NOT LONG AGO, in a modest but attractively furnished house in Culver City, I discovered the fresh, spicy, vegetable-rich cookery of Burma.
My hosts were attorney Thomas Edward Wall and his Burmese-born wife, Denna. I had ended up in their dining room because Wall had noticed a passing reference I had made to Burmese food in one of my articles and invited me to his home for a taste of the real thing.
Burma has no great restaurant tradition, I learned from the Walls, nor has it ever developed a complex court cuisine like those in neighboring China, India and Thailand--from all of whose kitchens it has nonetheless drawn flavors and techniques. Most Burmese cooking is home cooking, then--straightforward, economical and boldly seasoned. The country's national dish--served over rice noodles--is mohinga , a sort of fish soup flavored with lemon grass, turmeric, garlic, ginger and plenty of fresh chiles and given additional substance with thinly sliced pieces of banana-tree trunk--which should be cut, it is said, from the upper reaches of the tree, where the wood is tender.
Denna Chu left Burma (now called Myanmar) in 1971 with her mother, father and six brothers and sisters and emigrated to Los Angeles. Her family was ethnic Chinese and, she says, ate mostly Chinese food at home. "My father wasn't very fond of spicy Burmese dishes," she notes. Nevertheless, about a year before their departure, Denna went to her mother and said, "If we're going to leave Burma and probably never return, we must learn to cook some Burmese food." The two women did so, much to the eventual pleasure of Thomas Wall.
One evening in 1977, Denna (whose Burmese name is Ma Hla Aye--meaning, she says with evident embarrassment, "Miss Pretty and Shy"--took a big, fresh, chile-spiked Burmese salad to the apartment of a girlfriend who had recently had a baby. ("One way in which Burmese food is different from Chinese," she says, "is that salads are very popular in Burma.") Wall was there. "I'd always enjoyed Asian food and spicy food very much," he says, "and when I tasted the salad, I said, 'This is the girl for me.' " The couple married three years later.
Denna hastens to explain that she doesn't serve Burmese food every night. "Usually," she says, "I just make it for company." But she has no difficulty finding the ingredients she needs: vegetables from Asian markets and spices from the many Indian shops in Culver City. She especially likes Indian chili powder, she says, because it's hotter than other varieties.
Wall maintains that mohinga is his favorite Burmese dish. By Burmese standards, though, it is reasonably complicated to prepare--and banana trunk isn't an easy ingredient to find, unless you want to harvest it yourself. Here are two simpler Burmese recipes based on slightly less exotic materials.
Denna Wall notes that the hardest part of the shrimp recipe is having the patience to fry the onions long enough--until they are cooked to the perfect point. "You might have to try it a couple of times before you get it exactly right," she warns.
CURRY SHRIMP WITH OKRA
3 tablespoons peanut oil 1 pound raw medium shrimp, peeled and deveined 2 large cloves garlic, minced 1 1/2 cups minced onion 2 teaspoons fresh minced ginger 1/2 teaspoon turmeric 1/4 teaspoon Indian chili powder 1/2 pound small fresh okra, stems removed, cut in half lengthwise 1 tablespoon Southeast Asian fish sauce (Vietnamese nuoc mam or Thai nam pla) Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in large nonstick skillet over medium-high flame. Add shrimp; cook, stirring constantly, for 1 1/2 minutes or until pink. Remove shrimp and set aside.
Add remaining oil to pan, and reduce heat to medium-low; add garlic, onion and ginger. Cook mixture, stirring constantly, for 20 minutes, adding small amount of water, if needed, to prevent sticking. Lower heat if necessary to prevent burning. Mixture is done when onions are translucent, water (if added) is evaporated and mixture is a reddish-brown color.
Stir in turmeric and chili powder; cook about 2 minutes, continuing to stir. Add okra, 1/3 cup water, fish sauce and pepper to taste. Raise heat to medium-high, cover skillet and cook until mixture comes to a boil. Stir in shrimp, cook about 2 minutes more. Serve with white rice. Makes 4 servings.
Note : Indian chili powder is available in Indian specialty shops and Asian markets; fish sauce can be found in most Asian markets.
SPICY VEGETARIAN SOUP
2 medium tomatoes, cut into 1-inch cubes 1 large russet potato, cut into 1-inch cubes 1-3 fresh jalapeno or serrano chiles (according to taste), seeded and very thinly sliced 1 large carrot, thinly sliced 1 medium onion, thinly sliced Juice of 1/2 lemon 1 small bunch fresh cilantro Salt and pepper
Place all ingredients, including salt and pepper to taste, in a large soup pot or stew kettle. Add 1 quart water, bring to a boil and simmer, covered, for 1/2 hour or until potatoes are tender. Adjust seasoning. Makes 4 servings.
Food stylist: Nicole Routhier; prop stylist: Linda Johnson