It’s no secret that keeping restaurant hours makes it difficult to spend time with friends and family. When most people are relaxing with their families after a day at work, or sharing a drink or a meal with friends, I am the most busy at work. When my fellow cooks and I are finally leaving the restaurant and looking for a place to unwind with a burger and a beer, my friends and family are all in their pajamas brushing their teeth. This week, my parents are leaving for a 10-day vacation to Italy and they have been hounding me to have lunch with them before they leave, so I decided to spend my day off cooking with my Mom.
Neither of my parents are ethnically Burmese, but they were both born and raised in the capital city of Rangoon, Burma (now renamed by the current governing power as Yangon, Myanmar). They immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1960’s and sponsored the arrival of my grandparents, aunts and uncles. My earliest childhood memories are of a house full of extended family. The women of the house would sit around the dining room table all morning, gossiping and prepping ingredients for the family’s meals. Later the kitchen would be bubbling and sizzling with home cooked Burmese cuisine, and the pungent aromas of ginger, garlic and chiles permeated every room. My aunts would argue over each other’s recipes for mohingha, a fish and rice noodle stew, unofficially recognized as the national dish of Burma, let thouk, a salad of fermented tea leaves, shredded vegetables and wheat noodles, eaten by hand, or ohn noh kauk swe, a dish of curried chicken and wheat noodles similar to the Malaysian dish, laksa.
Growing up, I was usually more excited about lasagne night or Chinese take-out than the weird stinky food of my parents’ homeland. Only after I moved out of state did I suddenly long for a pungent bowl of mohingha or the chewy noodles and creamy turmeric scented broth of ohn noh kauk swe. Problem was, I had no idea how to make these recipes. Cookbooks on Italian, French, Chinese, Mexican, Thai and Indian cuisine could be found in any bookstore, but there were no books on Burmese cuisine, and there was little on the internet either. So today I asked my mother to show me how to make mohingha. She was only too thrilled that I was finally taking an interest in the food of her homeland.
I arrived at my parents’ house with a bag of onions, four heads of garlic, a bunch of scallions, and a bunch of cilantro. My mother had already cooked the rice vermicelli, and poached the fish. She removed the fish from the pot and pulled the fish from the bones, explaining that typically catfish is used, but that any firm fleshed white fish is suitable. I watched as she retrieved the pieces of ginger she had used to infuse the cooking liquid, saving both to use in the final stew. In a separate pot, she began to saute diced onions with minced garlic and ginger. To this, she added the fish and seasoned the mixture with fish sauce, a little chili powder, and some paprika. After a few minutes of cooking, she checked the flavor – salty, sweet, and briny – and added the mixture to the fish broth. Next she added freshly cut onion wedges to the pot. “The diced onions disappear,” she explained, lifting a spoonful of the stew to show me. She also had a bowl of cornmeal mixed with water to form a loose paste. She added the paste by spoonfuls until the stew began to thicken, explaining that traditionally roasted rice powder was used to thicken the stew, but that she found corn meal added the same texture and was more widely available.
We left the mohingha to simmer as my mother pulled out her blender and pureed more fresh ginger and garlic. She would add this just as the stew finished cooking. “You don’t want to cook it too long after adding the puree,” she said, explaining that the aroma would be lost. Meanwhile we prepared the remaining garnishes. I washed and chopped scallions, picked cilantro, and squeezed lemon juice while Mom prepared hard boiled eggs and thinly sliced another raw onion. “Some people like to add the raw onion, some people don’t,” she said. “But I like it.”
When the stew was just about ready, Mom added the ginger and garlic paste, and slices of cooked fish cake. Tasting the stew again, Mom scrunched up her nose, saying “Not enough garlic. Your Dad always likes more garlic.” After about minute she announced, “Now it’s ready. Let’s eat.” My Dad may be hard of hearing, but appeared immediately from the next room, bowl already in hand. I barely had a chance to take a photo of the table before he started piling garnishes onto his bowl of mohingha and devouring it. He was already nearing the bottom of his bowl when Mom exclaimed “Oh, I almost forgot!” and pulled out a jar of fried, minced garlic in oil. “Hmm, I didn’t even miss it,” Dad said, helping himself to seconds, with the fried garlic.
I helped myself to a bundle of noodles and ladled the mohingha over it so that puddled around them. I added a couple spoonfuls of lemon juice, raw onions, chopped scallions, cilantro leaves and a hard boiled egg. With each familiar bite I could taste how each step was essential to building the flavors of the mohingha. Diced onions caramelized in the first step added sweetness and body. The wedges of onion added to the boiling liquid had separated into soft mild petals and absorbed all the flavor of the broth. Raw thinly sliced onions were fresh, crunchy and acrid. The cold fresh garnishes added contrast to the hot steaming fish flavor, and the ginger-garlic paste and lemon juice not only brightened up the flavors, but gave the dish it’s signature pungent aroma. This tasted exactly like I remembered, like home.
Here is a version of my Mom’s recipe for mohingha, with a few modifications:
INGREDIENTS about 6-8 servings:
3 large catfish fillets, approx. 1-1/2 lbs.
1 6″ piece of ginger, peeled and cut into chunks
4 heads of garlic, peeled
2 medium yellow onions, finely diced
1 medium onion cut into wedges
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
thai fish sauce
corn meal mixed with water
1 bunch scallions, washed and sliced
1 bunch cilantro, picked and roughly chopped
4 hard boiled eggs
1/2 c. fresh lemon juice
Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil, add salt and cook rice vermicelli as directed on the package. Drain, and toss with some vegetable oil to keep from sticking. Set aside.
Bring 4 quarts of water and half of the ginger to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and add the catfish fillets. Lightly poach the fillets until they are just cooked. Remove the fish and the ginger from the poaching liquid. Reserve all three separately.
Using a fork, break up the cooked fillets. Mince 6 cloves of garlic. Combine the remaining garlic, the poached ginger, and the remaining raw ginger in a blender. Blend into a paste, adding water as needed to loosen the mixture.
In a large dutch oven, saute the diced onions and minced garlic until the onions are transparent. Add the fish meat and season the mixture with fish sauce, chili powder, and paprika. Cook for another 5 minutes until all the flavors have blended. Add the poaching liquid, and bring the mixture to a boil. Add the onion wedges. Lower to a simmer, and stir in the corn meal paste. Season with finely ground black pepper and salt. Simmer gently until the corn meal has thickened and the fish fillets have broken up. Add the ginger-garlic paste and cook for one minute.
Serve over rice noodles, garnished with scallions, cilantro, onions, hard boiled eggs, and lemon juice.
More on Burmese cuisine: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuisine_of_Myanmar