Chef and author MiMi Aye, who was British-born to Burmese parents, released her book MANDALAY: Recipes & Tales from a Burmese Kitchen last Summer, and has made seismic steps for Burmese food in kitchens beyond Burma. She agreed to chat to us and tell us all about why her book has been so successful, what Burmese food really is, and how it has defined her life. A ‘third culture kid’, MiMi has always moved between two worlds, and has spent her whole life soaking up Burmese food, language, and culture.
Mimi, thank you so much for chatting to us! Firstly, congratulations on your amazing book. Did you have any idea how well it was going to do?
None whatsoever! I’ve been wanting to write this book for such a long time, and hadn’t really thought much beyond the fact that it was finally happening and then when it was released into the world, I was riddled with doubt, as it’s such a personal book, with so many family stories. So when Mandalay was chosen as a Book of the Year by the Observer, the Financial Times, and the Mail on Sunday, it was mind-blowing.
It feels like the first time that Burmese food has really had some time in the limelight. As a lover of Burmese food, you must be thrilled?
So thrilled! I’ve been a passionate fan and vocal advocate of Burmese cuisine all my life, but especially for the last decade, and I’m so happy I’ve been able to play a significant part in spreading the love to more people, not just in the UK but also beyond – I’ve had readers contact me from all over the world saying thank you for bringing a taste of Burma to them!
That’s so brilliant, and also fascinating, because while most people could say what a Thai curry is like, or what you might order in an Indian restaurant, lots of people wouldn’t necessarily know what Burmese food is. How would you describe it?
It’s familiar with a twist; the curries are like Malaysian curries, the salads are like Thai salads and the noodles are like Chinese noodles. But we use local techniques, ingredients and flavours to make something delicious and unique, as well as having a few curveballs of our own, like tofu that’s made out of chickpeas, salads that are made from lemons and, of course, our iconic pickled tealeaves known in Burmese as “lahpet”. Rukmini Iyer, author of the best-selling Roasting Tin series and who actually did the styling for my book, calls it “Indian food on acid” and I’m not going to argue with that!
Hahahaa… yes, that is spot on! And it’s true, some flavours in Burmese food are really quite different to anything else most people have ever tasted. Do your recipes go easy on the strong flavours, or are they just as they would be back home in Burma?
I haven’t made any concessions on flavour – I think it’s unfair and slightly duplicitous to present what would be a Westernised version to readers who are willing to try something new, so I’ve given them the recipes to make what Burmese people actually eat – our everyday food that we have at home or when eating out, including lots of street food!
That’s so true, and it was obviously the right call as people are clearly loving the food, based on book sales! Which dishes are the most popular, and why do you think that is?
The Kyet Thar Kyaw (Burmese Fried Chicken), probably because Nigella Lawson is a fan, the Wet Thar Hnat (Classic Pork Curry), which is the ultimate comfort food, the Kyet Thar Hin Hmwe (Fragrant Cinnamon Chicken), which everyone seems to adore, and the Tohu Kyaw (Chickpea Tofu Fritters) which blows people away, because they are so easy to make but wildly addictive.
And which have people found most challenging?
I don’t think anyone has tried the Pone Yay Gyi yet – a black bean paste from Nyaung-U and Bagan which is like the Burmese version of miso - but this is probably because I say in the intro that it’s a nightmare to make! That’s the only recipe that is tricky though – most of the others are a breeze.
That’s a great point actually - quite a few ingredients in Burmese food are tricky to get hold of outside of Southeast Asia. Do you encourage people to find them in specialist stores, or suggest alternatives?
Honestly, apart from a few items, almost everything can be found in a decent supermarket. I myself live in the suburbs, nowhere near any Asian stores. And yes, I’ve also listed specialist suppliers in the back of the book and suggested alternatives – for example, Shan fermented soya beans can be replaced by miso paste which is more readily available.
Your parents moved to the UK in the 80s. How did they get on finding all the things they needed to cook with when they first arrived? Presumably there weren’t so many oriental shops in the UK back then.
We’d drive into London’s Chinatown to pick up most of the things we needed – I remember we’d park in Cambridge Circus carpark and do a sweep of all the stores. We also went to Southall to buy huge sacks of rice and South Asian ingredients. For specifically Burmese stuff though, we’d go to the port at Tilbury where ships from Burma would dock, carrying treats from home, like salted, dried fish and massive prawns.
I love that – a family who take their food very seriously! Did you grow up eating mostly Burmese food at home?
Yes, my mother is the most brilliant cook (tonnes better than me!), with a huge repertoire of Burmese dishes, and she’d make us something different every day. During the day I had school dinners though, so I was getting the best of both worlds.
And what are your earliest food-related memories?
My earliest food memories are using a metal Chinese spoon (which we call a Mohinga spoon) to dig into Kyet U Baung (Steamed Eggs) and hearing my mother pounding garlic and ginger with her pestle and mortar.
Yes that’s such an evocative noise – you hear it coming from every Burmese home, don’t you? You’ve been back and forth to see your family in Burma your whole life. Where do you go for your first meal when you get back, and what do you order?
