Recipes shared in home kitchens and passed between generations inform the way we eat just as much as the recipes we follow online. To celebrate this, we're interviewing the chefs, home cooks and food writers we love, where we'll be talking about how the food we make intermingles with ideas of tradition and cultural heritage.
I'm not someone to whom writing recipes comes very naturally. I am in the great tradition of people that don't like measuring things and find it quite arduous. When I was writing both my books, having to sit down and weigh things was genuinely quite painful. But I like being able to give people tools to be able to make something themselves and I like telling stories about food. In both my books, I try to set the scene in a way that makes people realise that there is more to a dish than just a set of ingredients and instructions.
I am Burmese and was born here about three months after my parents moved to this country. My parents are the type of diaspora that has always thought that they would eventually return and were very worried that we would lose our heritage. I’m a relative rarity because I speak Burmese. If you speak to anyone of my particular generation (I'm in my 40s) you will find that their parents were told by headteachers at school, by health workers, that it's not a good idea to speak your native language at home because [your children] won't pick up the local language – which is obviously nuts but that was the policy at the time. But my parents were incredibly stubborn and they tried to make sure that I spoke Burmese.
The focus was always around Burmese food at home because we had very English food at school and my mum wanted me to have a rounded palate. Initially that was quite difficult because the ingredients really weren't around, but my mum found ways to adapt. For example, rice noodles were completely unavailable for a very long time and so she'd use spaghetti but she treated it in a slightly different way so that it would be a bit more like the original dish. She would cook spaghetti and leave it so it was relatively firmed up, then she would rinse it a billion times after it was cooked so that the starch, which is appreciated and valued in Italian cuisine, was gone. The starch changed the palate and the texture profile of the Burmese dish, so by washing away the starch it tasted a bit more like a rice noodle.
The idea with Burmese cooking is that life's too short to be sitting and watching a pot.
There's a certain type of Burmese person (and my mum definitely falls in that category) where they're quite precious about their kitchen. I didn't actually get to cook properly for myself until I went to university because my mum was very much of the belief that 'this is my kitchen, I will do the cooking and through osmosis you can watch and learn'. So I would squirrel away what she was doing, I'd make notes. In terms of measurements, because my mum was winging it every single time that would just never happen. But I knew what went into things.
One of the most significant dishes for me, which is probably a familial thing, is a rice noodle dish called Mogok Meeshay. When my mum’s family moved from Mogok because it was too cold, the thing they brought with them was this dish and a love of pork. This is the dish that actually means home to me. It’s the one that when I visit my mum I request. It's the one that I've been cooking a lot since we've been on lockdown as I haven't been able to see my parents until recently. It's one that whenever we go to Burma, we get off the plane and we go to my auntie's house and it's on the table – it's what they cook for us. It's nostalgia for this lovely little wooden house that we had back in Mogok and all of the memories that they left there. My children like it as well, and it's one that I intend to pass on. Plus it’s incredibly easy to make. Which is very important!
The thing that a lot of people find quite surprising about Burmese food is that it doesn't necessarily use that many ingredients. Of the ingredients we do use, a lot of it is stock cupboard. Even if you're in the UK or even if you're on lockdown and you can't get a lot of ingredients... If you can get hold of a particular protein, you can make most of the dishes. So for the most famous pork curry or the most famous chicken curry, the seasonings are all ground seasonings. You're talking about ground ginger and turmeric and paprika. You're not talking about anything that's arcane enough that you'd have to go to a specialist supermarket to purchase it.
The dishes that we make can actually be made relatively quickly but if it does have to be done for a while it can be left to its own devices. The idea is that life's too short to be sitting and watching a pot. One of my favourite dishes just in terms of ease is a fried fish curry. I made it in a cookalong on Instagram Live and it was done in 20 minutes. You just need the basic protein, a couple of vegetables, a very hot pan and you're done. I don't have the patience to sit and watch something, and (this is painting with a broad brush) I don't think the Burmese character is known for being particularly patient either!
MiMi Aye was in conversation with Sadhbh O'Sullivan. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.