Burmese Hot and Sour Soup:
I fell in love in 1980 at a little Burmese restaurant near the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. If I remember correctly, it was called Mandalay. I fell in love with a hot and sour fish soup that was made by an antediluvian wrinkled tiny man. I have been fortunate to sample some extremely spicy foods over the years, and this made the list of one of the five hottest. I managed to convince the waiter that I did in fact want the soup as hot as the chef was comfortable making it (hot as possible is never the same as hot as long as it remains good), and when the soup was served, the chef followed the waiter out and watched me with twinkling eyes as I tried it, then beamed with happiness at my delight.
He informed me that he always would cut up a couple of these little tiny triangular Thai peppers that he grew himself, and he would stir fry them quickly in peanut oil for a moment and then ladle the peppers and oil out on top of the bowl of soup right before serving.
Yum. Of course, it is not necessary to make this quite so hot as all that, but really the hotter you can stand it, the better some of the flavors seem to blend.
I spent several years teaching myself (mostly by asking a lot of folks) how to replicate an approximation of that soup, but by the time I had the sense to go and beg to learn from him the restaurant was gone.
There are several basic varieties of Burmese soup. I make no claims that this is authentic anything, because everyone I’ve ever asked makes their soup a different way.
One of the lovely things about making soup is that you can just follow a flow chart in your brain to make it. Soup is easy, even when you stand around and fiddle with it off and on all the livelong day.
A few comments on making this soup:
You can use any stock you want. I used a duck/chicken stock this time. But I love using fish or shrimp stock for it. Or just about any other stock or even vegetable broth.
The kind of meat, or even if you put any meat at all is widely variable. I like using chicken, duck, catfish, grouper, or even pork. It doesn’t take much meat; it’s more of just another ingredient than a main feature.
Some amount of greens is great. I went a bit overboard this time, and put both cabbage and swiss chard in it. Any kind of cabbage, chard or kale-like greens, bok or pok choi, — in short, any type of brassica – works.
I like to use rice noodles, but you can use any kind of cellophane (mung bean) noodles, or even wheat based noodles. Think thin and light.
3 pints stock – duck, chicken, fish, shrimp, pork, or vegetable
6- 8 ounces cooked meat: this time I baked 6 chicken wings at 250 degrees for 3 hours with nothing but a little salt and pepper on them, then skinned out the meat.
¼ cup of lime juice
2 keffir lime leaves
1 cup chopped fresh cilantro
2-3 stems fresh young lemongrass, both the stem and the leaves. (or one larger stem)
2 inches fresh ginger, peeled
2 inches greater galangal, peeled
3 cloves of garlic, peeled
4 Thai bird peppers, or 2 scotch bonnets, or whatever you think you can stand of hot peppers
1 onion, chopped and sautéed
1 celery stalk
Tamarind. Use compressed (wet) tamarind.
Salt and pepper to taste
1 small asian cabbage or 1 bunch of chard or kale (or use 2 different ones, but lesser amounts of each). This time I used a single generic locally grown cabbage and a bunch of local swiss chard with the lower half of the stems chopped off.
1 tsp turmeric
2 tablespoons of red pepper garlic chili paste (like Nam Prik Pao). Make it yourself (it’s easy, or buy a good brand).
2 – 4 tablespoons of a good quality fish sauce, like Golden Boy
1 tsp of a good quality shrimp paste (Optional!)
Also optional: banana stem, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, lotus root.
Making vegetable, chicken, duck, or fish stock is easy. I know that so many people don’t think so, and so I’m in the process of writing a separate little recipe post on making stock. Beef, pork, or veal stock is a more time intensive process, but still doable at home.
Put the stock in a large soup pot. Bring to a low simmer.
Put about a tablespoon of tamarind in a mug with ½ cup of water and microwave it until the water boils. Stir it, pressing the tamarind against the cup. Let it steep until cool and then remove the tamarind pulp and throw it away. Add the liquid/paste to the stock. Note: beware of using tamarind “sauce” from a bottle, unless you are familiar with tamarind brands. Some tamarind paste is acceptable, but any packaged tamarind that is pourable is probably not something you want. Besides, compressed tamarind is cheap, and you can eat it like candy when you’re not cooking with it.
Combine the garlic and lime juice and puree. Add to the stock.
Sweat the onion and the celery in a little peanut oil at low temperature for about 12 minutes. Add to stock.
Add the chopped ginger and galangal to the stock, along with the keffir lime leaves and the turmeric.
Add the fish sauce, red chili paste, and any optional ingredients to the stock. I believe that shrimp paste is optional – some folks just don’t seem to like it in any quanity. I prefer to add this to the fish version of this soup.
Peel and chop the lemongrass stem, chop half the leaves into small bits, and keep the other half as whole leaf. Pound the stem flat, then add the stem and all leaves to the soup.
Scoop out a cup of the stock and braise the cabbage and/or greens in a sauce pan on high for 2-3 minutes, then turn down to a simmer and cover. In 20 minutes, add to the stock.
Add the meat. If you are using chicken or duck, you can use leftovers, which is easiest. Or cook extra wings as I did this time. If you are using fish, cook the fish in the stock earlier, then remove it until now. You can actually make the stock while cooking the fish, then remove the fish meat, finish the stock with bones, and save the meat to add later.
Add half the fresh cilantro. Salt and pepper to taste. Taste the broth and adjust flavors.
Simmer for an hour. Or longer. Remove the big leaves of lemongrass before serving.
Cook the noodles in boiling salty water, drain and place them in the serving bowls.
Chop the fresh Thai peppers (or whatever hot peppers you are using) and add them to a saucepan along with a couple tablespoons of peanut oil on very high heat. Stop before they significantly turn color. You can spoon this over the servings of soup or put in a small dish for people to use as a condiment.
Ladle the soup over the noodles, sprinkle some fresh cilantro over each serving, spoon on the hot peppers in oil, and serve. We made garlic bread this week to go with the soup.
More fish sauce, lime juice, and tamarind will make it sourer. More hot peppers (I can’t resist throwing one or two into the stock early) will make it spicier.
The combination of the spicy hot, the sour, the tang of the ginger and galangal and the lemongrass, the smoothness of the stock – all these flavors together make this a lovely and memorable soup. I have found that by varying the ingredients you can figure out which way the taste suits you best, and then – voila!
(nota bene: I forgot to shoot pictures for this, alas)