Culinary mishaps: Badly braised Burmese duck

Myanmar is so in this year. It’s listed in the top ten places to travel by the Lonely Planet Guidebook. Investors are flocking into the country to search for opportunities and new markets. The Burmese language program is the most popular one at SAIS @ John Hopkins this year. Back in 2007 when I was a first year student at Davidson College, no one even knew what Myanmar is. But then again it was Davidson, in North Carolina.

Investors and tourists aside, Burmese cuisine has caught attention lately from a variety of different people. Burmese food came in at #7 on the BA list of 25 food trends for 2013. Two amazing cookbooks just came out in the past six months. James Beard Award-winning author Naomi Duguid had been eating and studying the cuisine for a number of years and her book “Burma: Rivers of Flavor” was just published in September 2012.

Burma: Rivers of Flavor

The second book “Hsa*ba: Please Eat” is written by a Burmese woman named Tin Cho Chaw. Her beautiful book contains amazing photos contributed by her husband. This is also the kind of book I can only hope to write one day in a long-term future! Not that I am well-versed in this art (just read along) or anything, but my life goal #506 is to write a hybrid between Molly Wizenberg’s “A Homemade Life” and “Hsa*ba.” Or something like that. In any case, just go to this website and order your copy. NOW!

Hsa*ba: Please Eat

Then, this evening, I had some people over for dinner and one of them is working on a project that involves 200 family recipes from the Kachin State. He also happens to be a chef from New York City. Surely, I have come a long way since my days with Third Rich Pressure Cookers, where my college pals and I embarked on a journey to learn to cook and poked fun of ourselves. Still, that does not mean I am going to make perfectly braised duck and serve it to a New York City chef. Not at all.

My culinary errors unfolded immediately after I began making the chicken curry. As I was leisurely massaging turmeric and chili peppers into the meat, an inconvenient truth dawned upon me: THIS IS NOT CHICKEN.

I was holding none other than the dark duck meat and I had no former experience cooking this type of meat at all. Duck is fattier and takes way longer to cook. In Myanmar, the ubiquitous duck is considered cheap and hardly cherished at all. Three US dollars gets you half a vice of it. While my originally planned dish “chicken curry with gourd” enjoys the status of a classic Burmese dish, no one particularly makes duck curry with gourd. If I started calling the dish “a contemporary twist to the traditional chicken curry with smoky flavors,” no one would be fooled.

At dinner, Robert and Jalin graciously ate what was served to them. But you knew you hadn’t cooked the meat long enough when the guests remarked, “the flavors are nice.” I learned the crucial detail that the duck takes long to become tender but free range Burmese ducks take even longer. An hour of braising just isn’t enough. I have made plenty of culinary mistakes (from making bad hot chocolate to serving perhaps soapy turkey soup) but I have outdone myself here today.

Life goal #506 still stands far away, but I have had a pretty sweet Sunday. And some duck curry leftovers to braise more tomorrow.

Better luck in the kitchen to you,


Ngapi Lovers


Offspring of Ms. Fish and Mr. Salt. A staple of rural Myanmar. And an ultimate condiment of controversy from South East Asia. Perhaps only the infamous durian may beat ngapi when it comes to ‘acquired tastes’ in all things Asia. Certain Yangonites claim to shun ngapi, considered a lowly food that belongs to commoners. Young women watch their intake of it, because its saltiness is believed to compound skin problems and create acne. But we all know they secretly adore ngapi anyway.

That’s true. Ngapi – though putrid-smelling – is a great source of protein that sustains thousands and thousands of families with food insecurity in Myanmar, particularly in the Irrawaddy Delta. You pound the raw fish, salt it, dry it and store it. When preparing the sauce, you boil the fish paste ball in hot water, add spices and use as many garnishes as you can get creative, e.g. lemon leaves! Known internationally as the Vietnamese fish paste, ngapi also happens to be the #1 common denominator for the diverse cultures of South East Asia.

But South East Asians are not the only lovers of ngapi. Another civilization that adored fermented fish paste is none other than the Romans. Ancient Romans fondly used this fermented sauce made of fish scraps and parts in their cooking and in some of their fanciest and most extravagant recipes. They called the sauce garum. Someone wise told me that the popular Worcestershire sauce is derived from garum.

What is most striking about all of this, you ask? The two civilizations independently developed the same bizarre foodstuff, and that one of them has forgotten almost everything about it. Many foreign visitors that drop by Myanmar dare not try ngapi and French scorn it, as if they have forgotten their former love for fermented fish paste. It’s like garum never happened to them. Urgh, heartbreaking.

Ever wonder what people from Myanmar generally consider ‘gross’? Here is a list. This blog welcomes any suggestions to add to this list.

