Restaurant cookbooks don’t exactly have a reputation for being easy. Between modernist food styling, expensive ingredients and complex, multi-day garnish preparations, they ask a lot of a home cook, often enough that the books end up sitting on a coffee table instead of pressed open on the kitchen counter.
The recently published “Burma Superstar” cookbook is not one of these books.
Despite what some may consider unfamiliar ingredients and cooking techniques, “Burma Superstar” (the book) is incredibly accessible and, more importantly, fun. Fans of the restaurant will be happy to see a some of its most popular dishes, but the cookbook is more than just a rehashing of the menu. Many recipes come from the line cooks and dishwashers and their families. Others were discovered on a book trip to co-owner Desmond Tan’s home in Yangon. What results, then, is more of an introduction to Burmese cooking than a book just for restaurant customers. There are short snippets on the history, political and otherwise, of the country, and photographs, all by San Francisco’s John Lee, bring the food into context with the country.
Its recipes are organized in order of increasing complexity, with plenty of helpful tips for streamlining and substituting ingredients, so the novice cook need only to start at the beginning.
The beginning, for this book, is curry. Burmese curries, at least as presented here, are simple stews, as close to one-pot cooking as one can get with a bowl of rice on the side. Most start with a base of slowly cooked onions and garlic, rendered supple and sweet in a generous pour of canola oil. Spices — most of which can be found in any Safeway — are added to bloom and turn fragrant along with protein and a flavorful cooking liquid. A slow simmer and a few finishing touches of fish sauce, lime and/or tamarind and that’s about it. Most of these curries contain either meat or fish, but co-author and recipe writer Kate Leahy frequently includes vegetable substitutes as well. (Burmese cooking is largely dairy-less, so a tofu-for-chicken swap will also make a recipe vegan. Most recipes are also naturally gluten-free.)
I first tried my hand at the coconut chicken curry (recipe below). Leahy writes in its headnote that “if you make only one curry from this book, let it be this one,” so who was I to argue? This curry is served alongside platha flatbread in the restaurant and is the base for nan gyi thoke, a comforting rice noodle dish that I’d highly recommend you make with any leftovers. But even if you aren’t up for these additional elaborations, the curry alone is truly worth making. The recipe couldn’t be easier to follow and, now that fish sauce is sold alongside teriyaki in most supermarkets, you’ll have no trouble sourcing ingredients.
Alongside the curries, Tan and Leahy suggest preparing a vegetable and/or a stir-fry, and, like the curry recipes, these are fairly simple affairs; any home cook with a large skillet can prepare them, even if a wok is a better cooking vessel. I made a cast iron skillet-full of sautéed pea shoots with garlic and chile in a matter of minutes. A pot of rice — Leahy provides solid recipes for coconut, brown and plain jasmine — will round out a large, delicious meal.
More ambitious cooks will likely want to dive into the salad chapter, which will certainly reap rewards — as long as you take the time to plan a cooking schedule. Burmese salads are full of fried, chopped and toasted ingredients, and each of these requires attention before you reach for the lettuce or cabbage. And if you’re game to tackle the restaurant’s signature tea leaf salad, you’ll need to either seek out a source for laphet, the funky, earthy fermented tea leaves that form the base of the dish, or you’ll need to ferment the tea yourself.
Again, these things take time. I spent a few hours assembling the (relatively) easy ginger salad: there was ginger to pickle, split peas to soak and fry, onion oil to conjure up and garlic chips to crisp. Toasting nuts and seeds came next, and then I was finally able to dig into the dish, which was vibrant and spicy and refreshing, especially alongside the aforementioned nan gyi thoke. All of this is to say that the salads are likely all worth the time investment, but don’t try to tackle one on a Thursday evening.
Another rewarding challenge is the platha — buttery, flaky flatbread that I didn’t even know could be made at home. One of my favorite dishes as a kid was a very similar Indonesian roti bread; I used to watch the roti cook at one of my family’s favorite restaurants whip and stretch the dough to an impossible thinness before griddling it to bubbly, airy perfection. It was beautiful and intimidating.
Leahy’s version is far more approachable. The dough starts out wet and gloppy, but I’d advise you to bear with it as it transforms into a highly malleable, buttery mass that gets stretched out like thin crust pizza dough. Imperfections and tears are all just fine, and even if you don’t get perfect rounds transferred to the griddle (I didn’t), you’ll still end up with marvelous bread. Just be forewarned — you will be covered in butter by the time you eat.
I didn’t mind the mess, just as I didn’t really mind the work behind the ginger salad. I am, in fact, currently fermenting my own tea leaves to make laphet and am plotting out a cooking schedule to tackle the even more complex Rainbow Salad. Other stir fries and curries and other projects are making their way onto my to-cook list: egg and okra curry, homemade Shan tofu, mohinga, chili lamb. It’s the sign of a great cookbook that this list keeps growing.
Coconut Chicken Curry
Serves 4; 6 as a part of a larger meal
2 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 tablespoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
2 teaspoons salt
1/3 cup canola oil
3 cups finely diced yellow onion
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 (13 1/2-ounce) can unsweetened coconut milk
1 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 1/2 cups water
1 teaspoon Madras curry powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1 cup cilantro sprigs, for garnish
1 lime or lemon, cut into wedges, for garnish
Trim the chicken thighs of excess fat and cut into 1/2- to 1-inch pieces. Transfer to a bowl and use your hands to mix with the paprika, turmeric, and salt. Let the chicken marinate at room temperature while you prepare the other ingredients, or refrigerate it overnight.
In a 6-quart pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Stir in the onions, decrease the heat to medium-low and cook gently, stirring often to prevent scorching, for 10 minutes. Add the garlic and continue to cook until most of the water from the onions has been cooked out and a glossy layer of oil has risen to the surface, about 5 minutes more.
Add the chicken and stir to release the spices into the onions. Pour in the coconut milk, increase the heat, and bring to a near boil. Let the coconut milk simmer briskly for about 4 minutes to thicken a bit. Decrease the heat to medium-low and add the fish sauce. Stir in the water and bring the pot back to a near boil. The broth will thin out as the chicken starts to release its juices.
Lower to a gentle simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is tender, 50 to 55 minutes. Droplets of paprika-red oil will rise to the surface. Stir in the curry powder and cayenne, simmer briefly, and remove from the heat.
If time permits, let the curry sit for at least 20 minutes before serving. This allows the chicken to soak in more flavor as the curry cools. Bring to a simmer before serving and taste, adding more salt or fish sauce if desired. Serve with bowls of cilantro and lime wedges at the table.
Reprinted with permission from Burma Superstar, copyright © 2017 by Desmond Tan and Kate Leahy. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.