In her introduction to Mandalay, MiMi Aye describes her aunt disclosing a recipe for Shan tofu to a housekeeper, who promptly quits her job to start up a tofu business in her own village. Recipes in Burmese culture are considered powerful, personal and secret – thankfully, Aye is willing to share.
Aye’s journey through Burmese cuisine (she has always known the country as Burma, as opposed to its current name, Myanmar, and refers to it as such throughout) opens with literal journeys – visiting the country every year from the UK as part of a family of five. She is the only one to have been born not in Mandalay or Mogok, but Margate, and we follow “an eight-year-old MiMi with food on her mind”.
The book reads with that same sense of giddy adventure. It is an exploration of Aye and her loved ones as much as Burma itself, from the egg and lettuce salad recipe her mother used to win her father’s heart, to the fried chicken handed through rolled-down windows by roadside vendors during long journeys.
MSG features heavily (Aye precludes the section with references to the lack of evidence the seasoning has ever caused anyone harm, and cites support from chefs from Heston Blumenthal to Anthony Bourdain) – but most ingredients are accessible to readers. Aye has deftly managed to include substitutes where necessary, but for the most part the nuance of flavour is in the technique – such as in the classic pork curry Wet Thar Hnat, which begins by tossing the meat in vinegar and then discarding it – traditionally thought to clean the pork while adding a slight sourness.
Burma is made up of 130 ethnic groups and takes heavy influence from China, India and Thailand among others (as the author is quick to point out when these “cover versions” feature in the book). One person’s Burma will only ever be that – but Mandalay is an utterly charming, enlightening collection of food and stories, written with authority and a clear sense of the author rarely seen in the ‘cookbooks by region’ shelves of a bookshop.
Mandalay: Recipes and Tales from a Burmese Kitchen by MiMi Aye (Bloomsbury, £26)
• Try the fried fish curry recipe from the book here