With a birthday very close to Christmas, I don’t tend to get very many presents (in contrast to the Geek Goddess who is infamous for receiving gifts from her many admirers months in advance of her birthday). But Lemur Mama came through with something I really wanted: Naomi Duguid’s new book Burma: Rivers of Flavor (Artisan, 2012). I’m a huge fan of Naomi’s writing––and of her approach to culture and food more generally––so I’d been looking forward to the publication of this new book for months.
For this book, she’s been travelling in Burma for years, opening up ways of life and complex political situations from the ground up, in places mostly closed to westerners. The book doesn’t address Burma’s recent political history too directly but rather it is suffused with understanding of Burmese lived experience: what mindset you develop when you have to be careful what you say, what tools people use in the kitchen, what food traditions displaced tribespeople bring with them to a new home and what kids snack on at the market. It’s what Duguid calls an immersive approach to culinary cultures: she pokes around markets, getting to know people through their everyday routines, but she also deploys a huge amount of knowledge with a light touch, keeping curiosity and respect for people’s lives at the forefront. In the same way, the book’s many anecdotes and brief cultural analysis sections are fascinating but the point is to learn about Burmese culture by making the recipes, working yourself into a new way of tasting and enjoying familiar Asian ingredients.
I started with a salad, because you know how I love me some Asian salads. There were a couple of other factors in my choice. Firstly, Burma has a section on fermented soybean disks, or tua nao, which I was thrilled to see because I brought some of these back from Chiang Mai and there aren’t many recipes using them. I tend to use them for Northern Thai fish curries or as a replacement for shrimp paste when cooking for vegetarians, which is all good but I could do with some new ideas. Duguid’s Chinese kale salad offered an opportunity to use my tua nao in a new way. Secondly, and really, this is the kicker, the salad is called Chinese kale with pork cracklings. Hello! Salad with crispy pork skin? I am so there. In a bit of a grocery store mix up, I ended up with chard instead of kai lan, and the tomatoes aren’t exactly delicious in January, but despite all the dish was absolutely sparking with flavour. You might imagine you know how it will taste based on the photo but trust me you do not. It was intense, umami and, what with the pork fat, pretty filling for a salad. I loved it.
I’ve made a few other dishes since then – a turmeric and shallot-rich soup with the pork leftover from the salad, and a fabulous squash and tamarind curry. Next up is spicy pounded Kachin beef and some condiments. I’m basically going to be cooking Burmese food all week. Burma is the best kind of cookbook, introducing recipes, flavours and techniques that inspire you to get into the kitchen and prompting genuine engagement with new foodways and cultures.
Naomi Duguid’s Chinese kale* salad with pork cracklings
*The original calls for kai lan or broccoli rabe. The latter is impossible to find in the UK, so we went for chard which worked nicely taste-wise but really reduces down too much. Next time I’ll go for kai lan. I also halved the recipe so while the amounts given are for 6 people, the pictures show about 3 servings.
- 1 lb Chinese kale/kai lan, broccoli rabe or chard
- 2 tbsp peanut oil
- 1/4 cup minced garlic
- scant 2 cups fried pork skin
- 1/2 cup chopped roasted peanuts
- 1 soybean disk, or substitute 1-2 tbsp toasted chickpea flour plus 1 tsp brown miso
- 2 mild onions, thinly sliced lengthwise
- 2 or 3 Roma tomatoes, cut into thin wedges
- 1/2 tsp cayenne
- 2 tsp salt or to taste
First, make your pork cracklings. Slice the skin off a pork belly (your butcher should be able to score it helpfully) and cut into inch-long slices. Heat it in a dry wok and stir frequently — soon it will begin to render and fry in its own fat. Keep stirring it around until all the pieces are golden, puffy and crisped. Remove and cool. You can keep the rendered pork fat for frying.
Bring a large pot of water to the boil and cook the greens for a few minutes until softened. Drain and set aside to cool. Next, heat the oil in a wok over medium heat (you can use the same one once you’ve poured out the pork fat) and fry the garlic for 2-3 minutes until a rich golden colour. Set garlic and oil aside.
Pound or process the pork skins to coarse lumps and powder in a mortar or food processor (I use a mini-prep) and set aside. Do the same with the peanuts to make a coarse powder.
Lightly toast the soybean disk in a cast iron skillet until aromatic, then pound or process to powder.
Slice the greens into 1/2 inch lengths (I did this before cooking with the chard) and place in a large bowl. Add all the remaining ingredients and use your hands to blend them together thoroughly. Taste and adjust for salt if necessary.
Note: The recipe is from Burma, but I’ve used my own words here and there in describing what I did.