#12 (Part 1): Burmese Gin Thoke

Life continues to get in the way of updating this blog, but I’m trying to catch up!

So, yeah, once again I made two things, because I’m silly like that. But, much like when I last did so in Week 11 (or, uh, “week” 11, given the way my schedule’s been going lately), the two dishes have some overlapping ingredients, and this first one isn’t too very complicated or time consuming, so I’m not being too too ambitious (even if it does mean I fall farther behind on this blog because it takes longer to blog about two dishes than one, but whatever, it means there will be more tasty recipes to share in the long run).

First up: gin thoke. When I was researching Burmese food, one of the things I found repeated over and over was variations on the theme of “the Burmese make salads out of everything.” And, indeed, I found quite a lot of salads made out of things that I wouldn’t previously have thought of as salad ingredients. The most notable and famous of these is lahpet thoke, which is made with fermented tea leaves, and that sounded pretty darn interesting, but one of my own food-preference peculiarities is that I don’t like either of the two most popular hot beverages in the world very much at all. (I can tolerate tea if it’s the only thing available to drink, but I’d probably die of dehydration before willingly consuming coffee. I’m weird, I know. I can’t help it.) So, while I would happily give lahpet thoke a try if someone presented it to me already made, as a non-tea-enthusiast, I wasn’t overly eager to put in the effort to figure out how to ferment my own tea leaves when I could, instead, make a different interesting Burmese salad featuring an ingredient I already love very much: fresh, tangy ginger.

THE PROCESS

thoke1
Fish sauce/ Cabbage/ Ginger root/ Peanuts and/ A citrus fruit/ Burma-Food.

(Why yes, I will be putting bad Burma-Shave poems in all my captions today! Or at least in all my captions until I get bored with Burma-Shave poems or can’t come up with a rhyme that works. You thought my captions/ Couldn’t get worse?/ Ha ha!/ Enjoy some/ Dated verse/ Burma-Food.)

Gin thoke requires a little bit of planning in advance, because while it doesn’t involve a huge amount of work, the first step has to be done the night before you plan on serving your salad, unless you enjoy the sensation of fiery death in your mouth from biting into a chunk of raw ginger. (You’ll still get a little bit of fire out of it when it’s prepared this way, but it’s less “OMG THE BURNING” and more “mmm, zingy!”) The night-before part of the process was pretty quick and simple: I peeled that chunk of ginger and cut the majority of it into thin, matchstick-like strips.

thoke2
I used my knife/ To cut/ And slice/ So I could make/ My ginger nice/ Burma-Food.

I then put those ginger-strips into a small Tupperware container and added enough lime juice to thoroughly cover them. (The lime juice will pickle the ginger slightly and take away enough of its bite that it can be eaten without that whole fiery death thing.) Since I really like ginger and thought I might end up wanting to augment the gingery-ness of my salad, I then grated the remainder of the ginger (well, most of the remainder, since I didn’t want to grate any fingers this time), put that grated ginger into another little Tupperware bowl, and covered it in lime juice, too. I stuck both containers of ginger in the refrigerator to sit and get nice and limey overnight; in the morning and afternoon, I took the containers out a couple of times and shook them up a little to make sure the ginger was getting well-soaked.

Next up, once it was actually time to make the salad: toasting some sesame seeds. Easy enough; I poured them into a small frying pan, put it over medium-low heat, let them toast for five minutes or so (pushing them around the pan occasionally so that they’d be reasonably evenly-toasted), and then removed the pan from heat. After that, I crushed some peanuts – since I had no luck finding already-crushed peanuts at the grocery store, I made like an old-timey apothecary and mortar-and-pestle’d those suckers.

thoke3
Crushing nuts/ Is fun/ And easy/ Though it might make/ The gents feel queasy/ Burma-Food.

I set my toasted sesame seeds and crushed peanuts aside, and got to work on the remaining crunchy salad ingredient: deep-fried garlic chips and scallion rings.

(This is a process I probably should have photographed and documented better, but I forgot to do so until it was too late. On the bright side, I’ll go ahead and offer a recipe “spoiler”: I don’t think the fried garlic and scallion really worked very well. Feel free to skip over the next two paragraphs if you only want to read about the parts of the recipe I’d make again.)

So, I took a scallion and chopped it into nice little rings. (Side note: I switch randomly between calling this particular ingredient “scallion” or “green onion.” If I ever say it both ways in one paragraph or something and am therefore confusing, I apologize in advance. I have no idea why my brain picks one name or the other at any given moment.) I then opened up that head of garlic and began the much more laborious process of cutting five or six cloves into very thin slices. I’m not going to lie: this was a pain in the butt, especially if, like me, you are somewhat clumsy and thus perpetually in fear that you’re going to slice into your fingertips, but I managed to create a small pile of garlic slices without any painful mishaps. Next, I heated up a small pan of peanut oil (about an inch deep) over, I think, medium to medium-high heat. (Like I said, I forgot to write down my process on this part until days later, so I’m kinda guessing as to the heat. “Hot enough that when you put a piece of garlic in there, it goes ‘sizzle sizzle,’ but not much hotter than that” is what you’re going for here.) I carefully put my first piece of garlic in, it went “sizzle sizzle,” and I pulled it back out with a slotted spoon about 3 seconds later. You really don’t want to leave it in the oil longer than that, or it’d be burnt garlic, and not pleasant at all. The newly golden-brown garlic was then placed on some paper towels and patted dry with more paper towels so that it would crisp up.

