Enticing flavors of Burma
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By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor
By Wanda A. Adams
Linda Santipongchai Loo is a singer, dancer, jewelry maker, reiki master, former restaurateur and now she is Khoonleng, cookbook author.
"Khoonleng," is a Chinese-sounding name she's been calling herself lately because it's connected to her roots: She is a part-Burmese, part-Chinese native of the country now known as Myanmar. Raised in a privileged family in a suburb of Rangoon (her father is a well-connected newspaper publisher), Loo was influenced by her Burmese grandmother, Daw Saw, who was a businesswoman and a lover of the arts. But Loo's family left Burma abruptly after a military coup brought in a socialist government in 1962, settling in Thailand and changing their names as part of assuming Thai citizenship.
"Burmese Cooking" (self-published, $6.95), a 44-page pamphlet-size cookbook, is the first in what she intends to be the Khoonleng Series of books (Thai and Hawaiian come next). This one introduces, in extremely simplified form, the aromatic, enticing flavors of old Burma.
"Food is like saying hello to yourself, having a conversation with your taste buds, activating your essence," says Loo in an interview in her Village Green living room in Hawai'i Kai, brightly colored cotton thread earrings dancing as she speaks, her hands playing with the lace and sequin edging of her cotton skirt. "After half a century, I'm finding out that we are all looking for that kind of experience. We want to feel. The more you are conscious, the more your appreciation of food is aesthetic. Food is so aphrodisiac, it makes us excited and alert."
Loo tends to talk like that and then laugh amusedly at herself. "I know," she says, with a big smile, "I'm crazy."
But her book, though unsophisticated, is down to earth. And her cooking — based on my sampling of her coconut rice, chicken curry, vegetable samosas and the Burmese national dish, mohinga soup — is, indeed, a conversation with your taste buds. And an engrossing one.
Loo said that, culinarily, Burma is a sort of crossroads between India and China (the country was once under Chinese rule and was a satellite of the British raj at one time). India contributes spices, chilies and curries. China adds a key ingredient — dried shrimp — plus cooking techniques and the crunch and color of stir-frying.
But Burmese cooking is neither as spicy as Indian or Thai nor as rich and heavy as Chinese cooking can be. It is its own.
From 1986 to 1991, Loo operated a lunch spot, the Curry Place, on Alakea Street, where she made simplified Burmese-style curries, salads and such for downtown workers. It was her late grandmother Daw Saw's influence.
Married then, with her son growing, she had been thinking about her next career move, and her grandmother's spirit whispered in her ear, "Why don't you start pleasing and serving people through food?" So she did, running the lunch place and also selling samosas at the 50th State Fair for a couple of years. The deep-fried potato-and-veggie-stuffed triangles were so popular at 2 for $1 that lines would form, she recalled, admitting that she cheats and uses won ton pi rather than rolling out her own dough.
But, she says of her days as a cook, "I was just playing games. If it doesn't seem like a game and I'm not playing, I can't do it." And the drudgery of the day-to-day business soon took the play right out of it.
At home, however, cooking is "like making art. And the media is never the same; it's always changing, and you can't keep it. You can't keep the taste. It's always going, gone," she said.
Loo said she knew when she was 11 that she wanted to come to Hawai'i. Daw Saw's insistence that she study Burmese dance, song and chant in her childhood had put her feet on a certain path. She majored in music at Chaminade and took a degree in fine art from the University of San Francisco in the 1970s. She has been living in the Islands ever since.
Loo believes Burmese cooking will appeal to many because the ingredients tend to be less expensive, it's generally healthful, and the flavors are pronounced without being overwhelming.
A case in point is the fish-noodle soup called mohinga, which is to Burma what saimin and oxtail soup are to Hawai'i. The Burmese comfort food is eaten anytime throughout the day. In her youth, there were little mohinga stands on every store corner. "Not too sanitary, but soooo delicious," she recalled.
Mohinga doesn't sound very good (canned mackerel?), doesn't look too appetizing (gray predominates) and tastes ... sensational.
The soup is made by cooking onions, canned mackerel and mashed chickpeas with chilies, garlic, ginger, lemongrass and turmeric to form a base of a consistency neither stock thin nor potato-soup thick. This is ladled steaming hot over cooked noodles (she uses Japanese somen, but you could even any fine white wheat noodle, even thin spaghetti) and garnished with a squeeze or two of fresh lemon, sliced boiled eggs, fish sauce and cilantro. The lemon makes the dish zing. And it's important that it be served hot and not mixed with the noodles until the very last minute, or they'll turn soggy.
EASY DOES IT
Loo, who speaks and writes Burmese, used old Burmese-language cookbooks for background, transcribing them and then simplifying so "the fastforward people, the 9-to-5ers" could use the book.
As a cookbook author, Loo shows her inexperience in not always explaining terms (what is sago? tapioca; what is shrimp paste? ground dried shrimp), failing to answer some key questions (what kind of chilies? what kind of fish sauce?) and in not listing ingredients in the order in which they're used. But the recipes are readily figured out by anyone with a modicum of cooking experience, and the ingredients are all easy to find in the Islands.
So those who buy the book won't have any trouble having a culinary conversation with their taste buds — in Burmese.
Reach Wanda A. Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org.