It’s no secret that keeping restaurant hours makes it difficult to spend time with friends and family. The times when most people are relaxing with their families after a day at work, or sharing a drink and a meal with friends are the times when I am most busy at work. When my fellow cooks and I are finally leaving the restaurant and looking for someplace to unwind with a burger and a beer, my friends and family are all in their pajamas brushing their teeth. My parents are leaving this week for a 10-day vacation to Italy and have been hounding me to have lunch with them before they leave. So this week I decided to spend my day off cooking with my Mom.
Although neither of my parents are ethnically Burmese, 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 were followed by my grandparents, aunts and uncles. My early 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, as 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 shredded vegetables and wheat noodles, which my young western eyes were mortified to see my elders eat with their hands, or ohn noh kauk swe, a dish of curried chicken and wheat noodles similar to the Malaysian dish, laksa.
Truthfully, while growing up, I was usually more excited about lasagne night or Chinese take-out than the weird stinky food of my parents’ homeland. It was only after I moved out of state that I suddenly began to long for a steaming fishy bowl of mohingha or the chewy noodles and creamy broth of ohn noh kauk swe. The problem was, I had no idea how to make these recipes. I didn’t even bother with bookstores, which were filled to the brim with cookbooks on Italian, French, Chinese, Latin and now even Thai and Indian cuisine. 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 she grew up with.
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 boiled and deboned a whole fish. She explained 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. She diced two of the onions, and cut a third one into wedges as I helped her peel the garlic and more ginger. She chopped a few cloves of the garlic, which she then sauteed with the diced onions. To this she added the meat of the fish, and seasoned the mixture with fish sauce, a little chili powder, and a little paprika for color. She sauteed the mixture a few minutes longer, then we checked the flavor. I took a pinch of the fish meat and tasted it. The brininess of the fish sauce enhanced the flavor of the fish, while the onions added sweetness. The entire mixture was added to the fish broth and as the liquid came to a boil, Mom seasoned it with black pepper. After a few minutes, she added the onion wedges to the pot. These served as a garnish. “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, which she added by spoonfuls until the stew began to thicken. She explained that traditionally cooked rice is fried, then ground into a powder to use as a thickening agent but that she found corn meal added the same texture with less effort.
We left the mohingha to simmer while my mother pulled out her blender. She used it to blend the garlic and ginger into a paste. This, she explained was added just as the stew finished cooking. “You don’t want to cook it too long after adding the paste,” she said, explaining that the aroma would be lost. As the stew continued to cook 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.”
Finally the stew was just about ready and at the last moment, Mom added the ginger and garlic paste, and slices of cooked fish cake. We tasted the stew again and Mom scrunched up her nose, saying “Not enough garlic. Your Dad always likes more garlic.” Indeed the fresh addition of ginger and garlic brightened up the stew but had not yet imparted much flavor. We let it simmer about a minute more, then Mom tasted it again to find that the garlic and ginger had mellowed slightly and their flavors had further infused the stew. “Now it’s ready,” she said. “Let’s eat.” Dad, who is hard of hearing in one ear mysteriously managed to hear her and appeared in the kitchen immediately, bowl 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. Just as Dad was near the bottom of his bowl 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. He did however, have a second helping, with the fried garlic.
I myself took a small bundle of noodles and ladled the mohingha over it so that puddled around the noodles. All the ingredients except the onion wedges had disintegrated and mixed with the cornmeal to form a very loose porridge. To my bowl I added a couple spoonfuls of lemon juice, and garnished it with raw onions, chopped scallions, cilantro leaves and some hard boiled egg. With each familiar bite I could now taste how each step was essential in building the flavors of the mohingha. Take for instance the onions: the diced onions carmelized in the first step added sweetness and body, the wedges of onion added to the boiling liquid had separated into soft mild petals which absorbed all the flavor of the stew itself, and the raw thinly sliced onion was cold, crunchy and acrid. The garnishes were a cool fresh contrast to the hot steaming fish flavor, and the ginger-garlic paste and lemon juice not only brightened up the flavors, but imparted the signature aroma of the dish. Sure, as I was watching Mom cook, I saw ways in which her recipe might be improved and how I might try it a little differently (I’m suddenly reminded of a kitchen full of arguing aunties…), but this tasted exactly like I remember. After all, isn’t that what comfort food is all about?
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