We watched while Stanny prepared three very different curries for us over a hot clay charcoal stove
Food writer Ghillie James visited the Governor’s Residence in Yangon to learn about Myanmar’s culinary secrets
As a food writer and keen traveller I have perched on many a stool in hotel kitchens and houses around the world watching cooks and chefs doing what they do best. From perfecting the classics at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir in England, rolling trofie pasta on Lake Como, Italy or grinding fresh chillies for a dipping sauce in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, taking part in a cookery course is my absolute favourite way to relax and be inspired. So often when eating out I’d like nothing more than to chew the ear of the chef and ask him all sorts of questions about how to prepare what we are eating. Well, with a cookery course at the Governor’s residence in Yangon you can ask as much as you like and get some hands on experience too. What’s more, I have come to realise that the recipes from a cookery course are so much better to refresh memories than a photo album to scroll through once back home. Recreating a recipe you’ve tried on the other side of the world will instantly transport you straight back to the sites, tastes and smells you experienced when abroad.
Whether you are travelling solo, on a couple’s getaway or enjoying a girl’s weekend treat (as I was), a cooking class at this stunning colonial mansion in Yangon is a must. A secluded green hideaway is set in the embassy quarter of the bustling city, the building dates back to the 1920s, when it was the private residence for the governor of Burma’s southern states. Visitors will find themselves transported back to a bygone era as they walk through the verdant gardens and up a sweeping wooden staircase into the open-air restaurant, which overlook the gardens, where the courses take place. It’s a perfect escape from the craziness of the temples buzzing with crowds, and you don’t have to be a guest at the hotel to take part on the courses either (or be an expert cook!).
Depending on the time you have available you can choose from the full day experience, starting with a whistle stop tour of the local food market, a cookery demonstration, lunch and a wine tasting or just opt to enjoy the shorter course, which begins at 11am, and includes the demonstration and lunch. Both of these courses are designed to show you local Myanmar recipes, but you can also opt to do a chocolate making course too if that tickles your fancy (or send your husband or children off to do that one if that appeals more). As we were short of time we were sadly unable to head to the market first. However I would urge you to do the full day Myanmar cooking course if you can. There’s something about experiencing a bustling market first thing in the morning to really give you an idea of how the locals live and what they eat. Plus the added wine tasting on the longer course (locally grown Myanmar reds and whites) is surprisingly good and you can buy the excellent value wines from the hotel shop before you leave.
We were greeted in the lobby by Ricardo Lujan, the Food and Beverage manager, and Stanny Nyi Nyi Zaw, the hotel’s executive chef. Trained by Gary Rhodes and with 12 years’ experience working in the Middle East, Stanny returned to his home country, Myanmar 18 months ago. We really couldn’t have been in better hands and soon felt as if we had learnt so much from him about the origins and flavours of Myanmar cooking. He is full of knowledge and so passionate about the subject.
Once we had been shown upstairs, offered drinks and given our aprons and recipe sheets, we listened as Stanny explained the complex roots of Myanmar cuisine. A country surrounded by so many others – India, Thailand, Laos, China and Bangladesh, you would think that the food would perhaps be a confusing combination of all – a spicy, salty, sweet and sour hotchpotch of everything. In fact it is the opposite. Traditional Myanmar cuisine is subtle and gentle – drawing influence from its neighbouring countries, but not bowled over by them.
It is a style of cuisine that very much has its own identity. Though there are classic dishes to be found all over the country – Burmese style curry, tea leaf salad, tomato salad and hot and sour pork to name a few, each province’s recipes differ a little from each other with slight variations drawing influence from their own unique surroundings. For example the tomato salad we ate for lunch at the Inthar Heritage House on Inle lake (highly recommended) was made using stunning freshly picked green and red tomatoes. This was due to the lake’s perfect climate for growing so much produce, all of which could be eaten within hours of being picked (hence the opportunity to eat the green). We also got the chance to eat freshly caught whole tilapia there, whereas other central provinces use salted fish, due to their region having as no fresh fish close to hand.
