The National Dish – Burmese Mohinga
While on a recent trip home visiting family in Southeastern Minnesota, my uncle was telling me about the large Burmese population that’s moving into the area. He said he had made friends with some of the families and asked them to cook a traditional Burmese meal at his church. That sounded like such a genuine experience. I started wondering where I could make some Burmese friends of my own. Then I thought, wait. Hold on. What exactly is a traditional Burmese meal? I racked my brain for references to Burmese dishes and the mental Rolodex was blank. Maybe some curry? Rice noodles? Seafood? What do I even know about Burma? I know that the government prefers the country be called Myanmar—a lot of upheaval, civil war, general unrest, mixed cultures and groups of peoples. Though the past of Burma/Myanmar is interesting and complex, this isn’t a Wiki-history lesson or An Idiot Abroad recap; we’re here for the food.
I was curious about the cuisine, so after a little research I found lahpet, fermented tea leaves which can be eaten alone, mixed with a nut and tomato salad or drunk as tea. Hmm, curious indeed. Let’s catalog that on the list of “sounds intriguing but not necessarily appealing.” I noticed a lot of mentions of ngapi, a fermented fish or shrimp paste, which I found well-stocked and in abundance at the international grocery store—very pungent. Then, I stumbled on what’s considered by many as the national dish, mohinga, a Burmese fish and noodle breakfast soup (yes, breakfast soup). I was sold on the idea of breakfast soup immediately. Why? I couldn’t tell you, exactly. Maybe the idea of hot, steamy, fishy noodle broth topped with various accoutrements sounded irresistible first thing in the morning.
The soup is started with a base of red chilies, onion, garlic, ginger, cilantro stalks, lemongrass, turmeric and paprika—some of the most fragrant and delicious flavors out there. Then, things get weird. Banana stems, banana blossoms, shrimp paste, tamarind pulp and gram flour are a few of the less familiar ingredients on the recipe list. The finished product is then topped with a buffet of the eater’s choice—fried onions, cilantro, hot peppers, hard-boiled egg, fried chickpeas, the kitchen sink. As far as a recipe list goes, it seems there are at least as many recipes of mohinga as there are people who have ever made it, ever. And so I decided that would go for me, too. I pulled up half a dozen recipes, caught the gist, and then went with what was available at the international grocery store and what sounded good. One recipe called for paprika; one didn’t. Who doesn’t like paprika? In it goes. One recipe called for lentils; one called for chickpeas. Chickpeas it is. Unfortunately banana stems weren’t available (though fresh and canned banana blossoms were), so I used water chestnuts as a substitute.
The actual preparation wasn’t complicated. I started by sautéing the base with the shrimp paste in some peanut oil. Shrimp paste is interesting stuff. It’s extremely viscous. You could roll it in a ball and play marbles with it—a very sticky, odorous game of marbles. The smell can only be described as brown. Brown, sweet, salty, sea paste. If that doesn’t make sense to you, go get some shrimp paste and smell it. Then I added the rest of the fruit (because why wouldn’t there be fruit in this fish noodle breakfast soup?)—banana blossoms and tamarind, the vegetables—water chestnuts, and the legumes—smashed chickpeas, as well as gram (chickpea) flour to help thicken the broth. I opened the can of banana blossoms, not knowing what to expect. I found that they looked identical to artichoke hearts and tasted similar, with just a little brighter flavor and none of the toothsome quality the outer peels of artichokes can have. From there I just added stock, brought it to a boil and then added some pre-made rice noodles and uncooked white fish. I used swai, a sort of Asian catfish. The noodles and fish need to cook only a few minutes, five or so, with a few tablespoons of fish sauce. When I make this again, I’ll keep the noodles separate. After I ate my dish and the rest of the pot had sat on the stove for a few minutes, the noodles absorbed all the broth. Reading about mohinga online, I learned that the street vendors who sell it apparently keep the broth in one pot, the noodles in another and the toppings in separate containers.
The toppings. Oh, the toppings. The whole dish was delicious, but the toppings were my favorite part—fresh cilantro, lime and thinly sliced red chilies, sliced hardboiled egg and fried onions battered in gram flour. Apparently, there are many more options for toppings including a “Chinese donut.” That sounds very promising, as the only thing that could possibly improve fruit-laden, crustacean-flavored, spicy breakfast fish soup is a deep-fried donut. I might have gone overboard with the amount of toppings I used. I just don’t know. I’ve never been to Burma and watched the locals prepare their early morning mohinga.
I’ve never been to Burma to test a seasoned professional’s breakfast soup. I’ve never seen him sprinkle on the toppings, adding just the right amount of cilantro (or as the recipes called for—coriander leaves) or chilies or fried Chinese donuts. Hopefully I will get a chance to try some of this authentic Burmese cuisine one day while walking the streets of the capital, Nay Pyi Taw, or Yangon, the largest city. All I know is—either way—I’d ask for extra donuts.