I hope you’ve already read and enjoyed our recent review of MiMi Aye’s Mandalay: Recipes and Tales from a Burmese Kitchen, published by Bloomsbury Absolute this summer. Like Nicky, our guest post writer of the review, I have known MiMi for over a decade and have been hoping she would get to write this book for many years. It’s been wonderful to discover that the book is everything I ever hoped and so much more; and lovely to see so many happy cooks sharing photos of all the recipes they’ve made and enjoyed, myself and Nicky included.
I caught up with MiMi Aye to ask her more about how Mandalay: Recipes and Tales from a Burmese Kitchen came about and what it means to her.
Mandalay is the story of your family, your ancestral culture, and your love affair with the food of Burma. As such, the stories of your childhood trips to Burma, and the anecdotes about food and family, are central to the book, and very much inform the recipes. Was it hard to find a publisher that gave you the freedom to make Mandalay such a personal book?
MiMi Aye: It was hard to find a publisher full stop. I had been told repeatedly over nearly the last decade that Burmese food was too niche and that, although I wrote well, there was no market for what I had to offer. So I tucked away any thoughts of this book and forgot about it. Then, at the end of 2017, out of the blue, my agent Juliet Pickering rang me up and told me that Bloomsbury Absolute, who had published my first book NOODLE!, wanted to offer me a deal for this one. But because they had worked with me before, they knew what I was like and vice versa, and so I was very lucky as I was pretty much given carte blanche as to what would be in the book. My publisher Jon Croft and project editor Emily North at Bloomsbury Absolute trusted me to come up with the goods, and hopefully I managed that. I was also lucky in that my manuscript editor Kate Wanwimolruk was incredibly empathetic and didn’t try to change my voice in any way, but simply tightened up and refined what was already there.
And then when it came to designing the visuals, I had a dream team composed of Marie O’Shepherd, art director at Bloomsbury Absolute, Cristian Barnett who was the photographer (and who usually works with Michel Roux Jnr and Tom Kerridge!), and Rukmini Iyer who was the stylist (and the author of the best-selling Roasting Tin series!). They let me take the lead and consulted me throughout – most of the props came from my own home or my mother’s as it was really important to me that there was Burmese imagery throughout so they could help set the scene and tell the story of Burmese food and culture almost as much as my own words. As for the rest of the props and the surfaces, those were brought in by the amazing Matt Inwood who had been art director on my first book Noodle – but he even WhatsApped me from the props house to make sure I was happy about it all. I also cooked all of the dishes in the final photographs, but Marie, Cristian and Rukmini are the ones who made them look beautiful – they worked wonders as it was all shot in my tiny dining room next to my even tinier kitchen!
The only sticking point throughout the whole process was the title – it was originally MiMi’s Burmese Kitchen which I ended up deciding was a bit gauche as it’s not like I’m a celebrity or own a restaurant, and so we changed it to Mandalay: Burmese Food & Beyond which incorporates the name of the Facebook community I run and the town where many of the recipes come from (along with my dad’s side of the family). However, the Sales and Marketing team at Bloomsbury thought that no one would realise it was a cookbook, so it became Mandalay: Recipes from a Burmese Kitchen. I dug my heels in a little and requested that it be named “Mandalay: Recipes and Tales from a Burmese Kitchen” (to emphasise the stories) and I also asked that Burmese Food & Beyond appear on the back at least – and thankfully my wish was granted!
Going back to visuals though, I was overwhelmed with joy when the art director Marie showed me that she’d taken the patterns from the ceremonial silk htamein (Burmese ladies’ sarongs) that I’d shown her at the start of the shoot and she’d “woven” them as a leitmotif throughout the book – a different coloured wave pattern starts every chapter and of course it’s on the front and back cover too. The htamein mean a lot as they were owned by my grandmother, my aunt and my mother and they symbolise celebration, womanhood and strength to me.
This is the book you’ve been wanting to write for so many years, why has it been so important to you?
MiMi Aye: I never thought I’d write a Burmese cookbook. At least in the beginning, I’m not sure I even wanted to. But I’d not seen any book that had been published that covered the dishes that I knew or the stories that I’d grown up hearing and it felt more and more important to me that these were recorded somehow, and I’m grateful that I was given the opportunity to do so.
When it came to the actual writing, I very much took the responsibility to heart though – I actually took a sabbatical from my day job so I could devote all my time to writing Mandalay and feel like I was doing it justice.
I’ve been regularly visiting Burma since I was 8 years old, so the food that I make is a combination of what my mother fed my family and what I’ve been eating when I’m back in Burma. The way the dishes taste is, I hope, as close to what you’d get there as possible. It was really gratifying when I got a recent Amazon review from a fellow Burmese person which said that the book is “rare in that the recipes in it are the sort of traditional ones that her family cook back home”.
Family photo from Mandalay by MiMi Aye, courtesy of Bloomsbury Absolute
For those who are new to Burmese food, and thinking about buying the book as a way to learn more about it, can you give us a brief introduction into Burmese cuisine?
MiMi Aye: It’s familiar with a twist. The curries are like Malaysian curries, the salads are like Thai salads, the noodles are like Chinese noodles, and then we have curveballs like tofu made out of chickpeas and salads made from lemons. My stylist Rukmini calls it “Indian food on acid” and I’m not going to argue with that!
Which are your three personal favourite recipes in the book, and why?
MiMi Aye: Ngapi Kyaw (Balachaung) – a shrimp paste, tamarind and garlic relish which we eat on hot rice and sometimes in a sandwich! Everyone in Burma and abroad has a stash of balachaung in an old coffee jar or ice cream tub so they can feed themselves when they need a quick fix. You’d never dream of serving it to guests as it’s a bit like our version of beans on toast, but it always hits the spot and it means home to a Burmese person probably more than any other recipe.
Danbauk (Burmese “Biryani”) – It’s like alchemy – all these beautiful ingredients placed in one pot on the stove and left to transform into one of the most celebrated and celebratory meals in Burma – I had it at my own wedding and I was so, so happy I was able to replicate it at home.
Mandalay Meeshay (Mandalay Pork and Rice Noodles) – it was the first dish I was allowed to help my Mum cook – my job was to mash up the salted soybeans in a bowl with a spoon, though when I got older, I realised this wasn’t entirely necessary and was my Mum’s way of making me feel useful. It’s so delicious though and it’s the most requested dish from my nieces and nephews so we always make it at family parties.
Mandalay: Recipes and Tales from a Burmese Kitchen by MiMi Aye is currently available on Amazon UK for £18.20 (RRP £26). Jacket image and photos from the book courtesy of publishers Bloomsbury Absolute.