MiMi Aye is a ‘third culture kid’. Born in Britain (Margate, specifically) to Burmese parents, the home cook and cookery book author says: “I have my foot in both worlds, and I always have done.”
She was brought up eating Burmese food, speaking Burmese, wearing Burmese clothing and visiting Burma from age eight onwards, where most of her family still live.
However, she is adamant that while the food in her latest recipe collection, Mandalay: Recipes And Tales From A Burmese Kitchen – its jacket a spectacular sunshine yellow, decorated with the print of a special occasion sarong (“a sign of women”) – “is part of me, it’s very personal”, the book is “not a nostalgia trip”.
Neither is it a comprehensive directory of every dish you might come across in Burma. That, Aye says, would be impossible. “Burma is a huge country,” she explains, noting how disparate it is, being home to around 130 different ethnic groups. Whole swathes of it are also uninhabitable and travel is often very difficult, meaning there are “pockets of people everywhere” all with their own regional dishes, their own sources of produce and their own influences, from India, Thailand, China and more.
“We cherry-pick all the stuff we like best,” says Aye happily. As such, she considers her own food – and the food shared in Mandalay – as fairly mainstream Burmese and says upfront: “I am not an expert on Burmese food; I wouldn’t say I’m an authority either – I’m a geek. I probably know more about it than most people in the Western speaking world, but I only know a fraction of Burmese cuisine.
“I just cook what I know, what I like,” adds Aye, 40, and she’s clear that she hasn’t made any concessions to the Western palate. So, if you’re entirely new to Burmese flavours and ingredients, Mandalay is the ideal gateway – and getting your head around texture is crucial. Texture (alongside fried food and pork) is “big” when it comes to Burmese food.
“You need crunch and contrast, that’s something we have in everything,” says Aye. “If you have a curry, the curry might be quite soft, but you still need something on the side, so you’d have fritters for crunch or a side salad, because you want a mix.
“Every time you have a scoop of rice, you put a different morsel in with it.” A one dish, one bowl dinner is not ‘the one’ in Burmese cuisine. “That’s dull,” says Aye with a laugh, “and we don’t do dull.”
Aye, a trained lawyer who lives in Kent with her husband and two children, began “shouting about” Burmese food 10 years ago. Her blog (meemalee.com) started out as a place to poke fun at MasterChef (“It just made me laugh so much”), and had Aye freeze-framing her TV, snapping the MasterChef contestants’ most amusing faces and then uploading them to the internet. Old school.
But as she increasingly branched out onto Twitter, she began to receive questions about Burmese food – and couldn’t not get stuck in with replying. It led to supper clubs and further blog posts, and then Aye’s first cookbook, Noodle!
Since then, she says, Burmese food has become more well known over here, but it’s as up to Burmese people “to find confidence” in the cuisine, as it is for those outside the culture to embrace it.
“In Burmese culture, we have this thing that a lot of Asian countries have,” explains Aye, wryly. “You should be a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer – and everything else is a disgrace.
“Cooking was a hobby,” she continues. “It’s not something you’d do professionally.
“There’s a bit of a barrier in that respect for people that are here, because we think, ‘The food’s amazing, but should we be doing that? Would people care?’”
Fortunately, the younger Burmese contingent in Britain are starting to open restaurants and share Burmese recipes. “It’s a hangover that we have, but we’re breaking through that,” adds Aye.
Another hangover Aye is all for eliminating is the misconceptions many of us have around monosodium glutamate (MSG). In Mandalay she dedicates a whole essay to it (‘Why MSG is A-OK’), and it features as an ingredient in many of her recipes. “You can get it in Tesco,” she says brightly. “It’s called Aromat – MSG mixed with salt and celery seeds.”
She says it’s mainly the UK and the US that seem to have a problem with MSG (“In Iceland they have shakers of MSG mixed with tomato granules – they call it chip powder!”), and that largely it’s down to what we call it. “It has a chemical name, and chemicals scare people,” muses Aye. “But if I say, ‘I put some sodium chloride in my meal’, there’s no difference.”
While she notes that if you don’t want to use MSG, that’s fine, she does add reasonably: “I’m talking about a quarter teaspoon, it’s just that little bit of extra enhancement.” Plus “it’s what makes Pringles and Doritos taste good!”
And if you think it’s what makes you thirsty if you’ve eaten a takeaway? “That’s the salt, I think you’ll find,” says Aye, who quotes Anthony Bourdain: “You know what causes Chinese restaurant syndrome? Racism.”
But if you’re OK with MSG, hungry, and want Burmese food tonight, go for the Mogok Meeshay – Mogok pork and round rice noodles.
“Poach some pork and soak some noodles, and then it comes together really quickly,” promises Aye. “For me it tastes like home, because when we go to Burma that is the dish we have waiting for us. My mum’s side of the family, who are now in Yangon, that’s how they preserve their Mogok history, so I’ll go there and just stuff myself silly on it.”
Mandalay: Recipes And Tales From A Burmese Kitchen by MiMi Aye, photography by Cristian Barnett, is published by Bloomsbury, priced £26. Available now.