My cookbook collection has always tended to be a mishmash of things that struck my fancy at odd moments. Maybe the most miscellaneous exhibit of all is a smattering of books that stands today as inexhaustibly fascinating records of a time before the sun had set on the British Empire or many American missionary outposts.
I treasure, among other works, the 1958 edition of “The Kenya Settlers’ Cookery Book and Household Guide,” still offering advice on cucumber sandwiches and safari preparations to members of a Scottish Presbyterian women’s guild in Nairobi 30 years after the book was first published. I love the bilingual (English and Thai) “YWCA Cook Book, Bangkok,” which in 1967 was comforting Western exiles with recipes for sloppy Joes and green split pea soup while providing an invaluable illustrated guide to many Southeast Asian vegetables, herbs, fruits and fish. My favorite of the lot, however, is “Rangoon International Cook Book.”
This amazing document went through several editions. Mine is the first. It appeared in 1954, seven years after the assassination of General Aung San, principal architect of the post-World War II Burmese campaign against British rule, and six years after Burma had achieved independence. Aung San’s widow, Khin Kyi, was serving as national minister for social justice when the Women’s Society of Christian Service of the Methodist English Church decided to publish a cookbook reflecting the culinary omnium-gatherum of Rangoon, “where many countries and races meet, and share friendship as well as food.”
Unlike the cheerful plagiarists who churn out many such works, the Women’s Society actually credited sources of previously published recipes. That was why during my research for a biography of Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker in the mid-1990s I came across some scraps of Rangoon-to-Cincinnati correspondence regarding permission to use several recipes from “The Joy of Cooking.” Eventually I managed to buy my own copy of the book.
The drab little 1954 volume was a fund-raiser for the city’s Methodist English High School, where Aung San and Khin Kyi’s 9-year-old daughter, Suu Kyi, was a student. Like many other cookbooks-for-a-cause, it is freely peppered with ads — in this case from the likes of San Loo Chow Restaurant (“the FINEST Shanghai CHINESE COOKERY In Town”), Nam Seng kitchenwares shop and the Rangoon agency of KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. The contributors crammed in some advice on nutrition (via Betty Crocker) and infant feeding along with several pages of suggested menus, a seasonal guide to local market produce and an English/Burmese/Hindi glossary of names for foods.
The Women’s Society and the school — to alumni, MEHS — clearly were a lot more ethnically and culturally diverse than a merely trilingual glossary suggests. The several Chinese menus probably owed much to the book’s Fujian-born editor, Mary Brewster Hollister (the daughter of a Methodist missionary family and a prolific author of children’s books and novels about China), and her sister, Karis Brewster Manton. Other menus include “English Four O’Clock Tea,” two American-style picnics, “Indian Buffet Dinner,” “Pakistan Luncheon” and a nine-course “Burmese Meal for Guests” that had been specially solicited from the beloved “Mrs. Aung San.”
The 500-odd recipes are even more multifarious. The sources range from American manufacturers’ brochures, Ladies’ Home Journal or McCall’s clippings, and Clementine Paddleford’s This Week column to the wife of the Ceylonese ambassador. A Burmese grande dame had been persuaded to part with her recipe for delicate spirals of candied ginger. A Rangoon caterer specializing in mohinga, the splendid Burmese soup-stew of fish and rice noodles, divulged her renowned version. A Texan serving with the Technical Cooperation Administration (a Cold War foreign assistance program of the U.S. State Department) shared his grandiose blueprint for a home-style barbecue.
In the bread chapter, South Indian dosai, idli and an accompanying yogurt (“curd”) chutney occupy a page facing oatcakes, potato scones and bacon-studded pancakes with syrup (the first two Scottish, the third Dutch). “Cereal, Lentil and Noodle Dishes” embraces Burmese coconut rice, American Midwestern Johnny Marzetti, Pakistani biryani (“A Mohammedan Festival Dish”) and a version of Amoy rice vermicelli that Mary Brewster Hollister apparently brought from China — luckily arriving to find Fujianese in Rangoon manufacturing the right kind of noodles.
The contributors had not the slightest idea of spelling out foolproof directions for non-cooks, or indeed cooks outside their own ethnic group. They often measured ingredients in the local units of viss and tical. They assumed that, like them, other people would regularly use Indian-style jaggery and atta for Western brown sugar and whole-wheat flour, or resort to tropical substitutes for the fruits in apple tart or peach crisp pie.
Some recipes are fairly intelligible, others filled with obstacles. So it was only a few weeks ago that I ventured to cook anything from the book. Trying to find a potluck dish for a mushroom-themed reception and lecture, I homed in on two adjacent recipes in the vegetable chapter, Hill Mushroom Curry from Nellie Isaac (a teacher at MEHS) and Mushroom Curry from Mrs. David Tin Hla (wife of the Rangoon YMCA general secretary). I’d never made a mushroom curry in my life, but why not?
