Last Chance Tomatoes in a Burmese-Style Salad

Supposedly, summer bade us farewell several days ago.

The signs are all there: the sun dips lower in the sky, shadows lengthen, and the occasional nip in the air gently reminds me that summer is winding down and autumn is nudging its way in.

However, all around me, nature is playing tricks on me. Blackberries still peek out from their brambly bushes. The Seattle sky remains clear and blue, with daytime temps lingering in the 70’s. And the tomatoes in my dad’s garden continue to grow plump and heavy on the vine, their green hue merging into red.

Three gorgeous heirloom tomatoes sitting in a row

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. I’m relishing each day I can still bare my legs and zip out the door without a coat on. And with every satay stick I grill on the barbecue, I’m hoping it won’t be my last just yet.

This past Saturday, we took a ferry across the Puget Sound and spent a sunny day in Poulsbo where we ate fish and chips al fresco and my son chased seagulls around the marina. The next day, I turned my dad’s ripe tomatoes into a refreshing Burmese-style salad à la Alvina (remember Alvina?). It was a lovely way to commit the last flavors of summer to my taste memory.

Truth be told, I’m not ready to say goodbye.

And you, how are you stocking up on summery memories?

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Burmese-Style Tomato Salad

This tomato salad is loosely based on a Burmese salad Alvina once made for me. Her salad comprised shredded cabbage, chopped tomatoes, lime juice, dried shrimp powder, fried garlic, and the fragrant oil leftover from frying the garlic. I took a few liberties, borrowing some ideas from this recipe on Pranee’s blog. Because I already had store-bought fried garlic bits in my pantry (and yes, because I’m lazy) that’s what I used. But I can vouch for the deliciousness of frying your own. The how-to is available on page 126 of my cookbook (and elsewhere online).

Time: 10 minutes
Makes: 4 to 6 servings

2 tablespoons lemongrass vinegar
1 teaspoon canola oil
1 teaspoon fish sauce
3 medium tomatoes, cut into crescents
1/2 cup cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
1/4 small sweet onion, cut into thin crescents, soaked in water for 30 minutes to tame its bite
1 tablespoon fried garlic, plus more for garnish
1 tablespoon fried onions, plus more for garnish
1 tablespoon roasted pistachios (preferably unsalted), crushed, plus more for garnish
Chopped cilantro for garnish

In a large salad bowl, whisk the lemongrass vinegar, canola oil, and fish sauce together vigorously. Add the remaining ingredients and toss gently. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary. Sprinkle with fried garlic, fried onions, pistachios, and cilantro, with or without abandon.

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Grandma in Living Color

Alvina and Alyssa Mangrai by you.

Alvina and her granddaughter Alyssa making Burmese salad.

 

I have been so blessed to have met and cooked with a wonderful array of women in the process of researching and writing The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook. Learning priceless nuggets of culinary wisdom was one thing, but the experience has also lessened the void of not knowing my own grandmothers. My maternal grandmother died of breast cancer before I was born and my paternal grandmother lived in an entirely different country. Now I have over a dozen surrogate grandmas!

 

Alvina Mangrai, is one of those amazing women. Alvina is my friend Manda’s mom. She migrated from Burma in 1972 and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has a fascinating story (not the least the fact that she married a prince) and you can read all about her when my cook book comes out in September ’09. In the meantime, meet Alvina as she teaches her granddaughter Alyssa to cook in this video from CHOW.com, the first in a series called “Cooking with Grandma.” (BTW, if you live in the Bay Area and would like to feature your grandma, email Meredith Arthur.) You’ll also find Alvina’s yummy recipes for prawn curry and coconut rice on the Web site.

 

Enjoy!

p/s Welcome CHOW.com visitors please explore my blog and leave a comment to tell me what you think!

Burmese Pork Curry

Myanmar, or Burma, as many people still call this pie slice-shaped country by the Indian Ocean  (the CIA Fact Book explains the name change by the military junta in 1989,) has been in the global public eye of late. We’ve read the headlines, we’ve seen the images: a saffron sea of monks flooding the streets of Yangon (or Rangoon), said monks running for safety as uniformed soldiers turned their bullets and batons on the unarmed crowds, and the tired lines that have creased detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s delicate face.

