Unless you’ve been to Myanmar or have a Burmese friend, you’ve probably never heard of mohinga, which is too bad; it’s essentially the national dish, made in nearly every corner of the country. When sister restaurant Burma Love was newly opened, Desmond noticed the mohinga served there wasn’t quite hitting the mark. To troubleshoot, he asked Ma Htay, one of the restaurant’s cooks who had been working on the salad station, to show the other cooks where they were going wrong. She nailed it.
Ma Htay grew up in Thanlyin, a city across the river from Yangon. She worked at a factory there until he and her husband and daughter secured a diversity visa to come to the United States. Ma Htay started cooking when she was ten years old, beginning with rice and working her way up to fried eggs until she finally learned how to make mohinga. The trick to this classic dish is achieving the right balance of ingredients, from the toasted rice powder to the freshness of the fish. And classic mohinga should contain lemongrass to counteract the fish aroma. In Myanmar, Ma Htay says, lines from at the mohinga stalls that get the ratio of ingredients correct. Each mohinga is built to order: the noodles (cooked separately) go into the bowl first, followed by a ladleful of soup and a handful of topping you can choose from. At home, mohinga is made in a big pot on special occasions. The richer you are (so the logic goes), the more fish you add to the pot.
The mild lemongrass-infused broth is thickened with toasted rice that is ground into a powder. A clean coffee grinder works well for grinding the rice. This recipe uses whole catfish, the bones of which add flavor and body to the broth. Fitting a whole catfish in a pot can be tough, though, so ask the fishmonger to cut it into thirds, retaining all the bones and the head, or be prepared to bend the fish to get it to fit into the pot. The fish flesh is later removed from the bones and mashed into a paste with aromatics, losing its shape. (Customers ordering mohinga for the first time often as where the fish is.)
Classic mohinga is not typically a spicy bowl of noodles. For a spicier version, try the Rakhine Mohinga (page 118). When selecting bay leaves, avoid fresh California bay laurel leaves and opt for milder bay leaves at Indian and Southeast Asian markets or leave them out. Use and or all of the garnishes suggested here.
½ cup uncooked jasmine rice
3 quarts water
3 stalks lemongrass (see page 228) cut into 3-inch pieces
2-ounce piece of ginger (unpeeled), thickly sliced crosswise into slabs
5 bay leaves
1 ½ teaspoon ground white pepper
2 teaspoons salt
1 scaled and gutted catfish (about 3 pounds
½ cup vegetable oil
1 stalk lemongrass, minced (see page 228)
¼ cup minced garlic
3 tablespoons minced ginger
1 tablespoon paprika
1 teaspoon turmeric
2 red onions, diced into ½-inch pieces (about 3 ½ cups)
¼ cup fish sauce
10 ounces fine round rice noodles
6 hard-boiled eggs (see sidebar, page 21), sliced
12 Yellow Split Pea Crackers (page 184), broken into pieces
½ cup chopped cilantro
2 limes, cut into wedges
Thinly sliced red onions
Heat the oven to 350 F. Spread the rice across a rimmed baking pan and bake, giving the pan an occasional stir, until the rice is an even gold color and aromatic, 20 minutes. Cool to room temperature and then pulverize in a clean coffee grinder.
To make the broth, select a large wide pot that will fit the catfish comfortably with room to spare. (An 8-quart pot works well.) Add the water, lemongrass, ginger, bay leaves, black and white pepper, and salt and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 15 minutes.
Carefully lower the fish into the pot. The fish may not be completely covered in water, but that’s okay. Bring the pot to a brisk simmer, lower the heat, and cook gently for 15 minutes. Using tongs, carefully turn the fish over or at least rotate it slightly to cook the side that was sticking out of the water. Simmer for another 5 minutes or until the fish flesh pulls away cleanly from the bone. Using tongs and a spider or slotted spoon, lift the fish out of the broth and transfer to a bowl. Turn off the heat and let the broth sit on the stove.
When the fish is cool enough to handle, pull off the skin and discar. Separate the cooked fish from the bones, trying to keep the skeleton (or skeleton portions if the fish is cut in pieces) intact. Set aside the cooked fish. Return the skeleton (including head and tail) to the pot.
Bring the pot to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 15 minutes. The broth should have a mild ginger-lemongrass flavor and be slightly cloudy. Strain the broth through a fine-mesh strainer. You will have about 10 cups. Give the pot a quick rinse (when it’s cool enough to handle), and return the broth to the pot.
In a small bowl, whisk together the powdered rice and a ladleful of the broth until no lumps remain. Stir into the broth. Bring the broth to a simmer and cook, stirring often, until it starts to barely thicken, about 5 minutes. Turn the heat to low and cook the broth at a gentle simmer while preparing the soup.
To make the soup, in a wok or large skillet, heat the oil over high heat. Add the lemongrass, garlic, and ginger and stir-fry for 1 minute. Add the cooked fish, paprika, and tumeric, mashing the fish gently with a spoon to turn it into a coarse paste, and cook for about 1 minute. If you see any errant bones, pick them out.
Pour the contents of the wok into the broth and bring back to a brisk simmer. Add the red onions and fish sauce. Simmer for 5 minutes more until the flavors start to come together. Taste the broth: it should be on the salty side because the noodles will not have any salt. If it’s not that salty, add some salt or fish sauce. (At this point, the soup can be cooled and served the next day.)
To cook the noodles, bring a pot of water to a boil. Add the noodles and cook stirring often with tongs or chopsticks to prevent sticking, for 5 to 6 minutes or until softened. Turn off the heat and let the noodles sit in the water for 3 minutes. Drain in a colander, rinse under cool running water, and give the colander a shake to remove excess water. If not serving right away, mix some canola oil into the noodles with your hands to keep them from sticking together. (You can also cook the noodles in advance and soak them in warm water before serving.)
To serve, divide the noodles among the bowls. Ladle the soup over the noodles and serve the hard-boiled eggs, crackers, cilantro, and lime wedges alongside.