After I recently wrote about a favorite Indian egg curry recipe, someone on Instagram suggested that I try the Burmese version. The person actually extended a future invitation to his mom’s house to underscore the merits of the Burmese version. I was intrigued and instead of waiting for the actual invite, I opened Burma Superstar, a new cookbook by restaurateur Desmond Tan and veteran cookbook author Kate Leahy (a friend of mine).
I perused the book last night and this morning, bookmarking a lot of recipes to try. I own a handful of Burmese cookbooks and this one doesn’t make the cuisine exotic in any way. It explains and informs.
What is Burma Superstar? It's a restaurant in the Bay Area and the first of its kind in America to have a dedicated cookbook. Its story is cross-cultural and transnational, just like Burma, which represents an unusual blending of South Asian (Indian), East Asian (Chinese), and Southeast Asian (Thai) traditions. As a result, the flavors of Burmese cuisine are a little spiced up, a bit hot, and there’s soy sauce and fish sauce.
Kate traveled to Burma multiple times with Desmond and worked with Burma Superstar staff to write the book. It’s a restaurant book but also one that reflects on what it takes to present a relatively obscure cuisine in America.
For a sense of place, there are location images in Burma and at the restaurant, all shot by photojournalist John Lee (the same photographer who took the studio images for The Pho Cookbook). Burma Superstar bridges the Pacific to offer recipes that are solid and accessible. Cultural and technical tips throughout lend insights to help cooks master the cuisine on many levels. You want to make these dishes and can do it with ease.
Love Burmese platha (a rich flatbread described as their version of croissant)? There are not only thorough instructions but also a short story on the man who makes it for the restaurant. When things veer from tradition, Kate points it out in an honest manner. For example, there’s a recipe for shan tofu but Burma Superstar chefs like a version made with wheat starch and cornstarch to firm things up and make the tofu crisp in the fryer.
In this egg and okra curry recipe, Kate points out, “In Myanmar, cooks fry hard-boiled eggs to help them hold their shape in this classic curry, but not everyone is a fan of the ensuing rubbery texture. Frying isn’t actually necessary: adding the eggs at the end preserves their shape just fine.” She and Desmond have tweaked things to make Burmese food doable for American cooks but they’ve also produced a soulful book. I thank them for that balancing act.
Signature dishes like tea leaf salad are well written in the book, but starting out with a recipe like this one (all ingredients are readily available) allows you to explore the cuisine with few obstacles. Some notes on how things went:
How does Burmese egg and okra curry compare to the Indian version? While you may use yellow onion, shallot lends a remarkably wonderful pungent-sweet flavor at the front end and back end when you add some right before the curry is served. Fish sauce adds savory depth and the use of ground cayenne and fresh chile is a double hit of heat. The okra makes the dish heartier but not heavier. You can boil 6 medium eggs instead of 4 large ones, if you want to serve 6.
A couple of notes about the eggs: It doesn’t matter what color they are so long as they’re tasty ones, Rachel Khong, author of All about Eggs, confirmed. I boiled one brown one and three white ones for 8 minutes (see this post for hard-boiled egg tips). That's because I like the yolks to be slightly creamy.
Usually, older eggs peel easier than fresh ones but today, an older brown egg and its thickish shell peeled with pock marks. The fresh white ones had thinner shells. Both were from the same farm. If that happens to you, no biggie. The imperfect white gets hidden in the sauce! I ate the curry on its own. My husband enjoyed his over rice.
What I’m saying is, cooking is full of surprises, no matter how long you’ve been doing it. There’s always something new to learn. That's why I love cookbooks. This one is a keeper.
Egg and Okra Curry
Yields: 4 servings
- 1/4 cup canola oil
- 3/4 cup finely diced shallots or yellow onion
- 1/4 cup minced garlic
- 1 to 3 Thai chiles, sliced crosswise, or 1/2 jalapeño, seeded and minced
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
- 1/2 teaspoon paprika
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, or 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 cups grated Roma tomato, or 3 cups diced Roma tomatoes (about 6 tomatoes)
- 8 to 10 1/2 ounces okra, tops trimmed, cut into 2-inch pieces
- 1 cup sliced shallots or yellow onion
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce
- 4 hard-boiled eggs
- 1 cup cilantro sprigs, roughly chopped, for garnish
- In a 4-quart pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Stir in the diced shallots and cook until softened, about 1 minute (this will take a few more minutes if using onion). Add the garlic and chiles, decrease the heat to low, and cook, stirring frequently, until the garlic has begun to turn golden but has not started to brown, 1 to 2 minutes. (If the garlic starts to stick to the bottom of the pot, turn off the heat for a minute and stir, letting the garlic cook off the heat to avoid scorching it.)
- Stir in the turmeric, paprika, cayenne, and salt. Add the tomatoes and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes lose their shape and form a sauce, about 10 minutes. Stir in the okra, sliced shallots, and fish sauce and cook for 2 to 3 minutes more or until the okra is just tender but not mushy. Season with more fish sauce or salt if desired.
- Cut the eggs in half. Nestle the eggs, cut-side up, in the pot and bring to a simmer. Gently stir the curry, ensuring that the eggs hold their shape, until the eggs are heated through. Include 1 or 2 egg halves in each serving. Serve with a bowl of cilantro sprigs at the table. Generously add the cilantro for a final flavor burst.
Adapted from Burma Superstar, copyright © 2017 by Desmond Tan and Kate Leahy. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.