Shwedagon Pagoda, Rangoon photo courtesy of hsa*ba
In January and February I had a series of unexpected brushes with Burmese cuisine. First, Dave and I 're-found' a Burmese vendor whose food we'd adored on several occasions, until she up and disappeared from her spot just outside KL Chinatown's wet market. Yeechaw is now cooking at another food court in Chinatown. She looks much happier than when we last saw her a couple of years ago (when she had just recently arrived from her hometown of Moulmein and didn't seem to be adjusting so well to life in KL), and her more positive state of mind is reflected in her food, which is better than ever. More to come on that.
Shortly after we found Yeechaw I stumbled upon hsa*ba (the word means 'Please eat' in Burmese), a wonderful website on Burmese food by Tin Cho Chaw, author of the cookbook of the same name. I contacted Cho with a few Burmese food-related questions and, intrigued by both the topic of her book (not many Burmese cookbooks out there, you know) and the fact that her book is self-published, proposed an interview.
Before we could work out the interview Dave and I left for northern Thailand, where we ended up eating quite a lot of Burmese food at various markets and, as part of the assignment that took us there, spent a couple of days on a farm watching a Burmese Shan woman teach 11 North American cooking students how to make lots of extremely tasty Shan dishes (we got to eat them too).
We arrived back in KL hankering for a taste of Burma. Luckily, waiting for me at home was a copy of Cho's book hsa*ba. In the last couple of months I've cooked from it a fair bit, and I've been more than pleased with the results. The recipes are clearly written, easy to follow, and deliver on flavor (my favorites so far: roselle leaves and bamboo curry and tamarind fish). And the book, filled with gorgeous photos by the author and her husband, is as delightful to look at as it is to cook from.
I finally able, a couple weeks ago, to interview Cho by email. After you read the interview, peruse the wealth of material (including videos) on her site - and consider adding her book to your cookbook library.
Thanks Cho, for taking the time to answer my many questions - and congratulations on the recent glowing review of hsa*ba!
You moved to the UK at age eight. What food memories did you carry from Burma with you?
The main road at the top of the street where we lived in Rangoon was a hub of stalls buzzing with life every evening. On our way to Sule pagoda, we would pass by these stalls selling an assortment of sweet snacks made with coconut, palm sugar, and sometimes flavored with pandan leaf. Occasionally I would be treated to these snacks and on hot humid nights we would stop for a faluda or a cooling grass jelly drink.
What was the family diet after you moved to the UK? Was it then - and is it now - easy to find ingredients for Burmese food in London and/or Sydney (where Cho also spends much time)?
Initially it was difficult to cook Burmese food until my mother found a small Chinese store that sold fish sauce and shrimp paste. After that mohingar and other Burmese dishes became more regular. We also ate a lot of British food like fish fingers and chips, baked potatoes with baked beans, though our stomachs were never content unless we ate rice!
Back in the 80s it was fairly difficult to find Asian ingredients in Devon where we lived. I'm glad to see it has totally changed ... In Sydney most supermarkets have an Asian aisle stocked with an assortment of ingredients. The only Burmese ingredient which cannot easily be found is pickled tea leaf, laphet.
When did you become interested in cooking? And in cooking Burmese dishes?
Most of my childhood was spent in the kitchen, where the life of the house was, so I was always interested in cooking. As I am the youngest of four, I mainly watched or helped with the preparations. Then when I left home to study in London, I started to cook Burmese dishes.
Before you went to Burma to research the book, what was your source of Burmese recipes? All from family?
Yes, they were recipes my mother cooked or learnt from her sisters. Some came from my father's family as my grandmother was an excellent cook. She was famous for her soy sauce pork belly amongst many other dishes.
When and how did the idea of a book come to you? Did you know right away you'd go to Burma to research it?
The idea of collecting the family's recipes came about many years ago when I kept having to call my mother or sister for instructions. As time went by, I felt we had altered and adapted the recipes when ingredients were hard to find so the idea of going back to Burma was to rediscover the food we ate in Rangoon. The notion of creating a book to be published slowly evolved from it with the encouragement of my husband and my family.
How long were you in Burma for the book? Did your husband travel with you - if so, had he been to Burma before?
