Dawei Fish Soup

Preparation info

  • Difficulty

    Easy

  • Serves

    4 or 5

Appears in

Dawei, until recently known as Tavoy, is an attractive town halfway down Burma’s tail-of-the-kite south coast. The fish in its markets gleam with freshness and are wonderfully varied. The women in Kana Market, Dawei’s main wet market, watched me taking photos and more photos, laughing when they saw how amazed I was by the beauty of the fish they were selling.

The fish dishes for which Dawei is famous may originally have been Mon dishes, since this stretch of the Tenasserim coast was part of a Mon kingdom long ago (see Burma over Time). It’s also been a crossroads kind of place for centuries. Chinese merchants, Burmese from other parts of the country, and Muslim descendants of traders from across the Bay of Bengal all still do business here.

I learned about this soup from a generous woman in Dawei known for her home cooking. The basic flavor paste features the distinctive local flavorings: along with ginger and shallots, there’s galangal, a resiny and distinctive cousin of ginger, as well as lemongrass in quantities you don’t see elsewhere in Burma.

You can serve it as a broth, or instead include bean threads and some chopped Napa cabbage for a more substantial soup. I like to pair it with Perfumed Coconut Rice and a simple vegetable curry.

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Ingredients

  • 3 pounds fish heads and bones from ocean fish such as kingfish, sea bream, or snapper (not salmon), thoroughly rinsed
  • About 7 cups water
  • 1 cup sliced shallots
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • ¼ cup very thinly sliced lemongrass
  • 3 tablespoons sliced ginger
  • 2 tablespoons sliced galangal
  • 2 teaspoons salt, plus additional to taste
  • 4 green cayenne chiles, or to taste
  • 2 ounces bean threads (optional)
  • cups chopped Napa cabbage (optional)
  • ½ pound cleaned squid, chopped into bite-sized pieces (optional)
  • ¾ cup loosely packed coriander leaves and fine stems, coarsely chopped
  • Juice of 1 lime, or to taste

Method

Place the fish heads in a pot with 6 cups of the water. Add the shallots and turmeric and bring to a boil, then lower the heat to maintain a strong simmer.

Meanwhile combine the lemongrass, ginger, and galangal in a mortar or small processor, add 1 teaspoon of the salt, and pound or process to a paste.

Blend the paste into another cup of water, then add to the pot together with the remaining 1 teaspoon salt. Toss in the green chiles. Bring the broth back to the boil, partially cover, and lower the heat to maintain a strong simmer. Cook for about an hour. Remove from the heat, taste for seasoning, and adjust as necessary. Strain the broth through a fine strainer into another pot and discard the solids. Set back over the heat. You may find you want to add a little extra water.

If Serving Immediately

Bring to a gentle boil. Add the bean threads or Napa cabbage or both, if using, and simmer briefly. If using squid, rinse off, then add to the soup and simmer until tender. Taste and adjust the seasonings if you wish. Add most of the coriander and stir, then remove from the heat, stir in the lime juice, and serve topped with a sprinkling of the remaining coriander.

If Serving Later

Set the broth aside until about 10 minutes before you wish to serve it (refrigerate if the wait will be longer than 2 hours). Then bring the broth back to a gentle boil and proceed as above.

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