I've whinged aplenty in my day about the lack of Burmese food in Chicago, a deficit much smaller nearby cities like Fort Wayne and Indianapolis don't suffer due to their relatively large and fairly established immigrant populations. There are only about 2,000 Burmese in Chicago, most of them recent arrivals, so it's difficult if not impossible to satisfy one's craving for sour mustard tofu or pickled tea leaf salad (unless you want the packaged kind).
But it's become a lot easier to make your own since the publication of Naomi Duguid's excellent, James Beard Award-nominated Burma: Rivers of Flavor last September. This weekend that's exactly what Friend of the Food Chain Kristina Meyer did, throwing down a massive 11-dish, 12-condiment Burmese feast at the lakefront. You can do it too: all but one of the ingredients required were sourced in Chicago Asian markets. A few of the highlights follow.
- Mike Sula
- Tatsoi and rapini with pork cracklings
This is the one dish Meyer outsourced—to me. And it contained the only ingredient we had to get in Fort Wayne: tua nao
, dried fermented soybean-paste disks. These are usually gently toasted, pounded into powder, and added to food to boost its umaminess. Duguid's recipe calls for Chinese broccoli, but I used a combination of rapini and tatsoi, boiled briefly and shocked in cold water, then tossed with the tua nao
, crushed peanuts and pork rinds, cherry tomatoes, garlic oil, shallots, cayenne pepper, and salt.
Burma's Shan people make a pale yellow tofu out of chickpea flour. Deep-fry it and it's a creamy, crunchy one-two punch. The photo of it in Duguid's book doesn't look as messy as this does, but this was my favorite thing of the day.
Burma's national dish, fermented tea-leaf salad. A fantastic combo of crunchy texture and funky flavor. You can find the tea leaves at Golden Pacific, but Meyer says they're not as good as the stuff from Fort Wayne.
Thin wedges of eggy goodness, suffused with curry flavors.
- Fish cake salad with shaved cabbage
"Great hot-weather food," says Duguid.
The best part of this meal was finishing off with a pile of rice and accenting each bite with dollops of the many condiments, which included chile oil, deep-fried shallots, kachin salsa (made with green cayenne peppers, tomatoes, and dried shrimp powder), tamarind chutney with shallots and dried chiles, and a fish-paste-based sauce whose name says it all: "pungent essence of Burma." Not many of these dishes were aggressively spiced or seasoned, but these sauces and pastes more than made up for that.