Local Restauranteur and Chef Scores Home Run with Myanmar Recipe Book

Iridescent chef, Bryan Koh, surprises us yet again. This time with his Burmese cook book that breaks new ground in the world of Asian culinary exploration.  We attended the book launch at D Happy Factory along Boat Quay where Bryan awed us with an amazing smorgasbord of flavours and aromas from his Myanmar recipe book.

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0451 Mornings are for mont hin gar is not your typical cook book.  Beyond the impeccable range of recipes, the food stories that come with them infuses your imaginaries with rusticity and nostalgia – the primary ingredients that will transport your cooking experience to another realm.

There is no doubt that his recipes are amazing (we have all tasted it) but the culinary imaginations that his food narrative draws up make this book the perfect read for all chefs and cooking enthusiasts alike.  Out of Office Asia had a quick chat with Bryan and understand the passions and motivations behind his new creation, and his future plans.

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Your previous cook book was on Filipino cuisine and it was because of your nanny’s influence while you were growing up that got you interested in the cuisine.  What motivated you, in this instance, to pursue writing a cook book for the Burmese cuisine?

I’d been curious about Burmese cuisine for some time. It appeared to me that it is the only cuisine in Southeast Asia, apart, perhaps, from Cambodian cuisine, with which most are unfamiliar. Indeed up till recently there’s only been one book on the subject available outside Burma,  part of a series by Periplus on Southeast Asian cooking. That book was crucial, because it introduced me to ideas and ingredients I had no idea about. I went to Burma in 2012 – Yangon and Lake Inle, to be exact – and loved it. In my stilted hotel room on the fringes of Inle, I sowed the first seeds for the book. I was busy editing Milk Pigs & Violet Gold then, so I didn’t really give it too much thought, though. At that point it seemed so impractical, so fantastical, that it was liberating – editing Milk Pigs was tough in that I had to be unusually pragmatic in my decisions.

Also, there was an innocence to Burma – one that’s fading slowly, I feel – that was charming. It was joyous seeing people cook in towns, villages and even cities the way they’d been doing for decades, if not centuries. I guess it’s a byproduct of not being too tourist -friendly and opposed to foreign investment – that you cook Burmese food to please the Burmese crowd. I really wanted to capture that.

I would only write about things that I want to learn. In the case for 0451, it was the Burma’s culinary tapestry. So I knew it had to be regional as well. 

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The book is wonderfully speckled with your personal anecdotes and experiences. Which, to you, would be the most enjoyable part of writing this book?

I enjoy interacting with locals, meeting them and talking to them about what they cook, what they eat and what they used to eat when they were young. 

For this book, I remember one experience in Ban Maw, Kachin State. I was with a husband and wife who ran a little restaurant showcasing traditional Kachin food. They were so generous with their knowledge, and taught me nearly everything I know about Kachin food, from standard prep to vital herbs, which they had growing in their garden. They took out dishes that were being prepared for guests that evening, nga baung (steamed Kachin fish), grilled tongue and beef shan khat, which was brought out on a banana leaf with a bowl of purplish sticky rice and a little saucer of margarine. The last amused me. 

They were also terribly funny and generous with their time. It was getting late, I was scribbling like mad, and kept apologising for holding them up and the dear lady, Cecilia was her name, went, “Oh, don’t worry. We’re unemployed, outcasts, we have all the time in the world!”

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Which is your favourite dish in the book? 

It changes from time to time. Right now I love the peanut tofu salad, which is from Kyaing Tong in eastern Shan State. It tastes wonderful, both comforting and exotic. My translator when I was there told me how to make it. I served it at the launch with hideous amounts of fresh rice noodles, which had been imported from Yangon the day before. 

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The dishes that you cooked up for us have been nothing but awesome.   If I were to ask you to pick another dish now from the book to cook for us, which would it be? 

Probably a dish from Rakhine repertoire, which I, regrettably, had to leave out from the launch. Maybe nga htauk hsan, the Rakhine fish soup, or mondti, a Rakhine fish soup prepared with conger eel and served with rice noodles. Both with extra green chillies. Tube-cleansing, belly-burning stuff. 

What other plans do you have coming up?

The second edition of Milk Pigs emerges at the end of next year. It will be the first time I release it through my own publishing company. It’s currently being resculpted, trimmed and bulked up wherever necessary. 

Beyond that, there are a few things I’ve started to plan and write concurrently. I don’t think they’ll be huge books – with Philippines and Burma I felt at times that I’d bitten off more than I could chew. I’d like the first of them to be born just as 2017 winds down, but, as with all things that require research and travel, that’s if the auspices are in my favour. 

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*Bryan Koh is the proud chef and owner of the Chalk Farm where he spends most of his waking hours baking and inventing new cake creations.

Milk Pigs can be purchased via Kinokuniya online, and Mont Hin Gar will be listed soon. Stay tuned!

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