I’ve known the author of Mandalay: Recipes and Tales from a Burmese Kitchen, MiMi Aye, on twitter for about 10 years, and already own her first cookbook (Noodle!) so I had a preconceived view of what to expect with Mandalay – well described, accurate, standalone recipes. As it turned out, I was wrong. Mandalay is far more: as much a love letter to Burmese food, Burma’s people and its culture as it is a beautiful cookbook.
MiMi was born in Margate to Burmese parents and her pride in her ancestry sings through Mandalay; from the vivid cover echoing the htamein (sarongs) of Burmese traditional women’s dress through to the witty histories of her family, the Burmese food-related phrases that dot the book, the explanations of the place of women in this society and the descriptions of how food features in and weaves through Burmese culture.
Images from Mandalay by MiMi Aye courtesy of Bloomsbury Absolute
I was drawn to learning about a new cuisine (I’d eaten no Burmese food before this except one recipe from Noodle!) and became thoroughly intrigued by the photos MiMi had posted on social media throughout the year of writing the book. They evoked a style of combining ingredients, cooking and eating that looked excitingly different from that of other countries.
Images from Mandalay by MiMi Aye courtesy of Bloomsbury Absolute
Mandalay opens with an introduction to Burmese food and customs, and to the ingredients and equipment in a Burmese kitchen. The introduction (generously illustrated with fascinating stories and bright photos of people, markets, vendors, family, journeys and places) also describes how to create the structure and content of a meal, following a tradition that has changed very little in Burma over centuries. It’s reassuring to read that the vast majority of Burmese food is accessible, in terms of ingredients and equipment, to anyone who’s made food from neighbouring countries such as Thailand, India, China and Vietnam. The Burmese, however, have a unique way of creating magic from their raw materials.
This is where the 90+ recipes come into their own. Whilst you can happily dive straight into cooking a single dish (there are many standalone beauties) the recipe section of Mandalay is neatly divided into component parts that you can pick-and-mix to make up a Burmese meal: Fritters (such as Burmese Tofu Fritters); Salads (a Citrus & Shallot salad really appealed); Soups (a ubiquitous accompaniment); Rice; Noodles (Mandalay Meeshay looked particularly interesting); Meat (a Goat and Split Pea curry went straight on my must-do list); Chicken & Eggs; Fish & Seafood (Fried Fish curry); Vegetables (Braised Butter Beans looked so appealing); Pickles & Chutneys (Shan Cauliflower & Carrot pickle combines several of my favourite ingredients); Condiments, Relishes & Dips; Sweet Snacks (Sticky Rice Doughnuts anyone?) and the fabulously named Secret Weapons (which covers all the added extras that enliven the dishes even more, like fried red-skinned peanuts!)
It’s easy to leap into a section and pick out a recipe you want to make, as the book is populated with an attractive photo for every dish (apart from the Secret Weapons), usually including one or more possible accompaniments. For the most part the ingredients and directions are on a single page. And beware, you will have kitchenware envy if you’re fortunate enough to own Mandalay: I craved all the beautiful bowls, pans and serving spoons in the lushly-lit photos.
I started by putting little sticky tabs on the pages of whatever I fancied tackling – but fast realised I was running out of tabs and chose a couple of very simple recipes to begin my Burmese culinary exploration, Fragrant Cinnamon Chicken and Duck Egg Curry. Once I experienced the ease of making these and how tasty they were (my husband’s refrain “ooh, we’ll have that again!”), I quickly moved on to other recipes. Some were more complex, and I tried combinations such as fritters served with noodles or pickles served with curries.
MiMi’s avoided making the alphabetised index too complicated so it’s easy to find a particular dish either via its English name or by searching the main ingredient. For those of us with a desire to understand the fiendishly romanised Burmese pronunciation, there’s a handy guide. MiMi also provides an inspirational menu planner, with 17 menus (some with added variations) that help you to put together a simple meal or even a full feast for a big group. For those new to some of the ingredients in Mandalay there’s a convenient glossary to assist in finding your way around them.
The recipe titles are shown in English, romanised Burmese as well as (ridiculously pretty) Burmese text. Each recipe has a short (and usually informative, funny and/or downright riveting) introductory description which helpfully often includes suggested accompaniments to the dish. You’ll find alternative options here too (which other fish to use or how to make a dish vegetarian, for example).
The ingredients are generally divided usefully into the component parts of the dish, so it’s straightforward to see which you’ll use for what purpose. You’re also told clearly how much the recipe makes. Each dish is broken down into steps: time-order based paragraphs so you can follow the logic of the recipe as you make it. I’d recommend (from my own experience) reading through the recipe beforehand as there are occasions when two parts of the recipe can be ‘on the go’ simultaneously, or where you will want to prep an ingredient the day before (a pickle, or soaking some lentils, for example), or where a particular implement will come in handy. This will also give you the chance to read the Cook’s Notes which follow some recipes and are useful guides to adaptations or substitutions.
So, how did my foray into cooking from the book go? In all I’ve given 16 recipes from Mandalay a try, excluding the Secret Weapons section. Some could be thrown together for a quick evening meal, others needed a little more work and preparation but every single dish, without fail, was delicious. From Mandalay Meeshay (which is going to become my go-to noodle dinner) to the deceptively blandly titled Meatball curry (it’s gorgeous), there isn’t one recipe I don’t want to make again. The Burmese Tofu Fritters have already had three outings!
Mandalay is such a pretty and absorbing book to browse through, to dip into and ultimately a true pleasure to cook from. I’d say that its distinctive cover is very easy to find on the bookshelf, but I admit it’s rarely spent time there and mostly lives on my kitchen worktop. I thoroughly enjoy the humour and intelligence MiMi brings to a subject which will be new to most readers, encouraging us to understand and love this amazing, varied and seductive food.
Thanks to Nicky Bramley for this wonderful guest post. Mandalay: Recipes and Tales from a Burmese Kitchen by MiMi Aye is currently available on Amazon UK for £18.20 (RRP £26). Jacket and images from the book courtesy of publishers Bloomsbury Absolute. Book photography by Cristian Barnett. Recipe images in this post by Nicky Bramley.