Earlier this month several Americans invited to Madan and Narash Johri's Bethesda home for dinner were excited at the promise of a Burmese meal. No one knew exactly what to expect, showing that there is at least one advantage to being a hostess in a foreign country. Food familiar to you becomes exotic and intriguing party fare when served abroad.
A bit of predinner reading revealed only that rice and dried fish are staples of the Burmese diet. Neither appeared that evening. Instead, appetites were whetted with deep-fried balls of shrimp and of crab, served with a mustard flavored sauce and pickled ginger, and a crunchy spicy vegetable salad piled on appetizer size portions of dark bread.
The main dish was a mild chicken curry, served over noodles and annointed with any or all of a half a dozen or so condiments. Each guest controlled the spiciness of his or her portion by chosing the kinds and amounts of condiments to take. This method is a boon for those who don't like food highly seasoned and for cooks who worry that piquant seasoning might displease guests. For dessert, small, golden cake-like squares were passed. They were mellow and mildly sweet. There was tea, of course, and later on refreshing glasses of well-chilled beer.
Although the house is Western in design, the furnishings, art work and antiques lent an Eastern flavor. There was even an Indian bridal canopy hung over a portion of the dining area. Madan Johri, a former captain in the Indian navy, is with the World Bank here. His wife, known to family and friends as Kuku, practiced her considerable organizational and social skills in New Delhi while working for the Ford Foundation. Currently she is on the staff of the International School.
The Burma link comes through her family. Kuku Johri's parents, both Indian, lived in Burma during the period when it was part of the British Empire. Her father was born there. So was she. Forced to evacuate following the Japanese invasion, the family returned to India and her father continued a distinguished medical career.
But their life there wasn't forgotten. Kuku Johri explained that her mother had taught her Burmese cooking. "Store-bought noodles work well with the curry," she said, "but it bothers me because I remember how mother used to roll out the dough and cut the noodles by hand. She insisted on doing that."
Her father, now retired and on his first visit to this country, was called on to reconstruct the daily meal pattern in Burma. The day began with tea. From 10 a.m. until noon or later, one might eat a brunch like "Burmese breakfast." It began with gin and lime and included rice in some form. Lunch was a formal meal. Tea time broke up the afternoon. Dinner would begin well into the evening. Chicken curry would be prepared for the family, or for company. Fish might be served, but not in the same recipe.
"There was no such thing as a light meal," Kuku Johri explained. "You had a staff. They had to be kept busy, so there was always a full lunch and dinner."
"Burmese food sometimes strikes me as Chinese preparations with Indian spices," observed Anil Gore, a friend of the Johri's from Bombay who is Executive Director of Readers Digest India. "It is not nearly so hot as the food in some parts of India, but Indian food is really a collection of regional cuisines. Roughly speaking, the hotter the climate, the hotter the food." Madan Johri agreed. "To me, as an Indian," he said, "the first time I had this it was rather bland. Then I realized the spices were available to season it as I wished."
Kuku Johri also prepares Indian meals for company and, in fall and spring when outside dining is practical, she delights in serving a Monogolian Hot Pot. "I prepare five sauces and put them out along with separate platters of meat, vermicelli and spinach. These things are cooked in broth one at a time and the guests have them by turns, adding the sauces. It becomes a progressive dinner and at the end there is a wonderful soup."
Food is only one facet of Mrs. Johri's entertaining, though. She tries to keep her company to eight or 10 persons, and to mix in new acquaintances. "I delight in matching up guests," she said, "guessing who will fit together and then hearing their lively conversation as the evening goes on. It was part of my job in India and I still get a kick out of it." If there are newcomers, she is likely to take command at one table and her husband will be host at a second. Drinks and appetizers are served in a comfortable, glass enclosed room that thrusts its way among the branches of trees growing below on the sloping property.The company returns to the room for dessert, coffee and liqueurs.
Although Mrs. Johri has domestic help, she points out that most of the Burmese meal can be prepared ahead. The curry should be reheated and thickened at the last moment and the noodles should be freshly cooked. Otherwise the ingredients are ready and, as her favored manner of service is buffet-style, the guests serve themselves. It is a very satisfying one-dish main course. With it beer or tea would be appropriate, though she made the evening more festive by serving an Italian wine, the slightly effervescent Lambrusco.
In serving, the noodles go into a bowl first, then the curry is spooned over it. "Be sure there is sauce to the top of the noodles, but don't drown them," counseled Mrs. Johri's father. Condiments should be spooned over all and mixed in before eating. It may be wise, however, to put the chopped green pepper (sheer dynamite) and red pepper flakes on the side and add them gradually at the table until an appropriate spice level has been reached.
