My answer to the question “What would you do if you won the lottery?” probably isn’t much different than it is for most people. I would spend my time traveling. I would spend long periods of time in different countries to learn about different cuisines. I find that once you dig into a cuisine, you also begin to learn about how geography helped contribute to elements which have survived or which have been lost, the society in which the cuisine developed, and the history of the cultures which make up that society. Until I start buying lottery tickets, however, cookbooks that focus on cuisines I am not familiar with is one of the ways I like to learn.
This week’s recipes for Chicken with Mint and Mustard-Cumin Spice Blend come from the Burma Superstar cookbook by restaurateur Desmond Tan and food writer Kate Leahy, named after Desmond’s San Francisco restaurant of the same name. It is a Burmese-Chinese version of the minced meat dish called laap (also laab, or larb) in northeastern Thailand and in Laos. As Kate suggests, you can also try this with tofu, or if you are looking for a gluten-free version, substitute the soy with salt. —Kristina
Why Kate loves this recipe: The textures and layering of spices and herbs is what makes this dish so fun to eat. The texture doesn’t only come from the minced chicken—it also comes from the whole cloves of garlic that you gently fry at the beginning. This simple technique makes the cloves sweet and alleviates the risk of burning the garlic. Included in the dish is a Mustard-Cumin Spice Blend which I was introduced to while working on this book. When I spent time in the Burma Superstar kitchens, I always saw a container filled with this spice blend. Having it ready to go makes it extra easy to add a small spoonful to stir-fries and soups for a bit of savory depth. I also like to add it to red lentils to make dal.
Photography by John Lee
Chicken with Mint
Serves 3; 4 as part of a larger meal
Those who like laap will love this Burmese-Chinese version of the herby Thai minced meat dish. Here, minced chicken is stir-fried with ground cumin and mustard seeds, ginger, garlic, and a spoonful of sambal oelek. Whole cloves of garlic are mixed in for texture, but they are fried ahead of time to reduce the pungency of eating them raw. Use the smaller cloves found on the inside of a head of garlic or slice large cloves in half. You can turn this into a vegetarian dish by dicing up a block of firm tofu, letting it drain on paper towels for a few minutes, and then stir-frying the tofu pieces in place of the chicken. If you made the Mustard-Cumin Spice Blend (see below), use a teaspoon of it in place of the mustard and cumin seeds called for below.
— 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
— 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 jalapeño, 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 jalapeño. Stir constantly, until the liquid just lightly coats the meat. Mix in the chopped cilantro and mint. Serve with cilantro sprigs and lime wedges.
Mustard-Cumin Spice Blend
Makes 1/2 cup
— 1⁄4 cup cumin seeds
— 1⁄4 cup black mustard seeds
In a dry wok or skillet, toast the cumin 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 to a coarse powder. Store in a sealed container at cool room temperature for up to 4 months.
Reprinted with permission from Burma Superstar, copyright © 2017 by Desmond Tan and Kate Leahy. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Photographs copyright 2017 by John Lee
About Desmond: Desmond Tan is the co-owner of the Burma Superstar family of restaurants, which he has grown into three thriving destinations, with more on the way. He was born in Burma and came to San Francisco when he was 11 years old. In 2014, he launched Burma Love Natural Foods Company, one of the first companies in the United States to import Burmese ingredients– most notably laphet, Burma’s famous fermented tea leaves. He lives in San Francisco, CA.
About Kate: Kate Leahy is a writer and the co-author of the A16 Food + Wine, the IACP Cookbook of the Year and recipient of the IACP Julia Child First Book Award; SPQR; The Preservation Kitchen, which Eater.com ranked as one of the most notable books of the year; and Cookie Love, one of NPR’s top books of 2015. She lives in San Francisco, CA. Find Kate on Twitter here.