I did, however, want to find out first what “hill mushrooms,” or taung-bho-hmo, were. My pal Naomi Duguid, whose book “Burma: Rivers of Flavor” is due out this fall, wasn’t sure. But she promptly put me in touch with a friend in Myanmar: the writer, artist, activist and MEHS alumna Ma Thanegi, a sometime political ally of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Thanegi explained that taung-bho-hmo grow on anthills during the summer rains. There are two types; the smaller sounds like the “hill mushrooms in bud” recommended in the recipe. Neither they nor the thicker ones disparaged by Nellie Isaac as “apt to be coarse” are yet in season, but Thanegi undertook to send photos when local women start selling them. With luck, I may hit on a good American substitute.
Meanwhile, with little idea of what might come closest to the flavor and texture of the original, I fell back on the line of least resistance and expense by using ordinary white mushrooms and improvising a hybrid of both versions. I omitted Nellie Isaac’s water spinach (“rabbit greens” or Kazunywet), used fresh chiles instead of dried, opted for Mrs. Tin Hla’s onions and lemongrass and threw in a bit of my own garam masala. The dish may or may not accurately represent the two versions that inspired it, but it does prove that mushroom curry is a great idea.
Burmese-Inspired Mushroom Curry
Serves 12 to 15
This is one of those Southeast Asian dishes in which the main flavoring ingredients are reduced almost to a paste, usually by pounding in a mortar or whizzing in a food processor — which you may prefer to my chosen tactic of mincing or chopping the seasonings one at a time. (I think the frying goes better with ingredients added in sequence instead of all at once.) I also cook the mushrooms separately before combining everything, so that they absorb more of the golden turmeric color.
These amounts yield enough for a party, but can easily be halved. Experiment as you like with the proportions of garlic, chiles and other seasonings. I took the liberty of using full-flavored Malaysian shrimp paste instead of the “best fish sauce” specified by Nellie Isaac, but would be glad to be corrected if this is a blooper.
- Peel or trim all the fresh flavoring ingredients from garlic through chiles as necessary. Separately mince each very fine with a heavy sharp knife (I use a Chinese cleaver). Chop the onions fairly fine. Set aside all these sauce ingredients in separate piles.
- Cut off the mushroom stems and save for another use. Cut any large caps into quarters or halves; leave small ones whole. Set aside while you make the sauce paste.
- Scoop out the shrimp paste onto a small (about 4 inches square) piece of aluminum foil. Fold over the edges to make a square packet, squashing the paste flat as you do so. Set the packet over a gas burner on low flame or an electric one preheated to medium-high for about 1½ minutes. Turn with tongs, heat for 1 more minute and remove from the heat. Open the package and scrap out the shrimp paste into a small condiment bowl. (If using fish sauce, skip this step.)
- Choose a wide, heavy saute pan or Dutch oven. (These amounts are too large for a wok.) Set it over high heat until a drop of water spits fiercely on contact. At once add ¼ cup of the oil. When it is barely starting to smoke, add the garlic and stir-fry for 20 to 30 seconds. Add the ginger and lemongrass; reduce the heat slightly and stir-fry for another 20 to 30 seconds. Add the shallots, chiles and shrimp paste (or fish sauce). Reduce the heat just a bit more and stir-fry for another 2 to 3 minutes. Add the onions, with another slug of oil if the sauce paste is starting to stick. Give everything a good stir and cook, stirring frequently, until the onions are softened and partly translucent, about 5 to 7 minutes. Scrape the mixture into a heatproof bowl, rinse out and dry the pan, and get ready to continue.
- Heat the pan as before and add another ¼ to ⅓ cup of the oil. When it is not quite smoking, stir in the turmeric and garam masala. Dump in the mushrooms, reduce the heat to medium or medium-low and toss to coat the mushrooms evenly with the yellow-tinted oil. Continue to cook, stirring constantly, until they begin to release their liquid; add a little more oil as necessary if the pan becomes dry. When the juices are fully released, raise the heat to high or medium-high and cook, stirring constantly, until the liquid is almost completely evaporated.
- Reduce the heat to medium-low. Scrape the reserved cooking sauce into the pan, stir to distribute everything evenly, and let cook for 2 to 4 minutes longer. Turn out into a serving dish and squeeze the lime juice over the mushrooms. Serve hot or at room temperature, garnished with fresh cilantro.
Anne Mendelson is a freelance writer, editor, and reviewer specializing in food-related subjects. She has worked as consultant on several cookbooks, was a contributing editor to the late lamented Gourmet, and has been an occasional contributor to the New York Times Dining Section and the Los Angeles Times Food Section. Her biography of Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, Stand Facing the Stove (Henry Holt 1996), won widespread critical praise for its insights into the history of modern American cooking. In 2000 – 2001 she held a fellowship at the Dorothy and Lewis Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, working on a study of food history in New York City. (Part of this research, a survey of pre-European foodways among the Lenape Indians, won the 2007 Sophie Coe Prize in Food History at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery.) Her most recent book is Milk, a cultural-historical survey of milk and fresh dairy products (Knopf 2008).She is now working, with a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation, on a study of how the global Chinese diaspora is influencing Chinese food in America.
Photos: Top, Freshly picked mushrooms. Credit: iStockPhoto
Bottom, “Rangoon International Cook Book.” Credit: Anne Mendelson