If you’ve been to Burma Superstar in San Francisco, you’re all too familiar with the constant lines of diners waiting to get in.
Who can blame them, because once you get a taste of Burmese food, you can’t help but crave it again and again.
Now comes a way to satisfy your hunger while bypassing those queues — by making it yourself.
The restaurant’s first cookbook, “Burma Superstar: Addictive Recipes From the Crossroads of Southeast Asia”
(10 Speed Press), was released this year. It was written by Burma Superstar owner Desmond Tan and San Francisco food writer Kate Leahy.
The restaurant opened in 1992 on Clement Street. But it wasn’t until Burma-native Tan and his wife Jocelyn Lee, who were regulars there, bought the restaurant in 2000 that Burmese food really found a foothold.
Tan and Lee took pains to explain the food to patrons, steering them to favorites they knew would capture their taste buds. They were so successful that they now own five restaurants, as well as Burma Love Natural Foods Company, which imports and produces Burmese ingredients.
Burma shares its borders with Thailand, China, India and Laos. As a result, its food is a unique blend of all of those influences, and characterized by salty, tangy, spicy and fermented funky flavors.
The book features such signature dishes as “Coconut Chicken Curry,” “Pumpkin Pork Stew,” “Mohinga” fish soup, and “Tea Leaf Salad.”
With my backyard mint plant flush with big leaves right now, I gravitated to the fragrant “Chicken with Mint.” It’s a Burmese-Chinese version of the Laotian dish of laap.
It’s a quick dish of ground chicken, heady with cumin seeds, black mustard seeds, Thai chiles, and a shower of fresh mint and cilantro.
In fact, the part that takes the longest is mincing the chicken by hand. Of course you could just buy ground chicken at the grocery store. But as Tan and Leahy note, you will achieve a more toothsome and interesting texture by chopping chicken breasts or thighs, yourself, with a sharp knife. If you’ve ever bought ground chicken from a supermarket that seemed more like chicken paste in texture, you will agree with them.
It’s not a saucy dish. In fact, the dark soy, fish sauce and sambal coat the minced chicken completely without excess, concentrating the savoriness in the meat where it belongs.
This dish is super flavorful. It’s spicy, with that lovely surprising note of cumin to shake things up. The final flourish of fresh herbs and squeeze of lime juice really give it a burst of vibrant freshness, too.
Enjoy it with steamed rice. Or use it as a filling for lettuce cups. It would probably be fabulous tossed with rice noodles, too.
And just think, you didn’t even have to twiddle your thumbs while standing in line on the sidewalk to relish its wonderful taste.
Chicken with Mint
(Serves 3; or 4 as part of a larger meal)
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 2 small) or 4 to 5 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds
2 tablespoons sambal oelek (chile sauce)
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce or 1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon fish sauce
1/4 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons canola oil
6 to 8 small garlic cloves
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon minced ginger
1/2 jalapeno, chopped, or 2 Thai chiles, sliced
1/4 cup chopped cilantro, plus extra sprigs for garnish
1/4 cup chopped mint
Lime wedges, for garnish
To mince the chicken, place the pieces on the cutting board so the smooth side is facing up. With a knife blade parallel to the cutting board, slice the chicken in half width-wise, opening it up into two thinner, even pieces. Cut the chicken against the grain into thin strips, then chop the strips finely. Run the knife over the meat until it looks evenly minced. (Cutting the chicken by hand results in a better texture than using ground chicken.)
In a dry wok or skillet, toast the cumin seeds and mustard seeds until the cumin is fragrant and the mustard seeds start to pop, no more than 30 seconds. Transfer to a mortar with a pestle or a coffee grinder used for grinding spices and pulverize into a coarse powder.
In a small bowl, mix together the sambal, soy sauce, fish sauce, and sugar. (If not using soy sauce, you may need a pinch more fish sauce.)
In a wok or large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Tilt the wok so the oil pools to one side and add the garlic cloves. (This helps the garlic cloves stay submerged in oil so they fry more evenly.) Fry until light golden and softened, about 1 minute. Use a slotted spoon to remove the garlic cloves. Leave the oil in the wok.
Heat the wok over high heat. When the oil is hot (but not smoking), add the minced garlic and ginger. Stir-fry for a few seconds and add the chicken. Using a spatula or wooden spoon, stir-fry the chicken briefly, then press the meat against the sides of the wok to increase the surface area and decrease how much the chicken steams. (If using a skillet, spread the chicken evenly across its base.) Water will start to pool in the center of the wok, but that’s okay — it will cook out. After a minute, give the wok a stir so the chicken pieces don’t stick together. Repeat this step until the chicken is light brown in places and pale in others, about 3 minutes depending on the wok and the burner strength.
Stir in the mustard-cumin blend, sambal mixture, fried garlic cloves, and jalapeno. Stir constantly, until the liquid just lightly coats the meat. Mix in the chopped cilantro and mint. Serve with cilantro sprigs and lime wedges.
From “Burma Superstar” by Desmond Tan and Kate Leahy