Stanny explained further that the Shan province cooking tends to have a Chinese influence due to its proximity to China and in Mon State there’s more of a Thai flavour, using coconut milk in their curries, for the same reason. But each province very much sticks to its own uniqueness.
So it was then that we turned to our chopping boards (with glass of wine in hand), and a fabulous selection of salad ingredients. Actually, guests can dip in or out as much as they like – depending on how ‘hands on’ you care to be. In our case, we watched and sipped and chatted and helped as opposed to taking the lead, but the course can be adapted to suit your preferences.
Stanny showed us how to prepare fresh banana blossoms (a little bit like chicory) and Awwsunn (similar to cucumber), as these were not familiar to us. He also explained some of the lesser-known store-cupboard ingredients such as gram flour – a wonderful, thickener made from roasted and ground chickpeas, that is commonly added to juicier produce such as papaya and tomato to keep it creamy as opposed to watery. We then combined all the elements of the salads and dressings in our own bowls and plated them ready to eat for lunch.
We watched while Stanny prepared three very different curries for us over a fabulous hot clay charcoal stove (the traditional way to cook in most homes), which had been constructed on top of an old bicycle! All ingredients are chopped and ready to go, so that a lot can be covered in the time and every part of the recipe is explained thoroughly, to suit both the novice and the experienced cooks among us.
We all walked away feeling ready to take on the challenge and confident that we could recreate all the dishes once back home. The resulting lunch was some of the tastiest food we ate on our travels, a combination of salads and curries, served with some rice followed by an unexpected treat of Myanmar desserts (just in case we weren’t full enough!) served in true Governor Residence style, on crisp white tablecloths and with immaculate service. A wonderful experience and one I would recommend highly that you fit into your schedule.
DISHES YOU WILL LEARN HOW TO MAKE
Tea leaf salad – perhaps the most traditional salad in Myanmar. This is served to guests when they pay a visit to local families, always with a pot of tea on the side. It is made with fermented locally picked young green tea leaf tips, roasted seeds, nuts and pulses.
Papaya salad – there’s a hint of Thai/Vietnam about this one from the look, but soon made its own with tamarind sauce, fish sauce, fresh tomato and fried shallots.
Banana Blossom salad – we don’t all have banana plants in our garden, but this fabulous crunchy and creamy salad using peanuts and roasted chickpea flour could use chicory in place of the blossoms.
Aww Sun salad – a crisp cucumber style vegetable finely shredded with a tamarind dressing.
Tomato salad – like you’ve never tasted before! This dish became a bit of an addiction as we ordered at every meal! See recipe below.
Fish and lemongrass curry – a fragrant mix of white fish, spices and lemongrass with pak choi.
Prawn and fresh tomato curry – so simple and yet utterly delicious with tamarind, chilli and coriander.
Roast duck and tea leaf curry – an intriguing combination of tender roast duck and fresh green tea.
A selection of Myanmar desserts – including banana leaves with sticky rice and mango and tapioca (not demonstrated).
Styles vary from place to place, some including shredded cabbage, some tamarind and some chilli. This is Stanny’s wonderful version. It’s a refreshing starter/light lunch, but can also be served as an accompaniment to curry or barbecued food. Crispy onions and garlic are a fabulous unami flavoured addition and can be bought from Asian supermarkets and kept in a cool place for months. Quantities are approximate, as Stanny urged us to taste and adjust as we went along.
Serves 2 as an accompaniment
A good couple of handfuls deseeded tomato wedges
About ¼ small mild onion, finely sliced
1 level tsp roasted chickpea (gram) flour
2 tsp roasted peanuts, chopped
2 tsp peanut or groundnut oil
2-3 tsp fish sauce
1 tsp toasted sesame seeds
A good squeeze of fresh lime juice
Crispy fried onions and crispy garlic
Combine all the ingredients (except the crispy onions and garlic) in a bowl and toss together. Taste, adding extra fish sauce, lime or oil depending on preference – one flavour should not dominate. Serve onto plates or on one platter and sprinkle with the crispy onions and garlic.