Welcome to the Department of Salad #14

Many people eat salad dutifully because they feel it is good for them, but more enlightened types eat it happily because it is good.—Laurie Colwin

CHEF SALAD: MiMi Aye

MIMI AYE, THE BRITISH LAWYER TURNED FOOD WRITER and author of my latest favorite cookbook, Mandalay: Recipes and Tales from a Burmese Kitchen, was born in Margate, on England’s southeast coast, but the rest of her family—her two brothers and her parents—were born in Mandalay, in upper Burma (or Myanmar, as it was officially renamed in 1989).

Luckily for all of us, she had a mother who called bullshit on the common idea back then—perpetuated by all three of her children’s schools—that Aye and her brothers must completely assimilate. One headmaster went as far as to demand they speak English only—not just at school but also at home

Her mother’s response: Right, no, we’re not doing that.  

“I was brought up as Burmese—like, completely Burmese. English wasn’t spoken at home; it was for school and with my friends.”  Plus: her mother (who was known among their extended family and the Burmese community in Margate as the very best cook) fed Aye and her brothers the food she’d grown up eating. Today, Aye lives in the suburbs of London with her husband and their two small children. And although Burmese food will always be her first love, she says, she happily feeds her family “every cuisine under the sun.”

Aye’s parents arrived in England in 1979 to work for the NHS (both are doctors), but their plan had always been to return to Burma someday, with their culture, language, and cuisine firmly intact. 

“They were part of a generation of Burmese people that didn’t entirely leave the country willingly and they have that thing—even now that they’re in their 70s—that they’re going to return someday. They were very sure that they had to set me and my brothers up for that life. So that we would be equipped because we would obviously go back with them. Right?”

And part of the huge pleasure of Aye’s book comes in the form of her beautiful, evocative recollections of her many trips back to Burma as a child, to visit her parents’ family, in Mandalay, Mogok (the famed ruby-mining town that was her mother’s birthplace,) and Yangon/Rangoon. 

Aye was a child keenly aware of food. So along with vintage photos, cultural history, recipes, and guides to the ingredients and tools used by the Burmese, her book describes her visits with a childish wonder still beautifully intact. 

She recalls travelling from Yangon to Mandalay on the train (“a fifteen-hour, bone-juddering trip overnight on the hardest seats known to mankind”), punctuated by many stops, at which “countless smiling and chattering vendors would suddenly spring from nowhere and flock to our open windows, bearing baskets of wondrous things: bunches of sweet, fat, little bananas, strings of prickly rambutan; kettles of steaming green tea; banana-leaf parcels of sticky rice; ‘twigs’ of chewy goat jerky tied into bundles with straw knots we would have to unpick; and tiny packets of hard boiled quail eggs, which we would clumsily peel and pop into our mouths, one by wone, savoring the pale creamy yolks.”

All of this before they’d even arrived at her grandparent’s home, where the weary travelers would be plied with bowls of Burma’s national dish, mohinga, a fish and rice vermicelli breakfast soup “heaped with crispy split-pea fritters, slices of soft duck egg, bouncy fishcakes, roasted chili flakes and shredded coriander leaves, with salty fish sauce and lemon wedges to squeeze on the side.” 

And in addition to her grandparents’ food, Aye was completely in thrall of the many roadside-fare vendors, whom her grandfather would flag down from a wicker chair situated in the garage: “I’d be dancing around in the living room with the radio blaring, only to be interrupted constantly by my parents yelling, ‘Shan noodles are here!’, ‘There’s coconut sago pudding!’, ‘Come and get some pickled mayan-thi, [green marian plum]!’”

As a person who has never travelled to Burma, Aye’s book has brought the country and its cooks alive with such sweet tenderness that I have begun to wish with all my heart (and my tastebuds) that I could visit. 

But as we all know from the news lately, Burma is a country that finds itself once again in a dire political state, which pains Aye. 