Only a few of the ingredients in the recipes that follow are not sold in supermarkets. A single visit to an Indian or Asian specialty market should yield the rest. KHAW swe (Burmese Mild Curry with Noodles) (4 servings) 1 chicken (3 to 3 1/2 pounds) 5 cups water 1 to 2 teaspoons salt, or to taste 1/2 teaspoon turmeric 3 medium onions, peeled and chopped 2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped 1 piece (1 inch) peeled ginger root 2 red chilies, seeds removed 2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil 1 can (12 ounces) unsweetened coconut milk 2 tablespoons gram (lentil) or chickpea flour*
Place chicken, water, salt and turmeric in a pot. Cover, bring liquid to a boil, then lower heat and simmer chicken until tender, about 1 hour. Remove from heat, reserving stock, and skin, bone and cube the chicken.
While chicken is cooking, mash onions, garlic, ginger and chilies to a paste, using a mortar and pestle or a food processor.
Heat oil in a large skillet.Fry onion paste over low heat for 5 to 10 minutes. Add chicken meat and brown it lightly. (If onion paste has been made in a processor, the mixture may be too liquid to brown, Add 1/2 teaspoon turmeric for color.) Add 3 cups of the stock and simmer for about 15 minutes until flavors have melded and chicken is quite tender. More stock may be added as needed to keep a soupy consistency. (Recipe may be made ahead to this point.)
Pour in coconut milk and cook about 5 minutes. Do not allow liquid to come to a boil or the milk may curdle. Use a little stock to make a paste with the flour. Pour this into the mixture and stir over low heat until it thickens somewhat. Serve it with the following: 1/2 pound noodles (spaghetti is suitable), freshly cooked and still hot 4 onions, thinly sliced and fried until brown and crisp in 1/2 inch of oil 3 or 4 spring onions, finely chopped Chopped green chilies* Chopped fresh coriander* 3 hard-cooked eggs, sliced or chopped Crushed red peppers 1 lemon, cut in wedges
Each person should spoon a portion of noodles into a soup bowl. Cover the noodles with a liberal amount of curry. The various condiments should be presented in separate bowls and are added to taste and mixed in by each person.
*Available in Asian food stores and some supermarkets. LET TO (Vegetable Salad) (6 to 8 servings) 1 medium green cabbage, shredded, or 1 pound bean sprouts 2 small potatoes, peeled and diced 1/2 cup sesame oil 2 large onions, peeled and sliced thin 4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced 1/2 cup dried shrimp or prawns* 1/2 cup gram (lentil) flour* 1 teaspoon vinegar Paprika 1/2 teaspoon red chili powder or cayenne pepper Salt to taste 3 or 4 spring onions, chopped 1/2 cup chopped peanuts
Steam or boil cabbage or bean sprouts until softened but still crisp. Cool. Steam or boil potatoes. Combine with cabbage in a bowl. Heat sesame oil in a wok or frying pan and fry onions until brown and crisp. Add garlic for final few minutes. Drain on paper towels.
Add several dashes of paprika (for color) to the oil, along with the chili powder, salt and vinegar. Pour over the vegetables and toss. In a separate pan heat the shrimps without scorching them. Pound or blend these to a powder. Heat the flour without scorching it. Add these to the bowl along with the fried onion and mix well. Garnish the bowl, or individual servings, with chopped spring onions and peanuts.
*Available at Asian markets and health food stores.
Notes: Small portions of this salad may also be piled on squares of dark bread and served as an appetizer. If preparing food for vegetarians, omit the dried shrimps. SUNA-MEKHE (Burmese dessert squares) (Makes 16 pieces) 1 cup cream of wheat 2 to 3 tablespoons butter 1 cup sugar 1 can (12 ounces) unsweetened coconut milk 2 eggs, beaten 1/2 cup black currants or raisins 1/2 teaspoon poppy seeds
Heat butter in a skillet or large saucepan. Add cream of wheat. Cook and stir over low heat until cereal becomes nicely golden. Add sugar and milk and stir until an even consistency is obtained. Pour some of mixture into a bowl with the eggs. Stir and return to pan along with currants. Cook briefly, then transfer mixture to an 8-by-8-inch baking dish. Level the top, sprinkle on poppy seeds and bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 20 to 25 minutes. Let cool, turn out onto a board and cut into 2-inch squares. Serve at room temperature.