The first meal is always at my eldest aunt’s house in Yangon where we have Mogok Meeshay, a hot and sour pork and rice noodle dish from my mother’s hometown of Mogok. And the first meal out would be the next morning for a Mohinga breakfast with extra Pe Kyaw (Pea Fritters) at Lucky Seven Tea Shop on 49th Street.
Burmese cooks always keep their recipes very close to their chests. Does your book reveal any big secrets that you’ll have hell to pay for next time you go back to Burma?
The Chickpea Tofu! But then one of my other aunts’ housekeeper ran off with her recipe for it already as I mention in the book so I’m not the first!
Ooooh it must be good! Is there anything that just isn’t the same when you eat it outside of Burma? I find lahpet yet (Burmese tea) just isn’t the same unless you’re drinking it on a teeny tiny stool in a shabby teashop!
Yes, the Burmese national dish of Mohinga, and for the exact same reason. No one ever makes it at home in Burma – you either go to a teashop, cafe or street vendor or get a tiffin carrier takeaway. But I’d like to think my version is as close to the real deal as you’re going to get!
What is it about Burma that your mind wafts to when you’re on a rainy bus in London?
My family. Most of them still live there and I miss them constantly. Oh, and the sun of course.
And to conjure it up, do you cook Burmese dishes for your family day to day, or do you eat a big variety of cuisines at home?
We live just around the corner from my parents and we’re very spoilt as my mum cooks daily, so when my husband and I get home from work to pick up the kids, we often also pick up a Burmese takeaway! Otherwise, I cook everything at home – my children are very fond of pasta, sausages and fish fingers, but they do also love noodles and rice, especially with the Classic Pork Curry dish I mentioned earlier.
What’s your all-time favourite dish… (from any cuisine!)?
I can never choose which Burmese dish I love best, as it honestly depends on my mood, but otherwise, my all-time favourite is a Vietnamese dish called Bun Bo Hue – a spicy and aromatic beef and lemongrass rice noodle soup – the flavour profile is actually not dissimilar to Mohinga!
And if you want a break from the kitchen, what’s your favourite restaurant?
My husband and I adore the Frog by Adam Handling in Covent Garden in London – we go there for most special occasions. We’ve just had the most incredible meal at Endo at the Rotunda though which is in the old BBC Building in White City and this may well become our new favourite.
You’ve got two children who have grown up in the UK. Which parts of your Burmese heritage are you keen that they grow up with too?
They’re both still little, but I’d love them to be immersed in all things Burmese as much as I have been. We’re teaching them the language and about the culture and we’re taking them on their first visit to Burma this Christmas to see all their family there. And of course, they already love the food – I practically weaned both of them on the classic pork curry in the book!
Oh great! Well we’d LOVE to see you for a Mohinga if you have a second when you get here! And finally, what’s your favourite product from Kalinko, and why?
The Rangoon Chair! No Burmese home is complete without these gorgeous cane-back classics, and I so love that your friend Lin Tin has crafted them from teak reclaimed from old Yangon buildings. I need to save up and get myself a pair!
Oh yay – our favourite product! And for exactly that reason, too. Well thank you so much for chatting to us, and congratulations again on the book. It really is fantastic.
And if, like us, you’d like a little bit more MiMi in your life, she is on Twitter and Instagram as @meemalee and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/itsmeemalee. She also runs the Burmese food and culture page Burmese Food & Beyond at https://www.facebook.com/burmesebeyond/
Obviously, we think you’d love her book, and if you need any more persuading, here’s a taster:
Shwe Hpayone-Thi Chet
(Golden Pumpkin Curry)
“I’m one of those terrible carnivores and I strongly believe in the (semi joking) Burmese affliction of a-thar ma-sar yat-de yaw-ga: ‘The illness caused by the failure to eat meat’,” says food writer MiMi Aye.
“However, if this gorgeous pumpkin curry is on the table, for once I’ll barely twitch. You can use any winter squash you like – it’s very good made with kabocha squash or crown prince. If you want to make this a vegetarian dish, you can swap out the shrimp paste and fish sauce for an equal amount of Japanese miso.”
(Serves 2 as a main or 4–6 as a side)
- 90ml groundnut oil or other neutral-tasting oil
- 1 tsp ground turmeric
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp paprika
- 8 fresh or dried curry leaves
- 2 medium onions, sliced
- 1 spring onion, green and white parts, shredded
- 4 garlic cloves, sliced
- 2cm piece of ginger, peeled and sliced
- 1 butternut or kabocha squash (Japanese pumpkin), peeled and cubed
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 1 tsp shrimp paste (belacan)
- 2 tbsp fish sauce
- Rice to serve
- Heat the oil in a saucepan over a high heat. Add the turmeric, coriander, cumin, paprika and curry leaves to the oil and allow to sizzle for a few seconds.
- Now turn the heat down to medium and add the onions, spring onion, garlic and ginger and fry for 10 minutes, until fragrant and the onions have wilted and some have crisped up.
- Add the squash, sugar, shrimp paste and 300ml of water. Stir well. Cover and cook for 25 minutes, or until the squash is tender. Add the fish sauce, stir again and serve with steamed rice.
MANDALAY: Recipes and Tales from a Burmese Kitchen by MiMi Aye, photography by Cristian Barnett, is published by Bloomsbury Absolute.