“What’s happening in Burma right now is causing my family and me horrific anxiety and déjà vu, as it would to anyone of a certain age, especially as most of my family still live there. What gives us hope is that those on the ground this time around have a technological savvy and wherewithal, which means their voices will be heard. It does mean we’ve all kind of lost our appetites though, which is pretty unusual for the Burmese, but these are, once again, unusual times. We’re all just praying for the best and doing whatever we can to support the people there.”

Reading Aye’s book, thinking about Burma’s food and thereby its people, made me more aware and sensitive to that country’s plight than I might have otherwise been. Maybe that’s a bad thing to admit, but I think it’s true. Cookbooks for me are a window into other cultures. And I wondered how people felt about our own recent coup attempt here. 

And, perhaps very selfishly, I feel especially lucky, as a devourer of cookbooks, that Aye grew up with her heart—and her appetite—in two countries  

And also for the lengths to which her mother went to assure that her children grew up with such a strong sense of their native cuisine. In her introduction, Aye describes how her mother had to find grocery-store substitutes for such ingredients as gazun-ywet (water spinach) and mont-di bat (round rice noodles). And when she couldn’t find one extremely important ingredient—lahpet (pickled tea), she took her family to the Port of Tilbury outside London, where they would board a ship manned by Burmese sailors who had returned with Burmese provisions. “I still remember going to use their loo at the age of six and being bemused by a calendar pinned to the door that showed ladies in various states of undress,” she writes. 

Obviously, I have no easy access to pickled tea here in North Carolina, so rather than the famous Lahpet Thoke(Pickled Tea Leaf Salad), which I have never tasted but always been intrigued by, Aye suggested I make her absolutely enthralling Tohu Thoke (Burmese Tofu Salad), the recipe for which you’ll find below. 

Among the very interesting things that I learned from Aye about the Burmese salad tradition is that they are not made of leafy greens (vegetables are most often blanched or stir fried), that salad-making is usually relegated to the men (“Women control the stomach; my Dad made all the salads in our house, and I grew up thinking that was a weird curiosity but apparently it’s like doing the barbecue in Western countries”), that salads are not a starter (all dishes come at once), and that salad is often considered a snack, which is how I’ve been eating the quite substantial Tohu Thoke.

“They’re considered very butch and very naughty,” Aye told me. “They’re definitely not the kind of things that women eat to lose weight.”

I loved this last fact in particular, because so many people come to the Department of Salad with the wrongheaded idea that salad is for dieters. As if it were 1950.

And lastly, my favorite salad discovery:  in Burma, itinerant salad vendors are a thing. “They’ll turn up with all their little canisters containing all the different ingredients and you can you have it however you want it. So, you might say ‘I want more peanuts on mine. I want more dried shrimp, give me extra chili or I don't want any chili at all. So, I guess it’s like going into Subway and asking for your sandwich, but you’re asking for your salad, right?”

So, among the many reasons I am grateful to Aye: I have an exciting new career move in mind: Emily’s Roving Salad Bar.

How to connect: Aye co-hosts the food and culture podcast The MSG Pod, and she also hosts a supperclub and online community Burmese Food & Beyond. You can also find her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

*RECIPE: Burmese Tofu Salad (Tohu Thoke), by MiMi Aye

Growing up, I never understood why tofu was almost a dirty word in the UK until I discovered that tofu that I knew is quite different from what most people are used to. Unlike standard soybean tofu which is more of a blank canvas and therefore sadly often mistreated, in Burma, we use a type of chickpea and/or split pea (depending on whether you’re making the original Shan tofu or the adapted Burmese tofu) to make a golden tofu that is scrumptious in itself.  

Burmese tofu is versatile enough to be used as a topping for noodles before it’s even set, in salads and in stir-fries, and as a moreish snack in the form of fritters. This is how the Burmese like to cook—whether it’s our take on another cuisine, or creating something unique, we pride ourselves on making the most of what we have.

