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Singapore Cooks

Owner of Chalk Farm pays homage to Burmese food in self-published cookbook

Mr Bryan Koh loves to write cookbooks as they express how he feels about a country

For the past three years, Mr Bryan Koh has stuck to one holiday destination.

The 32-year-old, who is the co-founder of cake shop Chalk Farm in Paragon and Parkway Parade, would travel to Myanmar three to four times a year, eating his way through 13 states and regions, from Shan State in the north to Tanintharyi Region in the south.

Delving deep into the country's vast and colourful cuisine, he explored markets and eateries, and collected recipes from people whom he met. They ranged from grocers to housewives to taxi drivers.

He then put together a cookbook of Myanmar recipes called 0451 Mornings Are For Mont Hin Gar: Burmese Food Stories.

The title pays homage to mont hin gar, a fish soup noodle dish that is usually eaten for breakfast in Myanmar.


The Burmese tofu salad by Chalk Farm co-founder Bryan Koh (above) uses chickpea flour for the tofu. PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

The hefty 602-page book comprises more than 230 recipes ranging from salads and soups to noodles and curries and they are organised by region.

Mr Koh would hop on a plane to Myanmar whenever he had pockets of free time from work.

He says with a laugh: "The more I wrote this labour of love, the more I wanted to return to Myanmar, though there were times when I thought that I could be chilling out at the beach."

The cookbook, which he selfpublished in November last year, was awarded the third prize in the Best Asian Food Book category at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in May.

Not bad for someone who was "not familiar with Burmese food at all" before writing the cookbook, save for occasional meals in Myanmar restaurants at Peninsula Plaza.

What sparked his interest in the cuisine was his first trip to Myanmar in 2012. He visited Lake Inle in Shan State, where Chinese influences can be seen in dishes such as the light and comforting rice noodles in pork broth that he enjoyed there.

To aid his understanding of the cuisine, he read cookbooks such as Burma: Rivers Of Flavours by Canadian author Naomi Duguid. He also travelled with guides, who were his translators on his trips.

It also helped that he quickly picked up "market language" to discuss ingredients and cooking methods with locals there. His sincerity in wanting to learn to cook Myanmar dishes paid off as some strangers invited him to their homes for meals and shared their recipes.

Mr Koh relishes the "subtle and nuanced flavours" of Myanmar food, which can be described as a melting pot of flavours from Chinese, Thai and Indian cuisines.

These flavours are in one of his favourite Myanmar dishes, Bamar To Hu Thoke or Burmese tofu salad.

Unlike the typical milky white beancurd that is made from soya beans, Bamar tofu gets its yellow hue from earthy roast chickpea flour and turmeric powder.

The salad is dressed with condiments such as kaffir lime leaves, fish sauce and peanut oil. These ingredients can be bought from Myanmar grocery shops in Peninsula Plaza.

His version of Bamar To Hu Thoke is inspired by a meal at Feel Restaurant in Yangon, which serves a smoother tofu, compared with the grainy and chalky versions sold at street markets.

Some of his favourite Myanmar dishes come from the Shan State, and include peanut tofu salad that has a tinge of saltiness from water that had been used to soak pickled mustard greens; and kneaded rice balls with potatoes and fish. He also enjoys the Rakhine State dish of conger eel mont di (thin rice noodles) perfumed with galangal, tamarind and green chillies.

Despite his hectic schedule, the bachelor cooks daily, whipping up pasta, roast chicken and soups, but he counts cooking Christmas dinner for his family as his "cooking indulgence".

His father is a doctor and his mother is a former retail director who helps out at Chalk Farm. Both are 66. He has a younger sister, 28, who co-founded the cake shop.

Mr Koh will be launching a second edition of his Filipino cookbook, Milk Pigs And Violet Gold, on Sept 28. The book, which was first published in 2014, was inspired by dishes that his former Filipino maids cooked when he was growing up.

He plans to write another cookbook on South-east Asian cooking in the next two years.

On his love for writing cookbooks, he says: "I express how I feel about a country best through its food as it is my lens to the world."

• 0451 Mornings Are For Mont Hin Gar: Burmese Food Stories ($87) is available at Kinokuniya bookstores or at xochipillipress.com


MAKE IT YOURSELF: BAMAR TO HU THOKE (BURMESE TOFU SALAD)

INGREDIENTS

For the tofu

100g chickpea flour

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp turmeric powder

675ml water

For onion-infused peanut oil

100ml peanut oil

1 large onion, thinly sliced

1/4 tsp turmeric powder

For garlic-infused peanut oil

60ml peanut oil

4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

1/4 tsp turmeric powder

3 large cabbage leaves, finely shredded

1/2 tsp red chillies, hand-pounded

2 tsp dried ground shrimps, store-bought

4 large kaffir lime leaves, finely shredded

1 tsp fish sauce

1 tsp rice vinegar

2 tsp chickpea flour

1/4 tsp sugar

Salt to taste

2 tsp of fried onion (from onion-infused oil)

METHOD

1. Place the chickpea flour, salt, turmeric powder and 175ml of water into a medium-sized mixing bowl. Use a wooden spoon to mix the contents until smooth.

2. In a saucepan over medium heat, pour the remaining 500ml water and bring it to a boil. Pour in the chickpea flour mixture and stir the mixture continuously with a wooden spoon. Cook mixture for seven to 10 minutes until it thickens.

3. Turn off the heat and pour the mixture into a lightly oiled square glass container measuring 15cm by 15cm. Cover the container with cling wrap and leave the mixture to set overnight in the refrigerator.

4. To make onion-infused peanut oil, place all the ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat and fry for 30 seconds. Switch to low heat and fry for five to seven minutes till onion slices turn crispy. Turn off the heat. Remove the fried onion and drain on paper towels. Pour the oil into an airtight container.

5. To make garlic-infused peanut oil, place all the ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat. Fry for five minutes and discard the garlic slices. Pour the oil into an airtight container.

6. Remove the tofu from the refrigerator. Turn it out onto a clean chopping board and cut it in half. Store one piece in the fridge and use within two or three days. Slice the other half into 8cm-long strips.


PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

7. In a large mixing bowl, toss the tofu strips, cabbage, red chillies, dried shrimps, finely shredded kaffir lime leaves, 1 Tbsp of onion-infused peanut oil, 1 Tbsp of garlic-infused peanut oil, fish sauce, rice vinegar, chickpea flour and sugar. Add salt to taste.

8. Garnish with fried onion slices and serve.

Serves four

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 18, 2016, with the headline 'Food storyteller'. Print Edition | Subscribe