We just got home last week after 6 months of travel! It feels amazing to sleep in our own bed again! We spent time in some remarkable spots in the western US, southern Mexico and Thailand. But the most memorable adventure we took was the 2+ weeks we spent in Myanmar.
Myanmar (aka Burma) isn't as well known as some of its neighbors for food. Indeed, it kind of gets a bad reputation for greasy, bland noodles and little else. While we found this to often be the case in the south, the northeastern state of Shan had some of the most outstanding cuisine I've had anywhere. Shan is at a culinary crossroads with heavy influences from neighboring China and Southeast Asia, plus some uniquely local twists. The Shan food was so good, we each packed on a couple extra pounds during our travels. And it was worth every extra mile I now have to run to burn it all off!
This recipe is my attempt to capture the essence of Shan cuisine--a balance of fishiness, spice, and tang all served over a heap of noodles with a ton of simple garnishes. If you're looking for something unique, satisfying, and straightforward to make, this is your dish.
Note that strict vegetarians or vegans won't want to forego the fish sauce altogether, as it is essential to achieve the right flavor and balance. You can find a lot of recipes for vegan fish sauce online, mostly involving a combination of soy sauce, dried seaweed, and dehydrated mushrooms. I suggest going with one of those.
Prep time: 3 cocktails
2 cups chopped shallots
2 stalks lemongrass
1/4 cup peanut oil, divided
1 block of extra firm tofu, chopped into 3/4 - 1" cubes
1/4 cup chickpea flour (sometimes called besan--it is sold in bulk at natural grocers and in Indian markets)
1/2 tsp turmeric
1" piece of ginger, minced
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 14-ounce can coconut milk
2 TBSP fish sauce
1-2 tsp fermented soybean paste (available at any Asian grocer)
1 TBSP tamarind concentrate
1 tsp sugar
8 ounces dried noodles
Salt to taste (I usually need about 1/2 tsp)
Roasted peanuts, chopped coarsely
2 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and sliced into thin wheels
Shredded red or Napa cabbage
Red chili flakes
Start by prepping your shallots. Once you've got the 2 cups chopped, you want to get them very finely minced. You can do this by hand, but it's faster to toss it all in the food processor and pulse until it is a fine mince, but not so well processed that it starts to become a slurry. Set aside.
Now, peel outer layer from each lemongrass stalk. Then, using a sharp serrated knife, remove the tough 1-2 bottom inches and the top third of the stalks. Then chop your usable remaining lemongrass into 1/2-inch segments. Transfer to a mortar and grind it until you just have lemongrass fibers. Set aside.
In a large, heavy frying pan, heat 2 TBSP of the peanut oil over medium to medium-high heat. Add tofu cubes and saute until they become a nice dark golden-brown. This takes about 10-20 minutes, depending on the moisture content of the tofu. You'll need to stir almost constantly to prevent the tofu from sticking and you will also need to be careful not to break the tofu. Add a bit of extra oil if it all cooks off and tofu is sticking. Once fully cooked, transfer the tofu to a plate and set aside.
While you're working on the tofu, you can also toast the chickpea flour. Put it in a dry frying over medium-low to medium heat. Stirring almost constantly, dry-fry the flour until it turns a light brown. Then remove from heat, whisk in 1/2 cup water and set aside.
Once your tofu and chickpea flour are done, you can start to prepare your noodles.
As the noodles do their thing, you can assemble the sauce. Start by heating the remaining 2 TBSP peanut oil in a large pan or wok over medium heat. Once hot, add the turmeric and saute a few seconds. Then add the shallots and saute until they soften and become translucent, about 4 minutes. Add ginger and garlic and saute another 1-2 minutes. now, add coconut milk, fish sauce, soybean paste, tamarind concentrate, sugar, tofu, pulverized lemongrass, and chickpea paste. Bring to a simmer and cook, uncovered about 5 minutes or until you have reached the consistency of a thick cream sauce or gravy. Adjust salt and other flavorings as needed until you have a perfect balance.
Serve over noodles with all the garnishes!