What is there to say about Naomi’s new book that hasn’t already been said? If you are at all interested in cooking or books and especially cookbooks, you know that last fall the reviewers were not just positive about this new release but marveled at the feat that is Burma: Rivers of Flavor, Naomi Duguid’s latest cookbook. Like her others, it is well-researched, authentic and so informative, yet approachable and inspiring. But to compile the research by sneaking in an out of a (at the time) completely closed country and to gain the trust of an oppressed people, naturally extremely cautious about sharing information, is more than anyone could have expected. Burma is seeing a new time unfold before it and this book came out on the cusp of that change, but this book is still a unique gift and maybe the first anthology of its kind. A window into the culture of the Burmese by way of something so telling–their cuisine.
Spotting the commonalities among the dishes of a cuisine gives me the starting point I need to dive into it–it provides a familiar point of reference or peaks my curiosity. Sometimes the same 3 or 4 condiments are served with very many dishes which tells me a lot about whether spice is generally added during cooking or mixed in at the table. Sometimes there’s a sauce that shows up constantly that’s aggressive on both the sweet and sour ends of the spectrum and that alone is at the heart of what makes a braised dish distinctly one country’s vs. another. Or there are foundation ingredients used in ways I haven’t seen before–like chickpeas in Burmese cooking. Chickpeas are stars in this book, appearing in soups, as thickeners, and in this tofu–the first I’ve ever cared to make from scratch because …chickpea? …tofu?! Intriguing, no? Intriguing enough to nudge me through to explore this recipe and this cuisine–one I might never have tasted or even thought of and I’m introduced yet again to the unfamiliar thanks to a great guide. I’m not surprised, I’m a regular on Naomi’s tours, but I’m no less grateful each time.
*YS note: I found the texture to be exactly as described after leaving my tofu to set overnight, however it released a lot of water. Before turning it out to cut, you may want to drain the water off–especially if you are intending to fry it. Once the pieces are cut, pat them as dry as possible to avoid the oil from splattering wildly.
2 c chickpea flour
2 1/2 tsp salt
6 c water
Peanut oil or vegetable oil
Place the chickpea flour and salt in a medium bowl and add 2 cups of the water. Whisk to blend well; you want to get rid of all lumps. (If you are having difficulty getting it perfectly smooth, press it through a sieve into another bowl.) Set aside for a moment.
Lightly oil two 8-inch ceramic or glass plates or shallow bowls at least 1 1/2 inches deep (or pans of similar volumes–7- or 8-inch square cake pans, for example).
Bring the remaining 4 cups of water to a boil in a wide, shallow, heavy pot, then lower the heat to medium-high. Whisk the chickpea mixture one more time, then use a wooden spoon to stir continuously as you slowly add it to the boiling water. The liquid will foam a little at first. Lower the heat to medium and continue stirring to ensure that the mixture does not stick to the bottom of the pot. After about 5 minutes, the mixture will be smooth, with a silky sheen to it, and will have thickened. Immediately pour it into the prepared plates or pans.
Let stand for a few minutes to cool slightly, then place in the refrigerator to firm up and set. After 1 hour, it will be firm enough to serve as tofu, but if you are planning to slice it for deep-frying, or to make a salad, it’s better to let it chill for at least 4 hours or even as long as overnight if you wish.
When ready to proceed, turn the tofu out onto a board*. It should be smooth, dense, and firm, not sticky, so that it can be thinly sliced without breaking; if it is still soft, place it back in the refrigerator to firm up. Use a sharp chef’s knife to slice it.
*YS note: Before turning the tofu out to slice, drain the water off. After slicing, gently pat the tofu pieces until dry to avoid the oil from splattering wildly.
Pale Yellow Shan Tofu, chilled overnight
Peanut oil for deep-frying
Slice the tofu into 1/8-inch-thick strips about 2 inches long, or into triangles, or slice it into 1/4-inch-thick pieces. (If you cut it thin, the fried pieces will be crisp; thicker pieces will have a tender interior and a crisp outer crust.)
Pour 1 1/2 to 2 inches of peanut oil into a deep fryer, stable wok, or wide, shallow pot, and heat over high heat. When the oil reaches 360F degrees (if you don’t have a thermometer, stand a wooden chopstick or wooden spoon handle in the oil–if the oil bubbles up along the wood, it is at temperature). One at a time, slide the strips or triangles of tofu into the oil near the side of the pan; try to make sure that they are not overlapping. Working in batches, use a slotted spoon or a spider to separate any that are sticking together. Lower the heat to medium-high and keep moving the pieces around so they brown evenly; turn them over occasionally. After about 5 minutes, they should have changed colour a little. Use tongs or a spider to lift them out of the hot oil, pausing to shake them a little and let the excess oil drain off, and transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate. Repeat with the remaining tofu.
Serve hot or warm, on their own or with one of the dipping sauces (Naomi’s recipes in Burma: Rivers of Flavor for Tamarind Sauce, Tart-Sweet Chili-Garlic Sauce and/or Kachin Salsa are recommended.)