When Robert Carmack and Morrison Polkinghorne first travelled to Myanmar in 1996, their $5 each got them five kilometres past the bridge at Chiang Rai for five hours. After some persuasion, they agreed to be taken on a customs van.
“They showed us around town and took us to a lunch place,” Polkinghorne recalled. “It was a dirt floor, corrugated walls and ceiling. There were photos on the wall and one guy said ‘generals’ and that was the only English word he said the entire time. The food was bain marie style; they had about five different curries and one of them was a tiger curry, apparently.”
The locals were standoffish at first, but after giving their guides the slip — “We ditched them,” Carmack said — they found they became the centre of attention while shopping by themselves. “It was very embarrassing, but it didn’t feel dangerous at all,” Polkinghorne said. “One woman jumped over her stall and said how handsome I looked in a longyi.”
The reason for the transformation became clear after the holiday photos were developed. The van had the word “customers” printed on the side and was clearly owned by the government.
Since then, during their extensive travels through Myanmar over nearly two decades, Carmack and Polkinghorne have been careful to pay drivers, hoteliers and restaurateurs directly. The result has been long and lasting friendships, and an accumulation of recipes and history they have turned into The Burma Cookbook. Published by Bangkok’s River Books, it was named the Best Asian Cookbook of the Year at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards, up against thousands of entries from 205 countries.
Carmack, a TV food stylist for 35 years and author of four previous cookbooks, and Polkinghorne, who took all but four of the photographs and handled the design of the book, have pulled together 175 recipes and more than 100 years of history. It encompasses the colonial period, delves into cuisines from across the country, and devotes sections to tea and beverages (both alcoholic and not).
“We want to stress this, it’s not an ethnographic cookbook,” Carmack said over a plate of tea-leaf salad in a Pan Road restaurant. “It is a glorification of the last 100 years of cooking Burmese meals. We thought, if someone’s from London or Sydney, they will think ‘Oh, this is pretty but I’ll never get around to cooking it’. That’s why we included things like Burmese scotch eggs.”
There are several inclusions, such a pineapple souffle, which do not automatically spring to mind when Myanmar is mentioned.
“People said, why is lobster thermidor in there? Well, first of all Myanmar has one of the best lobsters in the world and for years they were being fished out and being repackaged ‘Product of Thailand’. And second, The Strand has served it for over 100 years.”
Yangon’s Strand Hotel is a lynchpin for the book, with its history of glory days, dilapidation and resurrection. The two had long been accustomed to being the only guests (“Have you ever had 25 staff?” Polkinghorne laughed) and relied on staff for information and as models for photographs. “You feel like you’re sitting in these corridors where Somerset Maugham would have walked,” Carmack said.
“I think people want something that takes them back to the grand era of travel. As sore a point as it may be for the locals, people want to have a unique experience and Myanmar can give them a step back in time because of its architecture.”
The research, and the group food tours the two have conducted over the past decade, took them from grand hotels to roadside tea stalls far and wide. In many cases, there were no written recipes to work from. With so many ethnic variations and the influence of the colonial years, defining the country’s cuisine is not an easy task. Myanmar is nestled between India, China and Thailand, countries whose flavours are famous around the world.
“It’s not any of those, it’s nuanced food,” Carmack explained. “Westerners, especially from an Anglo background, really do like the subtlety of it.
“The essential flavours, to us, is seasoned oil. They slowly cook their onion, garlic, maybe chilli and ginger, in this oil for up to 15 minutes, not like a fast fry. Unlike any salad in Thailand, they use oil in their salads and they use a cooked oil, but that oil has a very subtle flavour.
“The other thing is they take the onion and the garlic and they use it as a garnish at the end. And it’s the same with the curries. They believe that if food sits with onion and garlic for too long, it’s too strong. You compare that to any Western beef stew for example, or a Thai curry, that doesn’t seem to become an issue, but for the Burmese that’s, again, their subtlety in flavours. And Westerners really do like that subtlety, they think it’s a break.”
While there should be few problems finding ingredients in Thailand, the book was written with an international readership in mind. An extensive glossary, a long list of substitute ingredients and detailed descriptions have been included.
“I don’t expect anyone to be fermenting their own tea leaves, first of all I don’t want to be responsible for anyone poisoning themselves,” Carmack said. “But [the substitutes] do make it accessible, whether you’re in Anchorage or Mandalay, you can cook out of this.”
Carmack, from North America, and Polkinghorne, from Australia, live in Battambang, Cambodia, and organise food tours through the Globetrotting Gourmet website. Carmack is an experienced food journalist and stylist who said he had worked his way from gourmet dishes up to fast food — where the money and the degree of difficulty is higher. Polkinghorne trained to be a chef, but when he finished his apprenticeship vowed never to cook for a living. Instead, he has specialised in 18th-century tassels, fringes and braids and deals mostly with interior designers with specific demands.
The two have an eye for detail they have brought to bear on the book, and they were given almost free rein with the design.
“I weave on 18th century French looms, and I’m a geek,” Polkinghorne explained. “They said, ‘Do you want to do the book as well?’ And I said, ‘Yeah … how do you do InDesign?’ A couple of friends and YouTube helped.”
From the cover to Edwardian typefaces to the pattern from a 1956 Christmas card used inside the dust cover, The Burma Cookbook is almost too pretty to use in the kitchen. Carmack has a quick reply: “There’s an easy solution for that — you get two copies.”