(Bloomberg): It was only after my father died, in 1972, that I learned he had been born in Burma. Thus began, for me, a decades-long fascination with the country that is now officially called Myanmar.
I first visited in 1981, when the communist government restricted tourist visas to one week and only about half a dozen cities were open to foreigners. It was like entering a time warp. The broken streets of the capital of Rangoon (now Yangon) were lined with decaying colonial-era buildings and people got around in ancient buses like transport-museum pieces.
I stayed at the once-grand Strand Hotel, which was dusty and decayed, with an ill-lit high-ceilinged old dining room where lobster thermidor cost $1. I took the 12-hour train to Mandalay, where my father was born, and later an overnight boat along the Irrawaddy to the ancient city of Pagan (now Bagan), where many hundreds of crumbling temples stretched to the horizon.
My next visit, in 1992, was as a guest of the military dictatorship, keen to show foreign journalists their country wasn’t as bad as its image. It was. I was followed around by security police. A taxi driver didn’t dare drive me past the home of the detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi. When someone tried to practice his English with me, a policeman handcuffed him and then struck him in the face.
And so to my most recent visit, in 2015. The Strand had turned into a luxury hotel where a room could cost hundreds of dollars a night and lobster thermidor was $44. The streets were clogged with cars and lined with high-rise buildings.
All of which is a very lengthy explanation of why I was drawn to The Rangoon Sisters Cookbook by Amy and Emily Chung. They were born and bred in South London with Anglo-Burmese-Chinese heritage. They are doctors and also run supper clubs, serving dishes inspired by their mother and grandmother’s Burmese cooking at home.
They’ve gathered their recipes in the cookbook, published by Ebury Press, from which this recipe for Ngar Hin fish curry is taken. It is really quite a simple recipe, with few ingredients. You need to use firm white fish, such as cod, pollock, haddock or coley. Cut it into large chunks and try not to over-stir while cooking, which may break up the fish.
So long as you don’t overcook the fish, it is difficult to go wrong. But I managed it the first time. I cut the fish into small pieces that got lost in the sauce during cooking. Second time round, I went with large chunks and it tasted delicious, while the crispy shallots on top added another dimension in terms of taste and texture.
500 grams (17.6 ounces) firm white fish, skin removed and cut into 5 cm chunks
6 garlic cloves, peeled
Half thumb-sized piece of ginger, peeled
8 tablespoons oil (vegetable, sunflower or peanut)
3 medium onions, chopped
2 teaspoons paprika
1 tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp medium chili powder
2–3 tbsp fish sauce
4 medium tomatoes, chopped
For the marinade:
1½ tsp turmeric powder
1 tsp salt
Coriander leaves (optional)
Crispy fried shallots (shop-bought or there is a recipe in the book)
First make the marinade. Combine the turmeric and salt in a bowl, then add the fish chunks and turn to coat them in the marinade. Transfer to the fridge for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, crush the garlic cloves and ginger to a paste using a pestle and mortar or blitz in a food processor.
Heat the oil over a medium heat in a large casserole dish. Add the chopped onions and cook slowly, turning the heat down to low-medium and stirring every 4–5 minutes until softened and starting to color lightly and become oily. This will take at least 15 minutes. Once the onions are ready, add the crushed garlic and ginger and fry for a few minutes until fragrant.
Add the spices, fish sauce and chopped tomatoes, breaking them up slightly as you stir. Allow to simmer for 5–10 minutes. (If you want to get ahead, you could make the sauce up to this point then store in the fridge until you’re ready to cook the fish.) Add the fish and 100 milliliters (3.4 fluid ounces) of water. Bring to the boil and cover with a lid, then simmer over a low heat for 5–10 minutes until the fish is cooked.
Garnish with coriander leaves, if you like, and the crispy shallots for added texture.
Richard Vines is Chief Food Critic at Bloomberg.