Thursday, May 26, 2011

Spicy Burmese Fish in a Pot

Of several cookbooks I acquired during recent travel, I've enjoyed reading one in particular, a gift from playwright and director Seth Rozin: "The Universal Kitchen" (Penguin, 1996), written by his mother, the late Elizabeth Rozin, who authored several cookbooks on ethnic cuisines (and imparted her love of language and spicy food to her children).

In her "250-Recipe Tour of World Cooking,” Rozin gallops the globe, comparing the foods and cooking techniques of various cultures, while musing about how cooking makes us uniquely, yet universally, human:

"What we see, through this wide–angle lens, is a pervasive commonality in kitchen practice, across cultures and throughout time... We all make tasty and nourishing broths from the bones of animals; we all simmer meats and vegetables in pots of seasoned liquids; we all devise piquant condiments and savory sauces to give zest and excitement to our food... The kitchen may truly be one of the few places where we can celebrate commonality as well as diversity, for we all trace the roots of what we eat back to the ancestral melting pot and to those among us who first put fire and salt to meat."
When a mutual friend of Seth's, Bobbi, came to sup the other night, we thought it a perfect occasion to try out one of his mom's one-pot meals. In her chapter “Potluck,” Rozin writes: 
“Think of the meals-in-a-pot that are emblematic of so many cuisines: the French pot-au-feu, the Louisiana gumbo, the Hungarian goulash, Irish stew, and New England boiled dinner... However they may differ in terms of ingredients and seasonings, these simmered liquid-based meals seem to offer the same advantages to everyone—an economy of time, labor, and utensils a variety of wholesome, nourishing foods cooked into flavorful ragouts that provide sustenance in an easy, homespun, nurturant form. Like the soups from which they probably derive, they shine as the beacon of home cooking and the domestic hearth, with heavy pots and blackened kettles bubbling their aromatic contents at the back of the stove or suspended over the hearth fire.”
Rozin's Burmese recipe, below, is perfectly suited to the Guardian Service method of simmering over a low heat. The meal is quick and easy (prep and cooking in under an hour), yet rich and deeply satisfying as well as nutritionally sound.

We made a few alterations, using Mahi–Mahi in place of bluefin, spring garlic, one habañero pepper, and oyster sauce (though minced anchovies could substitute for the fish sauce as well). We also added chopped sweet bell peppers and bok choi during the last minutes of cooking.

Spicy Burmese Fish in a Pot
adapted from Elizbeth Rozin's The Universal Kitchen (Penguin, 1996)

"Burmese curries—foods slowly cooked in highly seasoned liquids—are generally characterized by two distinct flavoring traditions, the soy, fish sauce, and lemongrass of Southeast Asia, and the dry curry spices and aromatics of Indian cuisine. This delicious and unusual fish curry is more the Southeast Asian type and should be done with a firm, meaty, and full-flavored fish. I find that bluefin works very well, but you can substitute other varieties if you wish. Burmese sauces are almost never thickened with cornstarch or flour and are best served over plain boiled or steamed rice."

1 large onion, finely chopped
1 ½ Tbsp. ginger root, finely minced
4 large garlic cloves, minced
2-3 fresh hot chiles, seeded and minced, or ½ – 1 tsp. crushed dried hot peppers
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
2 cups coarsely chopped fresh very ripe tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 tsp. lemongrass powder, or 2 tsp. finely chopped fresh lemongrass
2 Tbsp. fish sauce
1 ½ – 2 lbs. thick bluefish fillet, cut in large chunks (or mahi-mahi, etc.)
1-2 large bell peppers, cut into large chunks (optional)
4 leaves bok choy (Chinese cabbage), cut into large chunks (optional)
1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
Small handful chopped fresh coriander leaf (cilantro)
Hot cooked rice (read our post on preparing Guardian Service rice

  1. In the Guardian Service Tureen (or the 4 qt. "Straight-Sided" Dome Cooker), sauté the onion, gingerroot, garlic and chiles in the oil over moderate heat, stirring, until the onions are soft and the mixture becomes aromatic.
  2. Add the tomatoes, the lemongrass, and the fish sauce and mix well. Simmer the sauce, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes.
  3. Place the fish chunks on the tomato mixture, cover, and cook over low heat for about 30 minutes, until the fish is very tender.
  4. During the last 5 minutes of cooking, add the bok choy and bell peppers and continue to simmer on low.
  5. Sprinkle the lemon juice and the chopped cilantro over the fish; serve the curry with individual bowls of hot cooked rice.