Monday, August 27, 2012

Magic Mission Of Burma

I have occasionally  posted about Magic here, including excerpts from  Eliphas Levi's History of Magic, Joshua Trachtenberg's Jewish Magic and Superstition, even an odd piece about ancient Nabatean magic beliefs, which was probably fanciful and built (appropriately) on a foundation of sand.

My own personal form of magic, i.e., my only magic trick, is the ability to empty rooms when preparing “fishy” foods at home.  It never fails.

Here are two great fishy recipes from Burma taken from Under The Golden Pagoda, The Best Of Burmese Cooking by Aung Aung Taik (San Francisco, Chronicle Books, 1993).  The first is for Ngapi Ye, a Burmese anchovy sauce similar to other Asian fish sauces (as well as ancient Roman garum), but distinctly different also.  The second is for the Burmese staple condiment, Balachung.  

Ngapi Ye (Anchovy Sauce)

Among Burmese, there is a saying:  “If one hasn’t eaten ngapi ye, one isn’t a true-blooded Burmese.”  Though I call it a sauce, it is actually a dish unto itself.  One simply enjoys it together with any raw vegetable and steamed rice.  In Burma, true ngapi ye is made from fermented dried fish, which many foreign noses find quite impolite.  Some say it is worse than Limburger cheese.  Kipling referred to it as “fish pickled when it ought to have been buried.”  With the availability of canned anchovies in America, this dish can be made in a diplomatic manner.  For those seeking a more authentic version, look for bottled fermented fish in any Asian market.

2 cans ( 1 ¾ oz. each) flat anchovy fillets in olive oil, drained, or 4 oz. bottled fermented dried fish
½ cup water
¼ cup shrimp powder
1 ½ teaspoons crushed dried red chile pepper
¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 ½ tablespoons finely minced garlic

Combine the shrimp and water in a small pan over medium heat.  Bring to a boil and boil for 5 minutes, stirring and mashing the fish with a wooden spoon.  

Remove from the heat.

In a small bowl, combine the mashed fish with all the remaining ingredients and mix well.

Serves 4.

Balachung (Shredded Dried Shrimp Condiment)

Like ngapi ye, the anchovy dip, balachung (which is also called pazunchauk ngapi gyaw), is widely eaten as a condiment with meals.  Or it is simply eaten alone with plain steamed rice.  When a Burmese family travels, a container of  balachung is always at hand.  Stored in a closed jar at room temperature, it will keep for three months.  Spread it on toast to make delicious sandwiches.

1 cup dried shrimp
1 yellow onion
1 cup vegetable oil
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
8 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons crushed red dried chile pepper
2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
2 teaspoons granulated sugar

Shred the dried shrimp in a blender and set aside.  Cut the onion in half vertically and slice the halves thinly to form crescent-shaped fans.

Heat the oil in a frying pan over medium heat.  Add onion and turmeric and cook until the onion begins to color, about 3 minutes.  Add the garlic and continue to cook until the onion and garlic are golden brown, about 6 minutes.

Add the shredded shrimp, paprika, salt, chile pepper, vinegar, and sugar and stir-fry for 3 minutes.

Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature before serving.  Save the leftovers in a closed jar.

Serves 6.


NOTE:  Here is a funny story about Burma.  A long time ago, shortly after we acquired our first cat, U, Caroline and I had dinner at a Burmese restaurant in downtown Manhattan.  We wanted to try Burmese cuisine and this place, New York’s first Burmese restaurant as I recall, had opened to good notices.

We had a wonderful meal and, chatting to our waiter, we revealed that our cat had a Burmese name.  Although U was a female Russian Blue, we originally intended to adopt a Burmese cat and had decided on the name “U” after U Thant, the famous United Nations Secretary-General.  

Our waiter looked at us quizzically and then went into conference with a couple of colleagues.  Soon all of them were merrily laughing.  Being nice guys they explained that “We are all U.”  What they meant was that we had given our girl cat a name meaning “Mister” in Burmese, which was funny.  

Tiny, beautiful, magical (she could de-and re-materialize more effectively than any other cat I’ve known except for Claude, our Persian), and quite fearsome, the name completely suited her.  Years later when a neighbor’s  son came to our house to drop off a book, he brought his nice but yappy dog with him.  

As we opened the door, U silently sprang from a hiding place stretching her arms and claws in what cat books describe as “full display” position.  Caroline cried out “U-sie, U-sie, stop!”  Greg looked at her and said “You named your cat Uzi?”

I’m quite certain I could live happily on a diet mainly consisting of rice, these condiments, tea and sometimes wine, beer and the occasional dose of something distilled.   

This is great, sustaining and optimistic brain and spirit food.  


  1. Heh. I have a Google Alert for Mission of Burma - I play guitar in the band, and we had a new album just come out, hence my interest. I was pleasantly surprised to see these concrete recipes instead of something about the band! I have copied them and plan on trying them out soon. I am, of course, a fan of Burmese food, when I can find it. Love that Ngapi Ye!


  2. I'm awfully glad this found you, then. Please visit again and hunt around here. You might find more items that pique your interest. I hope so. Best, Curtis