Monday, May 10, 2010


My hands are chilly as I write this, as if it were a wintry day. Along with many people, I've found it difficult and uncomfortable to adjust to the cold temperatures and wind and sleet and generally unfriendly weather of the last few days. Can this be May??It feels like an aggressive attack.

Context is everything, or at least matters so much, doesn't it? This weather in February would feel mild, if gusty. But now that we've been lulled into a relaxed basking in spring sunshine and warmth, we're undefended. The cold and wind have their way with us and we shiver and are tired and, if you're like me, we are hungry all the time!

Speaking of which, I have been deep-frying the last couple of days. It is a response to the cold, for sure, and also an important technique in some of the food from Burma that I am trying to figure out. Street snacks in Burma are often deep-fried, as in many other places, but it's more than that. The classic noodle dish, mohinga (rice noodles in fish or other broth with many options as toppings) often comes, at a streetstall, with the possibility of shrimp fritters or a kind of chickpea cracker-fritter, among other choices. It's about texture for sure, as well as taste and succulence. The contrast between the welcome tenderness of the rice noodles and the aromatic broth on the one hand, and crispy savory fritter-crackers crumbled on top on the other, is one of the major pleasures of mohinga in all its forms.

Today I tried shrimp fritters, two versions. In Rangoon they are flat and crispy, but I still haven't got them fine-tuned. Mine were lumpy and too thick, and not crispy enough. Back to the drawing board!

Another kind of deep-frying happened yesterday morning, and was a huge success. I have to go back another step: There's a kind of tofu-like food (that we wrote about in Hot Sour Salty Sweet) found in southern Yunnan and northern Burma and Laos. In Chiang Mai it's sold at the Friday Haw market (see my posts about the market from January I think, and late Feb too). Sometimes it's made of rice flour, but the Shan version, also found widely in Burma, is made from chickpea flour (known also as besan, or else as channa flour). (Besan is the flour used in the batter that coats pakoras, those deep-fried north Indian fritters. And besan is widely used in batters in Burma too.)

The "tofu" that is made from besan is a simple cooked batter. I'll put a recipe here when I have it completely tested and clearly written. It's made of besan and water and salt, and resembles a plain (unflavoured) version of that great Ethiopian vegetarian food called infirfir shiro (there's a recipe for it in Flatbreads & Flavors). In both, the proportions are one part besan to three parts water, by volume. The "tofu" sets after the slow-cooked smooth batter is poured into a pan and chilled for an hour. Then it firms up to solid and can be thinly sliced.

How to serve it? It's perfectly plain, flavoured only with salt, so it can be thinly sliced and dressed as a salad (shallot oil, fried shallots, chopped coriander leaves or mint or lime leaves, vinegar, a little soy or fish sauce and/or salt); or instead it can be deep-fried. Aha! It is spectacular as a deep-fried snack. I tried frying thin slices, and they were crispy and tender all at once; and I tried making slightly thicker pieces, in rectangles or triangles, and then the texture was a crsip surface and melting interior. All good, all terrific in fact.

I was so pleased with the results that I hurried over to 4-Life, in Kensington Market, to show Potz. I had told him about the besan tofu the day before and he'd said he wanted to see it and taste it. Various customers who happened to be there at the time had tastes of the salad and the deep-fried versions. The verdict was like mine: delish! And also, and this was interesting to me, people said things like, I feel there's so much soy product around, I am happy to be eating a tofu-like food that is NOT soy.

HMMM Do we go into business? No I don't think so. Let's just start making this at home.

I promise I'll post a recipe in the next week. Please send me a note of complaint if I am late!

And meantime, as spring has slowed to a halt, let's enjoy the freeze-frame (literally!) chance to have flowers that last more than a day and leaf-unfurlings that are now happening at a snail's pace.

On another subject entirely, last weekend marked the sixty-fifth anniversary of VE Day, the official end of the war in Europe. It was the start of new plans and ambitions for many, and the end of the road for others. Germany now dominates Europe economically, a different kind of victory, that comes with complicated responsibilities too. And this weekend, at last and belatedly, Germany and other EU countries finally came together to try to bail Europe out of financial catastrophe.

My father, who landed on the Canadian beach on the first day of the D-Day landings and made it all the way to Holland, where he spent nearly a year, would have been fascinated by the evolution of the world, especially as it is now playing out in Europe. I can't entirely imagine how he would have reacted to specifics, but he sure would have had opnions!

One of the huge losses, when we lose family and friends, is the loss of the chance to talk about the unfolding of events in our lives, both personal and large-scale political. Engaging in discussion with friends and peers and family is a huge treat for me. And I guess one of the positive things that comes out of the pain and loss we feel at the loss of a beloved of any kind is that we are driven to find new friends, new family, to share and engage with. Life goes on!

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