Burmese Cuisine — Mohinga, Rice Noodles in Fish Soup

Burma (the modern nation of Myanmar) is a southeast Asian nation with a unique culinary heritage.  Influences from neighboring India, Thailand, and China are apparent, as well as local traditions like laphet, pickled, fermented tea leaves considered to be among the finer points of a Burmese meal.  Food is not prepared with precise recipes, but timing and execution are critical to a dish’s success.

Burma quick facts:

  • Capital: Naypyidaw (former capital: Yangon)
  • Population: 60,280,000 (2010 estimate)
  • Notable Burmese: U Thant, Zarganar, Everglades pythons

The Burmese people come from dozens of different ethnic groups, and each has its own food traditions.  The predominant group, and the one that most of the “national” cuisine draws from, is the Bamar people.  It is the Bamars that gave Burma its national dish, mohinga (recipe follows), a rice noodle and catfish soup eaten in the morning or early afternoon that is made in homes and sold in restaurants and from street vendors across Burma.  Typically mohinga is served with sliced banana stem, a part of the banana tree we typically don’t consider but is commonly used as a vegetable in Burma.  We could not find it locally so it was omitted in our recipe.  A common accompaniment the the soup is fried fish cakes, which we replaced with cooked fish balls (balls of fish pâté, not that other thing you might be thinking).

Mohinga

adapted from BestOodles Authentic Burmese Recipes and SBS Food

SERVES 4

Broth ingredients:

  • 1 catfish head, quartered
  • 1/2 pound catfish fillet
  • 1 lemongrass stalk, smashed
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 2 quarts water

Chili paste ingredients:

  • 3 lemongrass stalks, interior white part only, sliced thinly
  • 4 red Thai bird chilies, sliced
  • 1 large shallot, roughly diced
  • 4 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
  • 2″ piece of ginger, finely sliced
  • 3 Tbs vegetable oil

Soup ingredients:

  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1/2 red onion, sliced thinly
  • 2 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 1 tsp shrimp paste
  • 2 Tbs paprika
  • 1/4 cup cooked, crushed garbanzo beans
  • 2 Tbs toasted rice powder
  • 4 Tbs fish sauce
  • 1 package of eight cooked fish balls
  • 2 hard-cooked eggs, sliced
  • 1 10.5-ounce package rice vermicelli (a size conveniently found by us, more or less would be fine)
  • cilantro leaves for garnish

First we made our catfish broth.  Whole catfish, traditionally used for this dish, was not available locally (unless we were to catch one ourselves) so we made do with what the Southeast Asian market had: Catfish heads and fillets:

brothingredients

A catfish head is one of the truly strikingly ugly things one could ever hope to have on his or her kitchen counter:

catfishheadcloseup
Notice that there isn’t a whole lot of brain in there.

The lemongrass needed little preparation.  A simple smashing with our meat mallet was sufficient to allow for as much flavor as possible to be released into our broth:

lemongrasssmashedlightly

Into our large Dutch oven went the catfish head, lemongrass stalk, three peeled garlic cloves, a teaspoon of turmeric, and water.  For easy removal (and since we needed to save it for later use) the catfish fillet was placed on top of everything else while the broth was simmered for about half an hour:

brothstarted

Meanwhile, we had ample time to prepare our chili paste.  A Burmese chili paste is a lot like a Thai curry paste, only with far fewer ingredients, so this step did not take long to complete.  First we peeled the three lemongrass stalks to get to the tender, pale interiors:

lemongrasspeeled

Again using the smooth side of our meat mallet, each stalk was smashed into thin strands, then minced by slicing across the grain thinly:

lemongrasssmashed

The ginger, garlic, chilies, and shallot were gathered and prepared:

pasteingredients

Everything was dumped into our trusty mortar and ground to a paste.  About three tablespoons of oil (not precisely measured) was added to give the mixture a smoother consistency:

pastemixed

The chili paste was covered and refrigerated until needed later.

Meanwhile, the catfish was fully cooked, the vegetables tender, and our broth was about ready to be strained:

brothdine

The fillet was removed and set aside, then the mixture was strained over a large bowl:

brothdraining

The remaining broth was murky, a little bit green from the lemongrass, and surprisingly oily from the catfish head:

broth

At long last we were ready to make our soup.  After wiping out the Dutch oven from the broth-making process and heating it on a medium burner on the stove, the chili paste (which, you will remember, already contains some vegetable oil) and turmeric were stir-fried until very fragrant, about a minute or so:

pastecooking

next went in the red onion slices and garlic, which were stir-fried another five or six minutes until softened but not browned:

onionsadded

Next we added the catfish fillet:

fishadded

The fish was broken up with our wooden spoon and cooked in the chili paste mixture for about twenty minutes until the flavors had fully combined and penetrated the fish flakes:

fishdone

Shrimp paste (our stinky friend from our Cambodian experience) and paprika were the next additions, which were cooked into the mixture another five minutes or so:

spicesadded

The soup base finally ready (and very fragrant), we were ready for the broth:

brothadded

The broth was left to simmer vigorously for about twenty more minutes.  Meanwhile, we prepared the rice noodles:

ricenoodlesinpackage

The dried noodles were put into a pan of warm water and left to soak about ten minutes until softened:

ricenoodlessoaking

…then drained and set aside:

ricenoodlesdrained

About ten minutes into simmering our soup, we introduced the cooked fish balls to heat through and take on some of the soup flavor:

fishballspackage
Our fish balls were apparently made out of a pureed pair of lovers.

The soup now done:

soupboiling

…we were ready to begin assembling the soup bowls.  First a bed of rice noodles was placed at the bottom of each bowl:

ricenoodlesinbowl

…then a big ladleful of our soup (making sure to include some tasty fish balls):

soupinbowl

The next layer was a few egg slices:

eggsadded

…and finally a small handful of cilantro leaves:

mohingafinished

While neither of us is crazy about catfish (one of the two common food animals Chris would rather not consume), in this dish the strong flavor is tempered a lot by the addition of turmeric.  It may be a wives’ tale, but Burmese cooks believe that turmeric can counteract the strong fishy flavor of catfish, and mohinga definitely benefits from this belief.  The lemongrass, ginger, and chiles are all very strong flavors, but the proportions in this dish are in balance and neither stands out over the others.  This recipe made a ton of soup, and Chris was happy to bring mohinga to work for lunch for a few days, much to the befuddlement of his coworkers (“I’m glad you asked.  Those are fish balls.”).

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