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,