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The taste of Burma

Associate editor online, Nicola Harvey, revives the flavours of Burma with Sean Connolly's Sawtooth and Chilli-Grilled Snapper Wrapped in Palm Leaves.

The taste of Burma

In July of last year, just prior to the country’s election and the release of democracy campaigner and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, I travelled to Burma (Myanmar) for ten days.  Curious to see the country I journeyed from the dilapidated capital of Rangoon to the hills of Kalaw then on to the arid flats of Bagan – an area renowned for its ancient pagoda. For the last three days I headed south through the ravaged Irrawaddy Delta region, which was devastated by cyclone Nargis in 2008, to a tiny village called Ngwe Saung.  

Burma is a tumultuous country.  It is a poor country. But it is also an inspiring place because so many Burmese have retained a sense of optimism. They still believe that one day they will live again in a free and democratic nation.

Given the fact subsistence living is the norm for so many it will come as little surprise that for most the food is very basic. In the hills behind Kalaw I dined with a Nepalese family who lived in a room adjoining their cow shed and cooked on a vast pit of open coals, which doubled as their heating system.  From blackened pots my host carefully served light fluffy white rice, a piquant curry of potato and okra, flat bread, a chutney made of fruit picked from their farm and a runny dal mildly spiced. It was all delicious and so simple.

About half way through my trip my digestive system gave up and, unfortunately, food became more of an obstacle than a pleasure. By the time I arrived at the Bay of Bengal I was living on fruit and sweet coffee. Down to one meal a day the sight of men fishing with long nets on the Ngwe Saung beach and dragging fresh fish up onto the sand filled me with joy.  Fresh fish!

For threes days every afternoon I ate a whole fish grilled on an open air fire flavoured with a sticky paste and fresh coriander.  My stomach settled and my love affair with fresh fish and Burma continued.

Back home in Sydney news on the election, the military junta’s continuing fraud and the status of Aung San Suu Kyi’s impending release continued. Enthralled I couldn’t resist trying to recreate the grilled fish I had eaten in Ngwe Saung. Sean Connelly, the cook behind the wonderful book My Family Feast, provided a few helpful tips on Burmese cooking to get me started. Armed with a fresh whole snapper, a bag of banana palm leaves, a bunch of sawtooth (which is similar in flavour to coriander) another of coriander, ginger, chills and lime I was set for a feast.

I pounded the herbs and other ingredients together rubbed it into the side of the scored snapper, wrapped it in banana palm leaves (which cracked and tore, so I discarded them before cooking; chef’s prerogative) then placed it onto a searing hotplate.  Twenty-five minutes later and it was cooked… well cooked enough, the middle was a little raw.

Fresh whole fish is not hard to find and Sean Connelly’s recipe is terrific, but no matter how hard I tried it didn’t taste as good as it did in Burma. Some meals, in hindsight, should never be reinterpreted.  

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