Mandalay: Recipes and Tales from a Burmese Kitchen by MiMi Aye

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.

Sample page from Mandalay by MiMi Aye Sample page from Mandalay by MiMi Aye

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.

Bullock Cart family photo from Mandalay by MiMi Aye Eating Noodles in Mogok

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.

Burmese Coconut Chicken Noodles

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.

Mandalay Meeshay - Pork & Round Rice Noodles

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.

Burmese Meatball Curry Burmese Braised Butter Beans and Golden Pumpkin Curry

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.

Burmese Tofu Fritters

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.

 

Coming soon, an interview with MiMi Aye, plus three recipes from the book: Classic Burmese Pork Curry, Burmese Braised Beef Curry and Burmese Golden Pumpkin Curry.

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. 

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17 Comments to "Mandalay: Recipes and Tales from a Burmese Kitchen by MiMi Aye"

  1. kaveyeats

    I haven’t made these yet but I’ve eaten MiMi’s. Nicky’s made them a few times.

    Reply
  2. Choclette

    Absolutely inspired review. I know so little about Burmese food and it’s great to get a little bit of an idea. I think I need tofu fritters now. I also like cookbooks that have a bit of a back story and context. This one might have to go onto my wishlist.

    Reply
    NickyB

    I think you’d love it. I keep popping back to the intro for a little read between cooking!

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    Yes, the back story and context of Burma, its people, its culture, really informs the passages about the cuisine itself.

    Reply
  3. Neha Sharma

    It is said that to really understand a nation, you should learn about their food. This book sounds fascinating, not just as a cookbook but as an introduction to Burmese culture! For someone like me whose knowledge of Burmese food is limited to Khao Suey (I do love it though!), the variety of dishes listed here is amazing.

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    Absolutely, you will learn a lot not only about Burmese food but about its culture and to some extent, about the outlook and identity of the Burmese people. That’s not to say everyone is the same, as in any country, but there are passions and ways of looking at things that are uniquely Burmese. It’s a wonderful book!

    Reply
  4. Sage Scott

    I didn’t know anything about Burmese food until reading this article. It looks like there are a wide range of vegetarian and pescetarian options for folks visiting Burma. (Personally, I don’t think I could do goat.) Were any of the dishes very spicy? (I’m kind of a baby about anything too spicy!)

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    Very little is super spicy, like the food of neighbouring Thailand. There are some curries that are reminiscent but not the same as ones from North India, these are redolent of spices but not much chilli heat. There are lots of textures in the food and many flavours, sweet, savoury, pickled and so on. I love goat, it’s a lot like lamb, but I think lamb is less popular in North America, not sure why. 🙂

    Reply
  5. Rita Prentice

    I was most impressed by this beautifully written and informative review. I am not a very adventureous cook but am sure that there are plenty of recipes in this book that I could manage. That MiMi also writes about Burma is also a plus as it has inspired me to know more about that country.

    Reply
  6. Snigdha (Snig of Snig's Kitchen

    Excellent book review by Nicky! It really gives a feel for this book, which as Nicky says, is more than a mere cookbook, it’s an introduction to Burmese culture. I’ve been trying out the recipes [made 6 so far], and the recipes are very accurate, which is great since I have no knowledge of this food tradition. I am also in love with all the photos of the beautiful kitchenware in the photos. This blog post was a joy to read.

    Reply
  7. Pubali

    Given the history of Myanmar with my country, I have always been fascinated by this country. I would love to visit the country some day and definitely try their cuisine as well. Since the book sounds to be much more than just a collection of recipes, I am sure it is an enjoyable read, irrespective of whether you pick it up for the Burmese recipes or for the sneak peek into the Burmese culture.

    Reply
  8. Emma

    I do love a cookbook that is more than just a collection of recipes! This sounds like a wonderful way of learning about Burma and its culture!

    Reply

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