This article was originally posted in Edible Buffalo’s Summer 2012 edition.
The City of Buffalo is an extraordinary city. It sits in the northeast section of Lake Erie and over the years has changed, ever so slowly, its image of beaten down and abandoned to vibrant and flourishing. Buffalo is unique in its location, history and cuisine. Most especially it’s hidden cuisine.
Over the last twenty years, Buffalo has helped transition thousands of people from dangerous war ravaged homes overseas. Many moved onto second locations, either towards cities west of here or up into Canada. Those that have stayed have contributed with starting small businesses and influencing the ever-changing flavor of the city from its look to its taste. One of these groups of people that have come most recently is the Burmese. Most of whom have lived in neighboring Asian cities in refugee zones or camps for years before finally being given permission to move to the US. Most have settled in the West Side of Buffalo. Buffalo has seen a boom in the number of Burmese and Thai grocery stores, restaurants and clothing shops, particularly in the West Side and Black Rock. Each of the grocers offer a copious amount of local produce, but tucked in amongst them are imports from California, Florida and a number of Asian countries like Thailand and Laos.
The Burmese community is a tight knit group made up of large numbers of extended families that live within walking distance of one another and to the stores they shop at. Near my own home there are four houses for one family. Each house has approximately eight to ten family members who all work together to take care of one another. They meet up at one house, switching houses for each meet up, to share a large lunch or dinner together and sing and dance and gossip and be with loved ones. Their food is complexly flavored but simple in that they use few ingredients. During the Spring, Summer and Fall they can be found all over the Westside foraging for wild plants and herbs and fishing along the Niagara River.
Most of these families came to Buffalo through resettlement agencies such as Journey’s End, a resettlement agency whose mission it is to provide refugees with the resources and support they need to become successful, active and contributing members of the Western New York Community. One of these refugees was Soe M. Maung, who came to Buffalo with his parents over six years ago from Thailand. He lived in Burma/Myanmar until he was 15 but when his mother’s contributions to the Pro-Democratic movement, the National League for Democracy, and their leader Aung San Suu Kyi became noticed and subsequently too dangerous, Soe and his parents left their family, friends and business and applied for political asylum. Although his mother, Khin San Wai, currently works in a factory, she dreams of owning her own catering business, which Soe recently helped her start.
Khin’s specialty is an Egg Curry, done in such a secretive way, that the only way to try it is to ask her to make it. Soe’s favorite is a potato, boiled egg and dry fish curry. Served with rice and eaten with your hands, this dish is rich and flavorful. One of Burma’s most treasured dishes is Mohinga, an intensely flavored fish soup. This can be found served by street vendors and in upscale restaurants and is eaten at all times of the day. Lucky for you, you won’t have to go quite so far. A trip to the West Side Bazaar’s Kyle Sein Hein will satisfy your every craving, but most especially for Mohinga!
Prepare the fish:
1 lemongrass stalk, bruised
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
To make the onion paste:
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic
1 piece fresh ginger
2 lemon grass stalks, white part only
3 whole dried chillies, soaked in hot water
1 teaspoon shrimp paste
½ teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
6 tablespoons peanut oil
To make the soup:
1.5 litres water
100g young banana stem, sliced (alternatively use 12 small shallots, peeled)
75g ground rice powder, roasted
3 tablespoons fish sauce
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
500g fine rice noodles or
wheat noodles, cooked
3 limes, halved
5 hard-boiled eggs, peeled & quartered
2 handfuls of fresh coriander, chopped
gourd or onion crispy fritters
extra fish sauce & chilli flakes
In a large pan, bring water, lemon grass, turmeric and fish to a boil and then simmer for 10 minutes until the fish is just cooked. Remove the fish, cool and then peel the skin and flake, discarding any bones. Drain the fish stock through a sieve and save for the soup.
Pound the onion, garlic, ginger, dried chilies and lemongrass into a paste in a pestle and mortar, or chop everything as finely as you can.
Heat the oil in a saucepan and add the onion paste. Cook over medium heat for 15 minutes until the paste is soft and caramelized. Add the shrimp paste, mashing with a wooden spoon until incorporated, then mix in the turmeric and paprika. Cook until the spices are fragrant before adding the flaked fish. Cover and cook for 10 minutes, allowing all the flavours from the onion paste to infuse into the fish. This is the paste base for the soup.
To make the soup: Put the soup paste, rice powder, water and the reserved fish stock (or 500ml of water if not using fish stock) in a large pan. Bring to a boil while stirring continuously to make sure the rice powder doesn’t clump. Add the shallots or banana stem and simmer for 25 minutes until they tender. Add the fish sauce, adding black pepper to taste.
To serve, place a handful of noodles in a bowl and ladle in the soup. Garnish as you wish. It should taste spicy, salty and tangy from the limes.
Cooking time: 50-70 min