastline, so fish is a prominent ingredient in many Burmese recipes, even those that don't feature it. In fact I ran into one or two dishes that called for shrimp paste, which of course made me run away screaming. Here are the first two dishes I finally settled on (as already mentioned):

Burmese Rolls
(This recipe comes from

  • 2 tbsp oil
  • 2 tbsp finely chopped onion
  • 8 oz ground lamb
  • 1 tsp ginger garlic paste
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp hot madras curry powder*
  • 2 tbsp finely chopped cilantro
  • 2 green chiles, finely chopped
  • 1 tbsp rice vinegar
  • 1 cup bean sprouts (I used a lot less)
  • 1 dozen egg roll wrappers
*This is my interpretation, since the recipe just called for "hot spices."

Beh Thar Aloo Sipyan (Duck and Potato Curry)
(This recipe is from Burmese food blogger Tin Cho Chaw. More at hsa*ba.)

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce
  • 1 small-sized duck, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 4 small waxy potatoes, peeled & cut into halves
  • 1 large onion, quartered
  • 4 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 3 whole dried chillies, soaked in hot water
  • 1/2 tsp paprika
  • 1/2 cup peanut oil
  • 5/8 cup water
I also chose a fairly simple rice dish as a side:

Pe Htaw Bhut Htamin (Butter and Lentil Rice)
(Another one from Tin Cho Chaw)

  • 1 cup basmati rice, rinsed and drained
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1/4 cup split dried chana dal, soaked for 8 hours
  • ½ teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 2/3 cup water
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 cinnamon stick
And finally, this sour dipping sauce, which I chose at the very last minute based on ingredients I had on hand (I realized as I was cooking the rolls that I needed something to dip them in). I actually do not have the source for this one because I was in such a hurry I forgot to save it (if it's your recipe let me know):

  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 1 tbsp fish sauce
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 chopped garlic clove
  • 1 chopped green chili
  • 1 tbsp cilantro, minced
The duck is slow-cooked (in fact I ended up just finishing it in my crockpot) so that's where we'll start.

If you're lucky enough to find boneless duck meat at the grocery store, you can skip the first part, which is actually more time consuming than anything else I did for this meal. Of course I've never so much as cut up a chicken, so maybe you won't find the process of cutting the meat off of a whole duck as godawful as I did.

I should mention that this was the first time I've ever cooked duck, so I was a little surprised by how little meat is actually on one. I kept wondering if I was missing something. And of course there's the part where I have to get out a microscope and remove every piece of fat I can find at the subatomic level, for fear my husband will throw his meal in the trash, which is not easy under the best of circumstances and duck has a lot of fat. When I was done I had a pretty small bowl full of meat, probably about the equivalent of two small chicken breasts.

So after you've cut your duck up into small pieces, mix the turmeric with the salt and fish sauce and toss it with the duck. Put it in the fridge and let it marinade for 30 minutes.

Now put the onion, garlic and dried chilies in a food processor. Pulse until you have a smooth paste.

Heat the oil over a hot flame and fry the potatoes until they are lightly browned on all sides. Now take them out of the oil and set them aside. Put the duck pieces into the same oil and lightly brown that, too. With a slotted spoon, take the duck out of the pan and set it aside.

Now put the onion paste into the oil and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until it turns a rich reddish brown color, which should take 15 to 20 minutes. Now, the recipe was very explicit here about how much oil to use (not enough and the onions will burn, making a bitter sauce). Frankly, I thought it probably didn’t need quite as much oil and if I did it again I would probably cut back just to see what happens. I might even strain the onions when I was done cooking them. Don’t misunderstand me, the curry was delicious, but I don’t think it needed to be that oily.

Add the paprika and cook until fragrant.

Now put the duck and potatoes into the pan and add the water. Cover the pot and simmer for 45 to 60 minutes, stirring occasionally. The meat should be tender. (Note: this is where I just moved the whole thing to my crockpot).

