Kachin Carp Curry with Herbs

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There are two versions of this dish, which I learned from the cooks at Myit Sone, a Kachin restaurant in Rangoon. On the stovetop, the fish is rubbed with a ginger-garlic-chile paste, poached briefly, and then combined with chopped herbs and cooked a few minutes longer. For the traditional version, which requires wrapping the fish in banana leaves, I use foil that is lined with lettuce leaves.

I’ve made this with carp, which is delicious and traditional, as well as with tilapia and with pickerel, which both work very well.

The chiles in the flavor paste provide a sharp hit of chile heat; for less, reduce to one chile, or use a milder chile, such as a banana chile.

This makes a knockout light lunch or supper with rice or bread and a salad (Long-Bean Salad with Roasted Peanuts, for example, or a green salad). Or, more traditionally, serve it hot or at room temperature as part of a rice meal. Fresh Red Chile Chutney makes a good condiment sauce.

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Ingredients

Flavor Paste

  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1 tablespoon minced ginger
  • 2 green cayenne chiles, minced
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • pounds carp, skinned and cleaned of bones, cut into 1-inch pieces, or about 1 pound tilapia, pickerel, or other firm fillets, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • ½ cup water (if making a stovetop curry)
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 1 cup packed coarsely chopped Vietnamese coriander
  • 1 cup loosely packed coarsely chopped sawtooth herb
  • Scant ½ cup chopped scallion greens
  • 2 green cayenne chiles (if making a stovetop curry)
  • 1 tablespoon peanut oil (if making a stovetop curry)
  • 2 teaspoons soy sauce, or substitute ¾ teaspoon salt, or to taste
  • 8 large tender lettuce leaves (if steaming the fish in packages)
  • Salt to taste
  • 2 limes, cut into wedges (optional)

Method

To make the Flavor Paste

Combine the garlic, ginger, chiles and salt in a mortar or in a small processor and pound or process to a paste. Place the fish in a bowl, add the paste, and stir and toss to coat the fish with the paste.

To make a Stovetop Curry

Place a large wok over medium heat. Add the fish, with all of its flavor paste, the water, and lime juice. Cover, bring to a vigorous boil, and then cook uncovered until the fish is nearly opaque and cooked throughout, about 2 minutes. Add the coriander and sawtooth herb and stir, then add the scallion greens and chiles. Stir, and cook for another minute. Stir in the oil. Taste and add soy sauce or salt if you wish, stir, and turn out onto a platter or individual plates.

Alternatively, to make a more Traditional Wrapped Steamed Curry

Preheat a charcoal or gas grill to medium heat, or place a steamer over a pot of water and bring to a boil. Cut eight 8-inch squares of aluminum foil.

Add the lime juice, herbs, and scallion greens to the fish and stir to distribute. Divide the fish mixture into 4 equal portions. Place 2 lettuce leaves on one piece of foil. Pile one-quarter of the fish mixture onto the leaves. Fold over two opposite sides of the foil square, overlapping them and making a double fold to seal, then fold over the other two sides, making a double fold again. Place the package seam side down on another piece of foil and repeat the wrapping technique. Repeat to make 3 more packages.

Place the foil packets 5 or 6 inches from the coals or flame, or put in the steamer and cover. Cook over low to medium heat, turning them frequently, until done, 20 to 30 minutes. (Open one package to check for doneness: the fish should be opaque and the aromatics should be tender.) If steaming, maintain a strong boil and steam until done, about 20 minutes.

Unfold each package and turn the leaf-wrapped fish out onto individual plates.

To Serve Either Version

Serve with lime wedges, if desired.

Evolving Kachin Cooking Techniques: The Kachin of northern Burma traditionally rely on grilling, steaming (in leaf-wrapped packages), or boiling to cook their food. Until recently, they had little access to cooking oils because they lived in the mountains and high valleys of Kachin State. These days, many Kachin have migrated to lower-lying towns and villages in their home state and in other parts of the country. There they have less access to wild-gathered leaves, but oil is more available. This recipe, which uses a dash of peanut oil to great effect, is an example of how Kachin cooking techniques have adapted.

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