There’s no shame in using shortcuts either—though traditionally the pulses would be ground from scratch to make this tofu, you can make it from a handful of store-cupboard ingredients (and it’s vegan and gluten-free to boot). Here the tofu is used to make a wonderful, punchy salad, which is great as part of a meal or for those in-between moments. In Yangon, tamarind is used for sharpness, but in Mandalay where my dad’s family are from, vinegar is preferred.

For the tofu:

  • Groundnut oil or other neutral-tasting oil, for greasing and frying [EN: I used canola]

  • 3 ½ oz besan [EN: I used a barely heaping cup of regular chickpea flour, readily available at my crap grocer, and it worked really well]

  • ¼ teaspoon salt

  • ¼ teaspoon Accent/Ajinomoto or ½ tablespoon bouillon powder

  • ¼ teaspoon ground turmeric

  • ¼ teaspoon baking powder

For the dressing:

Shake together in a jar with a tight fitting lid:

  • 2 tablespoons dark vinegar (malt, black, or red wine)

  • 1 teaspoon light soy sauce

  • ½ teaspoon dark soy sauce

  • ½ teaspoon yellow bean sauce (or miso paste) [EN: I used miso paste]

  • ½ teaspoon store-bought chili oil

  • 6 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

To garnish:

  • 1 tablespoon salted peanuts, crushed

  • 1 tablespoon store-bought crispy fried onions

  • small handful of cilantro, shredded

  1. Grease an 8” x 6” rectangular container and set to one side.

  2. Place the besan, salt, Accent/Ajinomoto, turmeric and baking powder into a large bowl and gently whisk together. Slowly pour in 1 ½ cups water and keep whisking so it forms a smooth, thin batter. Cover and leave somewhere cool for 1 hour, whisking occasionally so the solids don’t settle.

  3. Add 1 cup of just-boiled water and 2 tablespoons of oil to a large saucepan and set over a high heat. Bring to a vigorous boil, pour in the batter, and begin stirring with a large wooden spoon. Reduce the heat to medium-high. Continue stirring for 3–5 minutes, or until the mixture is fragrant and bubbling – the consistency should become a thick, silky soup. Continue stirring the tofu mixture for a further 3–5 minutes, or until craters form on the surface and it is the consistency of very thick custard. Pour into the greased container and leave at room temperature for 1 hour, or until the tofu is completely cool and set. The set consistency should offer some resistance if you nudge it with a finger.

  4. Drain away any liquid that comes out and then wrap the tofu in paper towels and return to the container. At this point, you can cover the container with clingfilm or a lid and refrigerate until needed. The tofu will keep for 48 hours - note that you can it into the shape of dominoes or triangles and fry them to make a favorite Burmese fritter.

  5. When you’re ready to make the salad, slice the tofu into the shape of French fries and place in a mixing bowl. Add the dressing ingredients and toss together with your hands. Dish up in a shallow bowl and sprinkle the garnishes on top, and serve as a snack or starter. 

TEST KITCHEN

I’LL SAY IT AGAIN: I’ve been obsessed with waste lately, especially after my conversation with Lindsay-Jean Hard, in DOS Issue #12 

Therefore, I’ve been making every effort to shop for salad ingredients more carefully. Rather than running into the grocery store as if chased, like a person in a zombie movie after all hell has broken loose, and throwing way too much of everything I can get my hands on into my cart, I’ve been pulling waaaaaay back. Calming down. Reminding myself how overstuffed my kitchen is already. Here is a photo of me after I’ve over-shopped during the pandemic. Look at my expression!

The thing I tend to overpurchase: lemons. I love them and use them in everything so I always have at least one large bag in my house. My cousin Toni claims that wherever I go I leave a bag of lemons in my wake. Which is true: what am I supposed to do if I visit people and they DON’T HAVE LEMONS?