Next comes the part where I was a complete idiot. Hooray! That’s always a fun bit of my cooking process, right? Because by this point in my food preparation, I was getting a bit tired and impatient (since I was also making my other Burmese dish at the same time), I did not really think things through before using the slotted spoon to deposit most of my remaining garlic slices into the oil at once. The tired part of my brain said, “That way I can be done frying garlic sooner” before the thoughtful part of my brain had time to say, “But won’t the garlic slices immediately float every which way in the pan and therefore make it virtually impossible to remove them all at once, thus meaning you burn the heck out of most of them?” Thoughtful-brain was, belatedly, quite correct. D’oh. Once I’d cooled things down and gotten rid of my burnt garlic and my newly burnt-garlic-flavored oil, I sliced some replacement garlic (which was still a pain in the butt the second time around), heated some replacement oil, and this time put only a few pieces of garlic in at a time. Then I did the same thing with the scallions. (I screwed up a teensy bit there, too – since I really didn’t want a repeat of the burnt-garlic experience, I under-fried the scallions a bit, so they were less “crispy scallions” and more “fried but still fairly soft scallions.” Oh, well.) Once I’d finished frying things, I set the oil aside to cool and made sure all my fried things had been well-blotted so they would, theoretically, stay crispy.

It was now time to start turning this salad into, well, a salad. Which meant, for starters, chopping my cabbage into shreds. (If you’re feeling lazy, you could just buy a bag of pre-shredded coleslaw mix – the only problem there is that those mixes usually contain carrots, which aren’t really supposed to be in this salad, but I think adding carrots would make for a perfectly valid variation on it.) Once the cabbage was shredded, it went into a big bowl, along with the peanuts and sesame seeds. Then those ginger matchsticks came out of the fridge; I extracted them from their lime juice marinade, gently squeezed some of the lime juice out of them, and added them to the bowl, too.

Next stop: dressing. I combined about 4 tablespoons of the oil the scallions and garlic had been fried in (if you skipped that step, just use plain peanut oil, maybe with a little minced garlic added) with the lime juice the ginger had been soaking in, the fish sauce, and the soy sauce, and mixed that together. I then poured that mixture into the salad and tossed it well, tasting bits of it as I went and adding a little more of one ingredient or another until I thought the balance of flavors seemed right.

thoke4
Here’s another/ Stupid rhyme/ Cabbage tossed/ With oil/ And lime/ Burma-Food.

For me, as someone who really likes ginger (and lime, for that matter), that ginger I grated in case I wanted extra gingery-ness ended up coming in handy; I added roughly a teaspoon of it (without the lime juice squeezed out, so it added a fair amount of limey-ness, too) immediately, and kept the rest to add some extra zip to leftover gin thoke the next day.

Last, but definitely not least, it was time to cut up four more tasty things that would go on top of each bowl of gin thoke:

thoke5
These four/ Toppings/ Are delicious/ Even on/ My mismatched dishes/ Burma-Food.

Once I’d sliced my lime (which is there so one can squeeze extra fresh lime juice on their salad as they eat it – very important!), tomatoes, green onion (see, I told you I use both names at random), and cilantro, it was time to assemble the individual servings of gin thoke. Into each bowl went a nice big scoop of the tossed salad, then those toppings (arranged semi-artistically, which is to say, I put the big things around the edges of the bowl, because that’s pretty much the extent of my “presentation” skill), and finally, a few crunchy garlic chips and scallion rings…or at least that was the idea. Unfortunately, for all that I’d blotted the fried garlic and scallion thoroughly, I was cooking in relatively humid weather, and the fairly short interval between frying them up and actually putting them on the salad was apparently more than enough time for almost all of them to lose a good deal of their crunch. Phooey. I still put them on the salad, and they certainly weren’t bad as they were, but limp garlic “chips” really weren’t worth the effort of making them. Still, the salads were done and ready to eat!

thoke6
Finally/ It’s done/ And so/ Now it’s time/ To eat gin thoke/ Burma-Food. (Think that’s not/ A rhyming pair?/ Thoke’s pronounced/ Like “toe”/ So there!/ Burma-Food.)

THE VERDICT

Gin thoke is a great example of why I started this project and why I enjoy it so much.

That may be a weird way to phrase my verdict, but hear me out. While there are some things I’ve made for this project that are so perfectly delicious that, from the first bite, I was absolutely thrilled to have added them to my life, my first bite of gin thoke didn’t make me say “yum” but rather “huh.” The combination of flavors was sufficiently unfamiliar that it took me quite a few bites to decide what to make of it – but it was one of those foods that makes me think, “I don’t know if I like this or not…I guess I’ll eat another bite and try to decide” over and over until I finish the bowl, get myself a second helping, and realize that yes, in fact, I like this quite a bit. Which I do! And there’s something really fun about discovering something that is not only tasty, but is tasty in a distinctly different way than any other tasty thing you’ve ever eaten.

If I make this again – which I probably will, because a family member is very keen on gardening and tends to produce several cabbages each year – the only thing I’d change is, as I mentioned, to skip the fried garlic and scallions and instead simply toss some minced garlic in the salad instead. I think that would taste good, too, and wouldn’t require nearly as much effort – but if you’re up for that effort and you’re either cooking in non-humid weather or are able to serve your gin thoke almost immediately after frying the garlic chips, they do make for a pretty unique and interesting garnish.

THE INGREDIENTS

1 large “finger” of ginger
5 tbsp lime juice (plus more, if needed, to cover ginger overnight)
2/3 of a head of cabbage, shredded
2 tbsp sesame seeds
1/3 cup crushed peanuts
4 tbsp peanut oil (plus more for frying)
1 green onion (for frying)
5-6 cloves garlic (for frying)
2 tsp soy sauce
1 1/2 tsp fish sauce
2 plum tomatoes, sliced into thin wedges
1 fresh green onion, chopped
1 lime, sliced into wedges
fresh cilantro

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