A world of texture sets Burma apart
MiMi Aye is a ‘third culture kid’.
Born in Britain (Margate, specifically) to Burmese parents, the home cook and cookery book author says: “I have my foot in both worlds, and I always have done.”
She was brought up eating Burmese food, speaking Burmese, wearing Burmese clothing and visiting Burma from age eight onwards, where most of her family still live.
However, she is adamant that while the food in her latest recipe collection, Mandalay: Recipes and Tales from a Burmese Kitchen – its jacket a spectacular sunshine yellow, decorated with the print of a special occasion sarong (“a sign of women”) – “is part of me, it’s very personal”, the book is “not a nostalgia trip”.
Neither is it a comprehensive directory of every dish you might come across in Burma. That, Aye says, would be impossible.
“Burma is a huge country,” she explains, noting how disparate it is, being home to around 130 different ethnic groups. Whole swathes of it are also uninhabitable and travel is often very difficult, meaning there are “pockets of people everywhere” all with their own regional dishes, their own sources of produce and their own influences, from India, Thailand, China and more.
“We cherry-pick all the stuff we like best,” says Aye happily. As such, she considers her own food – and the food shared in Mandalay – as fairly mainstream Burmese and says upfront: “I am not an expert on Burmese food; I wouldn’t say I’m an authority either – I’m a geek. I probably know more about it than most people in the Western-speaking world, but I only know a fraction of Burmese cuisine.
“I just cook what I know, what I like,” adds Aye (40), and she’s clear that she hasn’t made any concessions to the Western palate. So, if you’re entirely new to Burmese flavours and ingredients, Mandalay is the ideal gateway and getting your head around texture is crucial. Texture (alongside fried food and pork) is “big” when it comes to Burmese food.
“You need crunch and contrast, that’s something we have in everything,” says Aye.
“If you have a curry, the curry might be quite soft, but you still need something on the side, so you’d have fritters for crunch or a side salad, because you want a mix.
“Every time you have a scoop of rice, you put a different morsel in with it.” A one dish, one bowl dinner is not ‘the one’ in Burmese cuisine.
“That’s dull,” says Aye with a laugh, “and we don’t do dull.”
Aye, a trained lawyer who lives in Kent with her husband and two children, began “shouting about” Burmese food 10 years ago. Since then, she says, Burmese food has become more well known over here, but it’s as up to Burmese people “to find confidence” in the cuisine, as it is for those outside the culture to embrace it.