I arrive at my parents’ house with a bag of onions, four heads of garlic, a bunch of scallions, and a bunch of cilantro. Mom’s already cooked rice vermicelli, and poached catfish to show me how to make her version of Mohinga, a fish and noodle stew unofficially recognized as the national dish of Myanmar (formerly Burma). She starts by pulling the fish from the bones, explaining that typically catfish is used, but that any firm fleshed white fish would work. Next she sautés diced onions with minced garlic and ginger. As the aroma fills the kitchen, she adds the fish and seasons the mixture with fish sauce, a bit of chili powder, and paprika. After a few minutes of cooking, she checks the flavor – salty, sweet, and briny – and adds the mixture to the poaching broth with another addition of freshly cut onion wedges. “The diced onions disappear,” she says, lifting a spoonful of the stew to show me. She adds a slurry of cornmeal and water a spoonful at a time until the stew began to thicken. Traditionally roasted rice powder is used to thicken the stew, but was hard to find when she first arrived in the U.S. so she started using corn meal to achieve the same texture.
Both my parents are Burmese born Chinese, raised in the capital city of Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon, Myanmar). They emigrated 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. My aunts 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, sending pungent vapors of ginger, garlic and chiles into every room.
As the mohinga simmers my mother purees more fresh ginger and garlic with a little water in the blender. She adds this just as the stew finishes cooking. “You don’t want to cook it too long after adding the puree,” she says, explaining that the freshness would be lost. Meanwhile we prepared the remaining garnishes. I wash and chop scallions, pick cilantro, and squeeze lemon juice while Mom prepares hard boiled eggs and thinly sliced aw onion. “Some people like to add the raw onion, some people don’t,” she says. “But I like it.”
When the stew is just about ready, Mom adds the ginger and garlic paste, and slices of cooked fish cake. Tasting the stew again, she scrunches up her nose, saying “Not enough garlic. Your Dad always likes more garlic.” A minute later she says, “Now it’s ready. Let’s eat.” My Dad is hard of hearing, but immediately appears from the next room, bowl already in hand. I barely have a chance to photograph the table when he’s already helping himself to lunch. He’s almost at the bottom of his bowl when Mom exclaims “Oh, I almost forgot!” and pulls out a jar of fried, minced garlic in oil. “Hmm, I didn’t even miss it,” Dad says, helping himself to seconds, and the fried garlic.
I help myself to a bundle of noodles and ladle the mohinga over it. The thick broth puddles around the noodles. I add a couple spoonfuls of lemon juice, raw onions, chopped scallions, cilantro, and a hard-boiled egg. With each familiar bite I can taste how each step is essential to building the flavors of the mohingha. Diced onions caramelize in the first step adding sweetness and body. The wedges of onion added to the boiling liquid had separate into soft mild petals and absorb the flavor of the broth. Raw thinly sliced onions taste fresh, crunchy and acrid. The cold fresh garnishes add contrast to the hot steaming fish flavor, and the ginger-garlic paste and lemon juice not only brightens up the flavors, but give the dish its signature pungent aroma. When I was a kid, I preferred lasagne or Chinese take-out to the weird stinky food of my parents’ homeland. Only after I left home did I suddenly long for a pungent bowl of mohinga or the chewy noodles and creamy turmeric scented broth of ohn noh kauk swe, but didn’t know how to make them. Bookstores are full of Italian, French, Chinese, Mexican, Thai and Indian cookbooks, but to learn how to make Burmese food I knew I needed to go to the source.
|3 large catfish fillets, about 1-1/2 lbs|
6″ 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