Burmese food is getting so hot in L.A. that even Anne Willan, our doyenne of French cuisine, is cooking it.
Well, not every day but one time, for a cookbook launch at her home in Santa Monica. What lured her into the kitchen was The Burma Cookbook: Recipes from the Land of a Million Pagodas (River Books) by Robert Carmack and Morrison Polkinghorne.
Here's the connection: In the '70s, Carmack was a trainee at La Varenne, the elite cooking school in France founded by Willan. Over the years, they have kept in touch, and Willan wrote the foreward to the book. "When I heard he was coming to Los Angeles, I said, 'we must have a party with Robert's food.'"
Carmack and Polkinghorne live in Sydney, Australia, and conduct tours to Burma (now Myanmar) and other sites in Southeast Asia. They use Burma rather than Myanmar in the title of their book because the food represents the last 100 years there. Some of the recipes came from Rangoon's historic Strand Hotel, which was a colonial hangout. In Rangoon (now Yangon), the book is sold as The Strand Cookbook. (Check out their website The Globetrotting Gourmet.)
Willan and her staff spent two days cooking. Sometimes Willan added her own touch, such as putting a tangy fish salad into Belgian endive leaves. "We needed something crispy," she said.
A cauliflower and asparagus salad ("nice and simple and vegetarian") also went into endive leaves. Boning goat and extracting meat from sinew to put on skewers "was a bit of a fiddle." There were spicy lamb skewers too, and, for dessert, a rich semolina cake that turned out "rather nutty, almondy and really good."
Such food isn't new to Willan, because she's been to Burma. The food "was not as vivid as I expected," she said, meaning it wasn't as spicy as Indian or Thai. She had afternoon tea at The Strand ("nice, old fashioned") and chose The Strand's Pegu Club cocktail for the book party. "It was very sort of English to me," she said. When a non-alcoholic pineapple cooler didn't move as quickly as the gin-based Pegu Club, she rescued it with a generous pour of whisky from her cupboard.
Meanwhile, the two authors mingled with the guests and signed books. Polkinghorne, who handled design and photography, turned the book into a sumptuous evocation of Burmese culture, history and cuisine. The food, Carmack's focus, represents the country's historic hodgepodge of people - British, Eurasian, Indian, Chinese and indigenous.
Recipes range from mohinga, the fish and noodle soup regarded as a national dish, to The Strand's tuna tartare and lobster thermidor. There's also a Burmese version of Trader Vic's famous crab Rangoon. And Willan was delighted to find in it one of her favorite dishes, kedgeree, an Anglo-Indian concoction of fish, rice and hardboiled eggs.
The tangy fish salad that she made is called nga thoke in Burmese. The secret of its flavor, Carmack says, is lemon basil. So look for that, now that basil is in season.
Tangy Fish Salad (Nga Thoke)
From: The Burma Cookbook, by Robert Carmack and Morrison Polkinghorne
Note: Anne Willan's variation is to spoon the salad into crisp Belgian endive leaves and serve as an appetizer.
Makes: 4 servings
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon Asian chili powder or hot paprika
2 (6-ounce) fish fillets such as sole, dory or tilapia
2 teaspoons salt
3 tablespoons seasoned oil (oil from cooking onions, garlic, ginger)
1/3 cup finely sliced pink or golden shallots
2 small green chiles, seeded and cut into strips
1 to 2 limes, freshly squeezed
Pinch granulated sugar
½ stalk young lemongrass, white part only, very finely chopped
1 teaspoon fish sauce
½ bunch lemon basil, leaves only, coarsely chopped
1 cup coarsely chopped Chinese celery
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1. Put on gloves and rub the turmeric and chili powder into the fish fillets, using 1 teaspoon of the salt. Fry in the seasoned oil over medium-high heat, preferably in a non-stick pan. Turn once, cooking about 3 to 4 minutes in total. Remove from heat, cool and break the fish into large chunks.
2. Meanwhile, briefly soak the shallots and green chiles in lime juice with the remaining 1 teaspoon salt and the sugar. At the last minute before serving, stir in the lemon grass and fish sauce. Gently toss the fish with the shallot mixture and the basil and serve on a small bed of Chinese celery.