One of the first friends we made in Chiang Mai is a kid named Gangi. He's 19 years old, built like a professional football player and an avid biker, with a recently opened bicycle repair shop. Ganji is the son of a Burmese father and an English mother but has called Chiang Mai home his entire life. Of course the first thing we asked him was where we should eat. He did us one better and took us out to dinner. We were expecting Thai food. Instead he brought us to Burmese Restaurant and Library. Paige and I sat down while the young man shuffled about looking in pots, pointing at things and chatting with the cooks. Soon he sat down and in minutes an unprecedented feast arrived at our table. So started our love affair with Burmese food.
The dishes ranged from the familiar-- richly spiced, Indian-style curries-- to things we had never imagined. Shan rice is a glutinous mush made of steamed rice, tomatoes, fried garlic and herbs smashed together by hand. A perfect dish for dipping in curry. A plate of tannic, tangy young tamarind leaves simply dressed with crushed peanuts, oil and salt blew our minds. While Paige and I stuffed our faces Gangi explained: the reason the food is so diverse is because Burmese people are so diverse. There are seven major racial minority groups in Burma. Shan rice refers to the Shan people, a group descended from southern China. They are the largest minority group in Burma and their culinary offerings are essential to a Burmese menu.
Biryani, an aromatic rice studded with cardamom and cloves, represents the Indian population of Burma. For centuries, Indian influence has been at the heart of Burmese culture. The introduction of Buddhism and culinary offerings like Indian curry and naan bread are some of the notables. In recent years, political turmoil has caused a sharp decline in the Indian population in Burma, but their cultural legacies remain ingrained in the nation's soul. Each bite of food we took that night told a story.
When we finished eating it was clear we had only read the blurb of an epic saga. Then Gangi did something I have never seen a 19 year old kid do: he got the bill. Despite protestations and insistence that he let us pay, he simply replied, "It's cool, I'm Asian; it's what we do."
We have gone back to Burmese Restaurant and Library at least once a week since then. The woman who runs the restaurant introduced herself to us as Sandy, although her name in Burmese is Mya Mya Thein. She married a Thai man 15 years ago and moved to Chiang Mai, where she has lived since. The restaurant opened 10 years ago on the bottom floor of a building her husband owns. When we asked why she decided to open a restaurant she thought for a moment and enthusiastically answered, "I love cooking!" I suspect that if we spoke Burmese we would get a more complex answer, but her love for serving Burmese food is evident in her flavors and in the way she runs her restaurant. She is a patient, kind woman who deals with tourists and natives with equal care and grace. Recently, she agreed to let us cook with her. One of the dishes we made was a Burmese-style tomato sauce. She laughed and remarked, "This is good for a party: add shrimp and it is shrimp curry, add fish and it is fish curry, add egg and it is egg curry. Three dishes from one tomato sauce!" We enjoyed the sauce as is with a plate of steamed rice. This is our adaptation of her tomato sauce.
Burmese Tomato Sauce
In general, the tomatoes in Southeast Asia are tart and crunchy, with very little moisture to yield. That being said, plump, sweet tomatoes would of course be very tasty in this recipe, but are not necessary. Their higher moisture content would change the cooking time and texture slightly. Cooking tomatoes concentrates the sweetness and flavor, so even the Southeast Asian tomatoes become sweet and soft when prepared this way. Remember that when choosing the fruit for this recipe. The yield will be around two cups of sauce.
1/4 cup neutral oil
3 large cloves of garlic, coarsely chopped
8-10 fresh tomatoes, around 1 pound, stems removed and coarsely chopped
1 large shallot sliced about 1/8 inch thick
1 scallion, greens coarsely chopped, white part sliced about 1/8 inch thick
3 sprigs of cilantro (stems included) coarsely chopped
1 green Thai Birdseye chile, or Serrano chile, coarsely chopped
1 Tbsp fish sauce
Salt to taste
1. Heat the oil in a wok or a wide sauce pan on medium-high heat. The pan you choose will hold everything in this recipe at once. Try to choose something that doesn't crowd the ingredients, but also isn't so big that liquid will evaporate very quickly.
2. Add the garlic and shallots and cook until golden brown.
3. Add the tomatoes. With a wooden spoon stir and smash the tomatoes into a coarse pulp. Continue to regularly stir and smash until the sauce has significantly thickened. The oil should separate from the pulpy tomato mixture.
4. Remove from heat and add the scallions, cilantro and chiles. Season with fish sauce and salt.
Eat Burmese tomato sauce with steamed rice and hard-boiled eggs, or use it as a dip for crudités. This recipe can also be used as a base for soups or stews.