Saturday, February 25, 2012

Tales from the banana frond

The earliest memories I have of food are the smells of gently frying onion, garlic and ginger wafting from our Grandmothers' kitchen and watching her stir the onion/garlic/ginger 'paste' which forms the basis of Burmese hin, or curry (not strictly speaking a curry, but similar). I can imagine the smell right now as I type this, the smell slightly sweet as often in her hin she used some tomato paste or fresh tomatoes. My Grandmother's (bless her soul) cooking was heavily influenced by Indian cuisine as she spent many of her formative years in India, having made the long and deadly trek from Rangoon to India during WWII. The smells from her kitchen were often tinged with curry leaves and cumin seeds, especially if she was making her famous pepperwater (rasam) soup which was one of my favorites.

Other notable dishes of hers were; her pilau rice with Duck curry; her mince fry with rice (made all the more special as she made crispy potato triangles to sprinkle over the mince rice); her kala hin (Indian-style curry) with tamarind and vegetables; her meeshay (rice noodles with chicken hin)...the list goes on! Her cooking was a pseudo Burmese-Indian hybrid cuisine which I imagine is a similar style for any Anglo-Burmese of my generation anywhere in the world. If you haven't had Burmese food before, a lot of people say it's like Thai/Chinese/Indian food - I agree to an extent, but Burmese cuisine has a taste unlike any other. The mixture of saltiness (usually from fish sauce or ngapi - fish paste), tanginess (from lime, lemon or tamarind) and spice (fresh or dried chilli) are the cornerstone of most Burmese dishes and what makes it unique. There is a paucity of Burmese restaurants in most places in the world so most non-Burmese people would either have to befriend a Burmese family or travel to Burma (Myanmar these days) in order to get a taste of real Burmese food.

If either of those options are not likely and you just can't wait, here is a pretty straightforward recipe based on my Mother's Amehnat, or tender/stewed beef. There are many variations of this dish (As can be seen at any one of our family gatherings) but the basics remain the same - stewed tender beef in a rich gravy. Serve with steamed jasmine rice for a nice alternative to a curry night.

Amehnat - Tender beef (Lemongrass/beef curry)

1kg Chuck Beef, cubed (doesn't have to be a good cut of meat due to the slow cook)
5 peeled cloves garlic
2 large onions or 8-10 shallots
5 cm piece fresh ginger, skin removed
3 stalks lemongrass, bruised
3 tbsp Oil - canola/sunflower
2 tbsp Paprika
2-3 tbsp Fish sauce - good quality (Squid brand/Tiparos/Tra Chang)
Splash dark soy sauce(optional)
1 cup water

(1) Pound the garlic, onion and ginger in a mortar and pestle (or food processor if you can't be bothered)
till a smooth paste.
(2) Place the garlic, onion, ginger paste plus beef, lemongrass, oil, paprika, fish sauce and water all together
in a large pot. Give it a good stir so all the ingredients are well mixed.
(3) Place the pot with lid-on on stovetop on slow-medium heat for 1-2 hours (till meat is tender). There should
be a rich, brown/red sauce remaining in the pot. If the sauce dries out before the beef is tender, add water.
If too watery, leave lid off and reduce for 10-15 mins.
(4) Optional - add a splash of dark soy sauce towards the end of cooking process. This gives the dish a nice
molasses colour and a kick of flavor.
(5) Serve hot with jasmine rice and a vegetable dish.

NB. I have done tests (as have many of my Aunts) and this style of "all in the pot" cooking produces more tender beef than frying the onion/ginger/garlic paste separately and then browning the meat.

Be brave and give it a try and let me know how it turns out! If you're keen on learning more Burmese dishes go to this excellent site.

For a more in-depth treaty on Burmese cuisine go here.

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