The Burma Cookbook: A feast for the eyes – and the belly

Myanmar food took centre stage when Robert Carmack and Morrison Polkinghorne’s The Burma Cookbook was named World’s Best Asian Cookbook of the year at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in 2015. We sat down with the authors to find out how their favourite dishes went from plate to page. 

Over a decade in the making, and inspired by over 20 years of travels in Myanmar, The Burma Cookbook – sold in Myanmar under the title The Strand Cookbook – traces the history of the country over the past century. Authors Robert Carmack and Morrison Polkinghorne had exclusive access to The Strand hotel’s archives during their research.

“As The Strand is the country’s most prestigious address, with its great reservoir of history, we used it as a linchpin to tie the book together,” said Carmack, a food stylist by trade who has written five cookbooks. “The book profiles the history of the country and incorporates recipes from the colonial era. People have asked me why we included recipes like lobster thermidor. Well number one, because Myanmar has some of the world’s best lobster and, number two, this hotel has served it for a hundred years,” he said.

burma-cookbookPhoto: Aung Myin Ye Zaw

The book, which Carmack describes as “much more than a cookbook”, features photographs taken by Polkinghorne during the couple’s visits to Myanmar over the past two decades, as well as background about the country and its history. Every element of the cover and inside layout was designed by Carmack and Polkinghorne themselves, using images and illustrations collected over the course of their travels.

“The print inside the dust jacket is from a 1956 Christmas card Robert found in Mandalay,” said Polkinghorne, a textile designer who specialises in making 18th-century French-style tassels. “We said we wanted to print the back of the dust jacket and they said ‘No one does that!’ So we said, ‘Exactly!’”

Visiting Myanmar for the first time since the book was published in 2014, Carmack says he has seen changes in Yangon’s food scene which he believes are inspired in part by The Burma Cookbook.

“Since the book has come out, I’ve noticed restaurants are starting to serve crab Rangoon. The Rangoon Tea House serves deep fried fritters and Union has Scotch eggs. Yes, they’re classic recipes, but I never saw any of that in Myanmar until this book came out. I’m not going to take credit for it, but I will take credit for spiking an interest in the old colonial recipes,” he said.

Carmack and Polkinghorne, who together host culinary tours to Southeast Asia and write a food blog known as Globetrotting Gourmet, say the bad reputation Myanmar food has with some foreign visitors is misguided.

“Burmese cooking is nuanced. It’s subtle. They do use a lot of oil, but it’s slowly cooked, imbued oil – not fried oil. It brings a unique flavour,” said Carmack.

Myanmar’s food scene has changes considerably since the pair last visited. What do they think about the city’s emerging restaurant culture?

“I’ve had a lot of indifferent food during this visit. I won’t tell you where,” said Carmack. “I think in the future chefs in Myanmar will go with the colonial theme … But I hope they will be responsible enough to keep recipes authentic and not bastardise them.”

He continued, “I hope they will also use local ingredients and not start importing everything. We’ve been in love with Sharky’s since we discovered it years ago, and one of the reasons U Ye Htut Win [owner of Sharky’s restaurant] is so great is that he does Western food, but he does it with Myanmar ingredients.”

The Burma Cookbook contains 175 recipes collected from all over the country.

“Over 20 years, you get to eat a lot. We talked to every restaurateur we met and asked them how they made things. The semolina cake recipe we have in the book is an accumulation of recipes from so many tea houses we’ve been to,” said Morrison, adding that his favourite recipe in the book is the glossy black pork.

“It’s oily, but oh my god is it good,” he said.

And here is the recipe, so that you can have a go at making it yourself.

Glossy black pork (wet thani hin)
From The Burma Cookbook by Robert Carmack and Morrison Polkinghorne

This ebony stew is a favourite at Myanmar spreads. Use either pork rump and belly and retain the thick rind for texture. There are three distinct sorts of Chinese soy – light, dark and thick sweet – but labels can be confusing. In essence, the last is thick jet black caramel colouring and only sometimes includes actual soy; it is especially flavoured in slow braises such as this.

“When I’m cooking it at home I put five spice and chilli powder in it,” said Carmack. “What you need is a really thick black glossiness to the marinade.”

Glossy black pork
Serves 6

750g boneless pork rump, leg or belly, with rind
3 tablespoons (45ml) thick sweet soy sauce (kecap manis)
1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger
2 small onions (90g) minced
4 garlic cloves, minced
60ml oil< br/>1 teaspoon Asian chilli powder
½ teaspoon salt
250g pink or golden shallots or small boiling onions, peeled but left whole
3 tablespoons grated palm sugar or white sugar

Prick the pork rind all over with a fork or a needle. Cut the meat into 1.5-inch/3-centimetre cubes, then rub in the soy sauce and ginger, kneading well. Marinate for at least 2 hours or overnight.
Puree the onion and garlic in a blender, drizzling in some of the oil to facilitate. Gently fry over a moderate flame with the remaining oil for about 5 minutes. Combine with the pork and marinade, plus chilli powder, salt and boiling water to barely cover – about 250 millilitres. Reduce the heat to low, partially cover and simmer for 1 hour, until the pork is just tender. Increase the heat slightly and add the whole shallots and sugar. Cook uncovered for a final 30 minutes. Add more boiling water if required, but remember the finished dish should be relatively dry, not soupy wet.

The Burma Cookbook (2014, 392 pages. River Books Publishers) is available from The Strand and Monument Books(K35,000).

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