We were in Burma for three weeks which was not long enough. I managed to complete most of the research and do some of the photography. I intended on returning to do more of the photography especially the regional food and people, which have not yet materialized.
My husband, Christopher, came on the trip. It was his first experience of Burma and he absolutely loved it.
Steamed crabs photo courtesy of hsa*ba
Favorite memories from the trip?
My cousin, Min Han, made boiled crab with soy sauce and lime dip (the crabs are on the front cover of the book). It was the best crab I've ever eaten so that will stay with me forever. Both Christopher and I just loved the time we spent in the kitchen, cooking, photographing, and eating.
It was lovely to spend time with my cousins. It brought back all the wonderful memories of growing up surrounded by not only my immediate family but all the aunties, uncles, and cousins.
Were you an avid photographer before you started on this book?
I've always had an interest in photography and when I discovered Steve McCurry I was totally hooked. Majority of the food photography was taken by Christopher as I did the cooking and styling. It was great fun working together.
How long did the book take from idea to publication?
After our trip to Burma in 2004, I had a clear idea for the book but work [Cho is in multi-media design and development] kept me from really starting on it till late 2006 when I decided to seriously take on the project and came up with hsa*ba.
As we are self-published and working mainly in our spare time, it took over a year before we were ready to go to the printers.
Why did you decide to self-publish? What was the biggest challenge?
I had a clear vision for the creative direction and tone of voice for the book. Both Christopher and I have worked in graphic design so designing, laying out the book, and managing printing was fairly straightforward. We both knew that the biggest challenge as a self-publisher would be to market and sell the book as we are a small fish in a big pond.
What's been the reaction to the book?
I've been overwhelmed by the positive feedback from people who bought the book and are cooking from it. I've received several emails that have touched me deeply and certainly made the hard work that went into the book worthwhile. One in particular which I'd like to share is an email from Lynette in Ontario:
'"There is a lovely South Indian restaurant I go to (almost everyday) near my office. On the day I took one copy to the chef (we talk alot about Burmese cooking), he introduced me to two young Burmese boys he had just hired. They are refugees and are helping him to read the titles in Burmese. I had seen the boys before and they looked so scared and sad. Now when I walk in they smile huge sunshine smiles and greet me "Daw Gyi! Hsa*ba!" A deep bow of gratitude for the healing your book has brought them."
Any other Burmese food-related projects in the works?
I'm always researching a new Burmese recipe after talking to my mother. When we're chatting she would suddenly remember eating something while she lived in Shan state or something my father made then we would try to work out how to cook it.
Hand-mixed noodle salad photo courtesy of hsa*ba
What's your favorite recipe from the book?
I love so many of them. I would probably pick hand-mixed noodle salad (let thote) because it is one that is best eaten with family and friends so I have lots of fond memories. I also think there is something wonderful and sensual about eating with your hands.
The recipes in hsa*ba are mouthwatering, yet so many travelers leave Burma saying that there's little good to eat there. Why do think that is?
You're right. Most travelers go to Burma and end up only eating at tourist restaurants or being served food that's 'westernised'. I think it is part of the Burmese nature of being hospitable and catering to the 'guests'. I thought it was interesting that the word used for travelers or tourists in Burma is 'guests'.
Any advice for food-focused folks heading to Burma?
Learn a few names of Burmese dishes. Christopher always got an amazing response from people when he asked for mohingar or sipyan. People went out of their way to take him to the best place to eat a particular dish. Follow the locals as they usually know where to eat the best food and choose busy places so that there is a high turnover and the food will be fresh.
You've spent time in Kuala Lumpur. When was that?
Our first trip to Malaysia was in 2006 and in late 2007 we decided to go back. We thought it would be a great base for traveling to other Asian countries though we spent most of our time exploring Malaysia. Both Christopher and I are durian fans so we ended up staying for the durian season!
Some of my great grandfather's descendants ended up in Penang so I was fortunate to have many cousins to show us all the great food spots.
What's your favorite food from your stays here in KL?
My cousin Angeline took us to so many great places to eat. My favorite is fish head noodles at Taman Danau Desa. She also introduced us to her friend, Derek, who is an absolute foodie and through him we discovered pan meen. Once Christopher and I worked out how to navigate the streets of KL, we started to find other great places like roti canai at Raju and going to SS2 market to eat durian and assam laksa.