As significant as these latest events are, mine is not a political blog so I won’t elaborate on the political turmoil ravaging this small Southeast Asian country. However, I do believe Burma deserves to be in the headlines but for a very different reason. I’d like to draw your attention to a less controversial subject–food. Burma’s distinct cuisine is hitherto unknown to many of us in the Western hemisphere; that’s very unfortunate and needs to change.

With a population of almost 47.5 million spread across 657,740 sq km of land, Burma has many neighbors, being wedged in between Bangladesh, India, China, Thailand and Laos. So it’s not surprising their cuisine bears influences from these countries, as I discovered during my first Burmese meal at San Francisco restaurant Burma Super Star. Among my favorites: the knockout tea leaf salad (Lephet Thoke), served deconstructed on a giant plate then tossed with flourish at our table, comprised “fermented” tea leaves (the server would not elaborate on the origins beyond “we import it from Burma”), garlic bits fried to a crisp, roasted peanuts, tomatoes, shredded cabbage, dried shrimp and split yellow peas; a combination of tang and salt blossomed on my tongue, courtesy of lime juice and fish sauce as I chewed and crunched through every tasty bite. And their biryani arrived aromatic and vermillion-tinged, a milder riff on the classic Indian dish with its more cinnamon and clove-y notes in stark contrast to the usual up-your-nasal passage effect of chilies and cumin. As you can imagine, my senses were all agog.

Like many avid home cooks, the moment I tasted the remarkable flavors, I wanted to try making it in my own kitchen. There aren’t many Burmese restaurants, certainly none in Seattle where I live, but I knew that Burmese home cooking had to be thriving somewhere on this continent. So I was thrilled to have the chance to chat with my friend Manda Mangrai’s mom Alvina who lives in the Bay Area. (Manda, by the way, is the very talented pastry chef at Marjorie in Seattle.)

Born in Rangoon in 1936, Alvina is half Burmese and half English (Burma was a British colony until independence in 1948). Like many middle-class families in Asia, she had servants and cooks who took care of all the household chores. Alvina was a kitchen neophyte until she and her husband moved to the U.S. with their four children in tow in 1972. “I learnt how to cook in the U.S. because I was missing my food,” she said. “I was asking other people from Burma (in the Bay Area) for cooking tips.” With an excellent critic by her side–i.e. her husband–she was able to recreate her favorite dishes for her five children (and growing contingent of grandchildren which presently numbers 5.5–one is on the way), and even impressed her relatives visiting from Burma!

Alvina explained it very simply, “The more you cook the better you become.” Wise words of advice for any aspiring cook.

In any case, considering how basic and supermarket-available the ingredients are, as demonstrated in the Burmese curry recipe Alvina gave me below, it’s easy to keep experimenting until you get it just right.

Burmese Pork Curry

I have to admit, Alvina gave me this recipe over the phone so I wasn’t sure if it would work without tweaking. But when I cooked it in my kitchen, *boom*, the flavors all came together. You can substitute the pork with any meat of your choice–beef, chicken or shrimp–and for a one-wok meal, throw bite-sized vegetable pieces such as pumpkin, cauliflower or potatoes into the pan together with the meat. The curry itself is not too spicy as the Burmese tend to have side dishes and dips made from chilies and shrimp paste to turn up the heat. The paprika is added more for color than heat, so if desired, substitute up to 1 teaspoon of the paprika with chili powder.

Makes: 4-6 servings

2 pounds boneless pork (I used pork butt), trimmed and cut into one-inch cubes

2 teaspoons turmeric powder

1 tablespoon fish sauce

1 tablespoon light soy sauce

1 tablespoon chopped garlic (about 3-4 cloves)

1 tablespoon grated ginger root (two-inches peeled and grated)

1/4 cup canola oil

2 medium onions, diced (about 2 cups)

2 tablespoons paprika powder

Cilantro leaves to garnish

In a medium bowl, marinate pork with next 5 ingredients. Mix well (your hands are the best tools for this but beware, your nails will be stained ochre by the turmeric so use gloves!) and set aside.

In a large skillet, sauté onions over medium heat in oil until translucent and a little brown at the edges, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add paprika and mix until onions are coated evenly.

Add pork to skillet, turn heat to medium-high and mix well. Cover and cook over medium-low heat for about 45 minutes to an hour until meat is tender. Adjust the heat if necessary, you don’t want the meat to burn.

Check seasoning and add salt if necessary. Garnish with cilantro leaves and serve with steamed jasmine rice.

(yes, I forgot the cilantro leaves!)