“Finally here!” are words we hear all too often with every 30-minute-meal cookbook these days, but with the release of Naomi Duguid's latest cookbook, Burma: Rivers of Flavor, it couldn't be more accurate.
If you don't know Duguid, she is the sort of author who works on her cookbooks — cultural studies, really — for years (her previous titles were co-written with Jeffrey Alford). Nor are these travel-inspired cookbooks in the Travel Channel or Food Network sense, but more explorations of Home Baking around the world and dishes Beyond the Great Wall. And now — Burma.
“In writing this book, I decided there was no room for the army in the kitchen,” Duguid says in the book's press release. “I wanted to celebrate the richness of the food cultures of Burma and the vibrancy of individuals. Over my last four years of traveling frequently there, I've seen the start of a remarkable and long-overdue transformation. The country is emerging from the black hole of oppression; laughter and open discussion have returned to tea shops.”
Lucky us, Duguid's frequent travels — she also offers culinary tours to Burma — mean we get to relish in those fried bananas with sesame seeds back home. Get the recipe, and more on the book, after the jump.
Before we get to the recipes, Duguid includes a few bonuses here, like a handful of handy tips for traveling in Burma plus a fantastic glossary. But beyond the recipes, what's most compelling are the photographs and the sidebars that accompany them: Women shopping the market in Hpa'an, a little girl in Mrauk U with a painted design on her face, a grinning elderly Pa-O woman at a rural market south of Inle Lake, another woman in Mytikyina walking to the market with an enormous round squash on her head. (Photos shot on location are by Duguid; Richard Jung snapped the studio recipe photos.) The connection between them? Circle back to Duguid's opening statement, and it's visually evident. These women are vibrant, they are smiling and laughing, they are cooking beautiful dishes.
Dishes like sweet-tart pork belly stew, chicken in tart garlic sauce (with lime juice, ginger and scallions), herbed catfish laap (chopped fish with coriander, turmeric, shrimp paste and dried chiles), crispy anchovies with chiles and ginger, and “fluffy” lemongrass fish — snapper or a similar firm fish simmered so the flesh easily separates from the bones, then sautéed with spices.
Salad recipes are plentiful here, and “one of the best entry points into Burmese cuisine,” advises Duguid. It's not difficult to see why with long bean salad with roasted peanuts, Chinese kale salad with pork cracklings, an “intensely green spinach and tomato salad with peanuts,” and a “punchy-crunchy” cabbage salad with ginger. Among those with more unusual ingredients are one using banana flowers (“like artichokes, tightly layered leaves with an enticing astringent flavor”) and a Burmese tea-leaf salad.
The chapters on Burmese soups (spicy bean thread soup), noodles (Mandalay noodles with chicken curry; egg noodles with pork in coconut sauce), rice dishes (Inle Lake rice with garlic oil and boiled potatoes; peanut and rice porridge), vegetables (tamarind-pumpkin curry) and sweets (sticky-rice sweet buns with coconut)? We could go on for pages.
But we keep circling back to that very last recipe in the book, fried banana fritters in a sesame seed batter. Not only for the snacking potential, but as it demonstrates one of the aspects of Duguid's cookbooks that we've long admired. She isn't merely offering up a culture's recipes, she wants us to understand our oil (Is it hot enough? Is it too hot?) the way a Burmese cook does. And in the postscript, she still makes sure we all get a little “cook's treat” when the hard frying work is finished.
Fried Sesame Seed Bananas
From: Burma by Naomi Duguid
Makes: 24; 6 to 8 servings
Note: If you like spice, Duguid suggests dusting these with chile powder, or serving them with tart-sweet mango or lime sorbet. “They're good for dessert, but almost better as a snack.”
1 cup rice flour
¼ cup tapioca flour
2 tablespoons sugar
¾ teaspoon salt
¾ cup water
1 cup sesame seeds
6 bananas or 12 small tropical bananas
Peanut oil for deep-frying
3 limes, cut into wedges, or sorbet or ice cream for serving (optional)
1. Combine the flours, sugar, and salt in a bowl. Slowly add the water, stirring to make a smooth, thick batter. Stir in the sesame seeds. Set aside for 30 minutes.
2. Peel the bananas. If using large bananas, cut crosswise in half. Cut the pieces or the small bananas lengthwise in half (in either case, you will now have 24 pieces). Set aside.
3. Put out a slotted spoon or a spider by your stovetop along with one or two plates. Set a deep-fryer, stable wok or wide heavy pot over medium heat. Add 2 inches of oil, raise the heat to high, and heat until the oil reaches 360 degrees F. Use a thermometer to check the temperature, or drop a dollop of batter into the oil: If it sinks slowly to the bottom and then rises to the surface, the oil is at temperature. If it bobs right up without sinking or darkens immediately, the oil is too hot — lower the heat slightly; if it doesn't rise to the surface, the oil is not yet hot enough.
4. Stir in the batter, then drag 1 piece of banana through the batter and slide it carefully into the hot oil. Repeat with 2 or 3 more pieces, one by one. Fry, moving the pieces around carefully and keeping them from sticking to one another, until lightly golden and crispy. Lift [them] out of the oil with the spider or slotted spoon, pausing to let excess oil drain off, and transfer to a plate. Repeat with the remaining bananas and batter. Serve hot, with the lime wedges, sorbet or ice cream, if you like.
Cook's Treat: Fritters.
There's usually a little batter left over when the bananas are all fried. Stir in some unsweetened dried coconut (about 3 tablespoons for ¼ cup batter). Use a teaspoon to scoop up dollops of batter and slip them into the hot oil. The delicious fritters will puff a little and be lightly golden and ready in a couple of minutes.
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