– Steak. Rare. Bloody meat. Arrrr.

– Marsh mellows.

– Mac n cheese.

– Any cheese really.

– Bland boiled veggies.

– Raw vegetable salads.

– Mayonnaise.

– Pop-tarts.


Ngapi makers of Ngwe Saung

Ngapi makers of Ngwe Saung

Sun-dried ngapi

Sun-dried ngapi

Inspiration business


My bosses gave me a Ken Burnett book for last Xmas. It’s essentially a fundraiser’s why and why not book (as opposed to a how-to). Why do we raise fund? What is involved here? Why is it so? The book had been sitting on my desk for a number of weeks and I got around to reading it only last week during my vacation away from deadlines, emails tagged “TASK,” the office, funding organizations and their program officers.

If there is one thing I learned from this book, it is that fundraising is an inspiration business, the point that Burnett keeps getting back to throughout the book.  Fundraisers are not marketers. They are not brand managers. They are not always there to ‘sell’ and donors do not like to be sold to and manipulated by professionals to open their purses and checkbooks. Rather, fundraising is about good customer service and the role of fundraisers is to inspire people into supporting causes that are well-meaning and impactful.

All of this explains why I have been in an inspiration fatigue lately, and desperately needed a week off. Working in an emerging market is not easy. It is flexible but also extremely messy. The roles are not clearly defined, an arrangement with both pros and cons. Everyone reports to the top bosses. Deadlines among different teams are not strictly adhered to in a poly-chronic culture, so you need to constantly push/remind your inter-departmental colleagues in collaborative projects. Add the expat/local dynamics + language barriers, and you don’t know which communication route to pursue. Should I send another reminder? Or would that be considered inappropriate and even insulting? Beats me. The Burmese work environment is markedly different from the 120 Wall Street office where I first learned my ABCs.

I had been warned of all of this well before I signed onto this path. This pattern is present in not just my org but in many other institutions, both businesses and NGOs. At the end of the day, life is a marathon and not a sprint. Sit back, reflect and get inspired. Especially if you are in fundraising business.

Oh and no, I have nothing to do with the foundation. Just needed a beach tote.

Gender talk in development organizations

As a feminist, I cringe whenever I hear the word “gender” these days.

Development aid workers are some of the most condescending groups of people I know, especially when it comes to women in developing countries.  It makes me cringe when people suggest the need to “empower women” by telling them to eat better, care for household nutrition, and cook diverse, nutritious meals.  Don’t they realize that these women are already trying their best?  That they represent a vulnerable segment of population in a bottom billion country? That some of them are having to borrow cash for drinking water?  Don’t impose your values and guilt-trip poor rural mothers.  I am pretty certain that if these women have as much wealth and income as the yuppies and hipsters I met in Brooklyn Heights and Prospect Park, they will be buying fresh, organic produce and shopping at Farmers Markets all the time too, with a snazzy pair of Dior hanging out over their cheekbones.

Women are agents of change and only they can empower themselves.  So, yes, encourage communities to open arms and create options to involve women, but don’t turn “women empowerment” and “gender equality” into some log frame numbers.  Don’t put vague “gender mainstreaming” into your contracts.  Don’t dehumanize us.

On that note, I highly recommend an article titled “Talking of gender: words and meanings in development organizations” by Ines Smyth.  She published the said article in a book called Deconstructing Development Discourse: Buzzwords and Fuzzwords, downloadable here.

One thing that Smyth struck a cord in me is this.  When the idea of empowerment began, it is considered a “process” where “individuals acquiring the power to think and act freely, exercise choice, and to fulfill their potential as full and equal members of society” (DFID).  Today the term empowerment is no longer a process.  It is instead treated as a outcome, as in MDGs.  And this quick and dirty approach is particularly troubling.

Margherita pizza

NOT-Margherita pizza @Sharky's

NOT-Margherita pizza @Sharky’s

Dear famed Restaurant Sharky’s,

How is this Margherita?  It is a cheese & tomato pizza I’m afraid.

If I had paid a good amount of money and put aside a whole afternoon, I would want the restaurant to actually put effort into making some tomato sauce.  The thing about fine dining is that I don’t get it.  And when it comes to ordering pizzas at fine-diningish places, be very wary.  They can stray a little too far from the original term that gets printed on the menu and serve you something totally different, deconstructed-this and reinterpreted-that.  But then again, where else can you order a pizza in Myanmar?

Now that is what a real Margherita looks like.

The more I look at it, the more serious I get about this: I must somehow get an oven and learn to make my own pizza. In Myanmar.  It won’t be Lombardi’s but it will be a Margherita.

Margherita pizza @ Lombardi's

Margherita pizza @ Lombardi’s