Tuesday, July 04, 2006

One of the World's Last Great Secrets

In the following passage from The Glass Palace, a rich, layered, epic novel set primarily in Burma and India cataloging the evolving history of those regions before and during the fraught years of the second world war and India's independence struggle, Amitav Ghosh lovingly describes a meal.

Ilongo left and another place was laid at the table, next to Alison's. Arjun seated himself and Alison began to pile his plate with food.

"We call this ayam limau purut - chicken with lime leaves and tamarind; and here's some prawn sambal with screwpine leaves; and these are belacan brinjals; and over there is some chinchalok with chillies - shrimps, pickled in lime juice; and this is fish steamed with ginger buds..."

"What a feast! And this is an everyday dinner?"

"My mother was always very proud of her table," Alison said. "And now it's become a habit of the house."

Arjun ate with gusto. "This food is wonderful!"

"Your aunt Uma loved it too. Do you remember, Dinu? That time?"

"Yes I do." Dinu nodded. "I think I even have pictures."

"I've never eaten anything like this," Arjun said. "What is it called?"

"It's Nyonya food," Alison said. "One of the world's last great secrets, my mother used to say."

Suddenly Saya John spoke up, catching them all by surprise."It's the flowers that make the difference."

"The flowers, Grandfather?"

Saya John looked at Arjun with eyes that were fleetingly clear. "Yes - the flowers in the food. Bunga kentan and bunga telang - ginger flowers and blue flowers. They're what give the food its taste. That's what Elsa always says."

Burmese food has always fascinated me too, and the following recipe (adapted from Under the Golden Pagoda by Aung Aung Taik) has become a recent favorite. Almost childishly simple to cook, it nevertheless results in a deeply satisfying dish bursting with subtle but complex flavors.

Nananpin Ngakhu Hin
Catfish Curry with Tomato and Cilantro

One 3-pound catfish, cut into 1-inch-thick steaks
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 teaspoon paprika
1 cup chopped tomato
8 sprigs fresh cilantro

Rub the fish steaks with turmeric and salt. Let stand for 30 minutes.

Heat the oil in a large, 3-inch deep frying pan over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, paprika, and tomato and saute until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the water, cover, and simmer until liquid is reduced by three quarters, about 20 minutes.

Lay the fish steaks flat in the pan; do not overlap the steaks if possible. Spoon the pan juices over the fish. Cover, and cook until the fish is done, about 10 minutes. Turn off the heat, sprinkle with the cilantro, and let stand, covered, for about 15 minutes before serving.

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