Now for the Burmese rolls, which were easy except for the part where I had to translate the recipe.

The ingredients were in English (mostly), but the instructions were in Burmese. Now, if you’ve ever tried to translate, say, a Spanish or French recipe, you already know how hilarious Google Translator can be. Now try doing something in Burmese. Haha. Fortunately, it’s not too hard to figure out how to make these, even without explicit instructions such as “Then the flame light-inch should fry and frying pan golden brown. Flavored rule are ready.”

Lucky for you, I’m going to give you the instructions in English, amusing though the Google Translated version is.

First brown the onions in the oil. Now add the ginger-garlic paste and the ground lamb. (Note: the original recipe only said “mince,” but since beef is not widely eaten in Burma I chose to use lamb. You could probably use beef as well, if authenticity isn’t too important to you.)

Add the curry powder, pepper and salt to taste. Continue to cook over a medium flame until the meat is cooked through (about 10 minutes).

Add the cilantro, chili peppers and vinegar. Stir until the peppers begin to soften up a little. Remove from heat and let cool.

Lay out one egg roll wrapper so that it is oriented as a diamond shape. Put a line of about 1 tsp of filling on the wrapper and top that with a few bean sprouts.

Roll the bottom point of the diamond over the filling, then fold over the two middle points of the diamond.

Then roll up completely, keeping the seam side down. Continue until you’ve run out of filling.

You can deep fry these to make them a little more even, but I pan fried mine. They were slightly doughy as a result (which Martin actually liked). To pan fry, just add about a half inch of oil to your frying pan and keep turning until golden brown on all sides. Serve hot with sour dipping sauce.

And since you’re now wondering how to make the sour dipping sauce:

Mix all ingredients together in a small bowl. Serve.

Now finally the rice.

Thank goodness for 50 year old pressure cookers, because I’m always forgetting to soak beans and lentils, which is what happened this time.

This recipe calls for chana dal, which is essentially a split garbanzo bean. They do need to be soaked for about 8 hours, though 12 minutes in a pressure cooker under about two inches of water will work just as well.

After you’ve soaked or pressure cooked the dal, rinse the basmati rice until the water runs clear. Now put the rice in a pot and layer the dal on top. Add the remaining ingredients and the water.

Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and cover. Simmer for 15 to 20 minutes or until all the water has been absorbed. Let rest for five minutes before serving.

I know I’ve already gushed about this meal, so I will bore you some more with some additional gushing. As you know, not every Travel by Stove meal really wows me, but this one did.

The rolls were crispy and delicious (Martin’s favorite part of the meal), and the sour dipping sauce went surprisingly well with them since it was literally something I threw together at the last minute. Everyone in my family ate and enjoyed them, which is really saying something.

When Hailey learned what the main course was, she exclaimed with a great amount of shock, “You mean you can eat duck??” Which I thought was funny coming from a girl who has eaten kangaroo.

Now I personally haven’t eaten a lot of duck, in fact, the sum total of my experience with duck is the one or two times I’ve had crispy duck in a Chinese restaurant. So this was practically my first experience with duck as an actual meat (vs. a potato-chip like substance). I actually thought it tasted more like beef than it did like chicken, which surprised me a little. It was very good, though as I said I found the whole curry to be excessively oily. It didn’t detract from the flavor or anything, I just thought all that oil was kind of unnecessary. Next time I will also cut the potatoes up into smaller pieces, since I found the large occasional chunks a bit strange.

The rice had just a little hint of cinnamon and the dal just gave it that extra textural interest. It was a perfect side for the intensely flavorful duck.

I reserve only my favorite Travel by Stove recipes for the Robins Family Cookbook, and all four of these dishes got enough stars to become family favorites (with a tweak or two). I might try the duck curry with chicken next time, just for simplicity sake, but other than that I have to say I probably won’t make a whole lot of major changes. Burma is definitely in the top 10 of my favorite countries so far.

Next week: Burundi

For printable versions of this week’s recipes:


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