But this week, I find myself with two bags of lemons: the one that was already here and another that I purchased after I heard MiMi Aye mention a lemon salad in her cookbook. I acted too quickly: that contains dried shrimp and shrimp paste, which is not available to me except by mail.

So I made another lemon salad I’ve always wanted to try, by the great Rozanne Gold, a woman I have always worshipped and am going invite to hand over a salad recipe to the DOS (what an honor!). It’s from a fantastic book I have been using for decades, Recipes 1-2-3; every recipe uses just 3 ingredients (which you may embellish but do not need to).

(Now, unfortunately, I have extra zucchini, which bothers me even though I purchased them in a ratty sack from the rolling cart of rejects located near my produce man’s office door; I’ve been doing this a lot and it makes me feel virtuous: I’m rescuing zucchini! So soon you’re going to be getting a hypnotizing, mesmerising warm grated zucchini and pecorino salad from the late great Red Cat restaurant in NYC. I was going to include it in this issue but, as usual, I’m running out of space.)

I followed Gold’s instructions to fry the zucchini, and it was perfect. But I’m going to try it another way soon—slicing it into rounds, tossing with a bit olive oil, and roasting at high heat for 5 minutes; I will report back. I still plan to fry the lemon slices, because they cook in a flash and I can’t imagine messing with that perfect texture.

This is such a good dish, and would be perfect alongside some simply cooked fish. The zucchini become infused with a little smokey flavor, and the lemons turn into a kind of marmalade; the textures-flavor combination is dreamy. It’s the kind of thing you might find on an antipasto table in Italy rather than on a salad menu, but we are stretching our concept of salads here. I have another idea about this salad: the leftovers would be great tossed with pasta, some cheese, and basil, at room temperature. We’ll see where that goes.

*RECIPE: Rozanne Gold’s Fried Lemon and Zucchini Salad

Serves 4

  • 1 lb. medium zucchini (about 3 medium), sliced on a bias, about 1/3-inch thick

  • Olive oil, about 1/3 cup (I used less; you just want the pan to shimmer with a thin coating; you’re not deep frying)

  • 2 large thin-skinned lemons, very thinly sliced (Use your mandoline! Be careful!)

  1. Sprinkle the zucchini with 1 teaspoon of salt and place in a colander.  Let stand for 1 hour.  Rinse well and dry thoroughly. 

  2.  In a medium-sized skillet, fry small batches quickly in hot shallow oil, turning once, until golden brown.  Drain on paper towels and place in a bowl.  

  3. Add the lemons to the hot oil and fry, turning once.  

  4. The lemons will brown and the oil will thicken into a delicious sauce.  Add the cooked lemons to the zucchini and add some of the lemon oil.  Let marinate one hour at room temperature before serving (add 1 teaspoon of minced garlic while marinating if desired).  Sprinkle with salt and pepper.  You can also squeeze a small bit of fresh lemon juice all over.

And before I go: one more lemon recipe. A cream salad dressing that I adapted from Chef Suzanne Goin. She uses Meyer lemons. I use regular lemons and add a little lemon zest. It’s good on so many things; I love it poured over a big bowl of thinly sliced cucumbers, especially, or soft lettuces with cucumber and avocado.

*RECIPE: Dreamy Lemon Cream Shallot Dressing, adapted from Chef Suzanne Goin

  • 2 tablespoons finely diced shallot

  • 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

  • 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

  • 1 tablespoon honey

  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

  • 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon heavy cream

  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Place the shallot, lemon juice, zest, honey and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a bowl and let sit for 5 minutes. Whisk in the olive oil. Gently stir in the cream, add a few grinds of pepper and taste for balance and seasoning.

ANNOUNCEMENT: The Department of Salad is going paid next week. Prepare yourself emotionally. We’ll still have some free content, and you’ll be able to choose between a couple of options, depending on how much you love us. It will be a bargain!

NEXT WEEK! Our guest is my secret family-salad crush, Alex Stacey, who is talking to us about French Family Salads. See you on Friday.

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