Cho Cho lives in Taung Be, a small village near Old Bagan by the Irrawaddy River. Foreigners and tourists from other parts of Burma come by the busload to marvel at the hundreds of old temples in the Bagan area. But not far away from the much photographed ancient sites in Taung Be and other off-the-beaten-track hamlets, village life still goes on.

I met Cho Cho through her nephew in Rangoon. He had suggested that I could learn some traditional Burmese village dishes from her. That’s how I found myself one day in her airy kitchen, watching her cook, and photographing. It was a real pleasure, for Cho Cho has a calm beauty and an unhurried grace. Her movements were deft and economical, and when we sat down to a traditional midday rice meal, her food was spectacular. This simple broth with transparent bean thread noodles floating in it was one of the dishes she served.

Like many cooks in Burma and other parts of Southeast Asia, Cho Cho uses MSG to give depth of flavor, especially in dishes where there’s no shrimp paste (ngapi). She used about 1 teaspoon MSG, for which I substitute extra fish sauce (see “Umami”).

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Ingredients

  • ¼ pound bean threads
  • ¾ cup large dried shrimp
  • 2 cups warm water
  • 3 to 4 garlic cloves, minced (a generous 1 tablespoon)
  • Scant ¼ cup peanut oil
  • Scant ½ teaspoon turmeric
  • ¾ cup sliced shallots
  • ½ to 1 teaspoon Red Chile Powder or ½ teaspoon cayenne
  • 3 cups water
  • 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste

Method

Soak the bean threads in cold water for 10 minutes. Drain, cut into approximately 6-inch lengths, and set aside.

Meanwhile, soak the dried shrimp in the warm water for 20 minutes. Drain, reserving the water, and set both shrimp and water aside.

If you have a mortar, pound the minced garlic to a paste.

Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Toss in the turmeric and shallots and cook until the shallots are translucent and softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, chile or cayenne, and reserved shrimp and stir to blend. Cook for several minutes, then add the reserved shrimp water and the 3 cups water, raise the heat, and bring to a boil. Cook at a medium boil for 5 minutes.

If you are Serving Immediately

Add the bean threads, salt, and fish sauce and cook at a gentle boil just until the noodles are tender, about 5 minutes.

If you are Serving Later

Remove the soup from the heat and set aside for up to 2 hours, covered. Just before serving, bring to a boil, add the bean threads, salt, and fish sauce, and cook until just tender.

Stir in the black pepper just before serving.

A Note on Dried Shrimp: Dried shrimp come in many sizes and colors, from tiny and the palest pink to about 1 inch long and dark red. Because the shrimp are the primary flavoring in this soup, it’s important to buy the best quality you can find—in other words, large dark-pink to red shrimp. They will have a much better flavor and texture than the tiny pale ones that are on sale in most Asian groceries.

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