AUTHOR MiMi Aye talks about the cuisine of Burma – and the importance of MSG.

MiMi Aye is a 'third culture kid'. Born in Britain (Margate, specifically) to Burmese parents, the home cook and cookery book author says: "I have my foot in both worlds, and I always have done."

She was brought up eating Burmese food, speaking Burmese, wearing Burmese clothing and visiting Burma from age eight onwards, where most of her family still live.

However, she is adamant that while the food in her latest recipe collection, Mandalay: Recipes And Tales From A Burmese Kitchen - its jacket a spectacular sunshine yellow, decorated with the print of a special occasion sarong ("a sign of women") - "is part of me, it's very personal", the book is "not a nostalgia trip".

Neither is it a comprehensive directory of every dish you might come across in Burma. That, Aye says, would be impossible. "Burma is a huge country," she explains, noting how disparate it is, being home to around 130 different ethnic groups. Whole swathes of it are also uninhabitable and travel is often very difficult, meaning there are "pockets of people everywhere" all with their own regional dishes, their own sources of produce and their own influences, from India, Thailand, China and more.

"We cherry-pick all the stuff we like best," says Aye happily. As such, she considers her own food - and the food shared in Mandalay - as fairly mainstream Burmese and says upfront: "I am not an expert on Burmese food; I wouldn't say I'm an authority either - I'm a geek. I probably know more about it than most people in the Western speaking world, but I only know a fraction of Burmese cuisine.

"I just cook what I know, what I like," adds Aye, 40, and she's clear that she hasn't made any concessions to the Western palate. So, if you're entirely new to Burmese flavours and ingredients, Mandalay is the ideal gateway - and getting your head around texture is crucial. Texture (alongside fried food and pork) is "big" when it comes to Burmese food.

"You need crunch and contrast, that's something we have in everything," says Aye. "If you have a curry, the curry might be quite soft, but you still need something on the side, so you'd have fritters for crunch or a side salad, because you want a mix.

"Every time you have a scoop of rice, you put a different morsel in with it." A one dish, one bowl dinner is not 'the one' in Burmese cuisine. "That's dull," says Aye with a laugh, "and we don't do dull."

Aye, a trained lawyer who lives in Kent with her husband and two children, began "shouting about" Burmese food 10 years ago. Her blog ( started out as a place to poke fun at MasterChef ("It just made me laugh so much"), and had Aye freeze-framing her TV, snapping the MasterChef contestants' most amusing faces and then uploading them to the internet. Old school.

But as she increasingly branched out onto Twitter, she began to receive questions about Burmese food - and couldn't not get stuck in with replying. It led to supper clubs and further blog posts, and then Aye's first cookbook, Noodle!

Since then, she says, Burmese food has become more well known over here, but it's as up to Burmese people "to find confidence" in the cuisine, as it is for those outside the culture to embrace it.

"In Burmese culture, we have this thing that a lot of Asian countries have," explains Aye, wryly. "You should be a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer - and everything else is a disgrace.

"Cooking was a hobby," she continues. "It's not something you'd do professionally.

"There's a bit of a barrier in that respect for people that are here, because we think, 'The food's amazing, but should we be doing that? Would people care?'"

Fortunately, the younger Burmese contingent in Britain are starting to open restaurants and share Burmese recipes. "It's a hangover that we have, but we're breaking through that," adds Aye.

Another hangover Aye is all for eliminating is the misconceptions many of us have around monosodium glutamate (MSG). In Mandalay she dedicates a whole essay to it ('Why MSG is A-OK'), and it features as an ingredient in many of her recipes. "You can get it in Tesco," she says brightly. "It's called Aromat - MSG mixed with salt and celery seeds."

She says it's mainly the UK and the US that seem to have a problem with MSG ("In Iceland they have shakers of MSG mixed with tomato granules - they call it chip powder!"), and that largely it's down to what we call it. "It has a chemical name, and chemicals scare people," muses Aye. "But if I say, 'I put some sodium chloride in my meal', there's no difference."

While she notes that if you don't want to use MSG, that's fine, she does add reasonably: "I'm talking about a quarter teaspoon, it's just that little bit of extra enhancement." Plus "it's what makes Pringles and Doritos taste good!"

And if you think it's what makes you thirsty if you've eaten a takeaway? "That's the salt, I think you'll find," says Aye, who quotes Anthony Bourdain: "You know what causes Chinese restaurant syndrome? Racism."

But if you're OK with MSG, hungry, and want Burmese food tonight, go for the Mogok Meeshay - Mogok pork and round rice noodles.

"Poach some pork and soak some noodles, and then it comes together really quickly," promises Aye. "For me it tastes like home, because when we go to Burma that is the dish we have waiting for us. My mum's side of the family, who are now in Yangon, that's how they preserve their Mogok history, so I'll go there and just stuff myself silly on it."


A quick veggie supper.

"I'm one of those terrible carnivores and I strongly believe in the (semi joking) Burmese affliction of a-thar ma-sar yat-de yaw-ga: 'The illness caused by the failure to eat meat'," says food writer MiMi Aye.

"However, if this gorgeous pumpkin curry is on the table, for once I'll barely twitch. You can use any winter squash you like - it's very good made with kabocha squash or crown prince. If you want to make this a vegetarian dish, you can swap out the shrimp paste and fish sauce for an equal amount of Japanese miso."


(Serves 2 as a main or 4-6 as a side)

90ml groundnut oil or other neutral-tasting oil

1tsp ground turmeric

1tsp ground coriander

1tsp ground cumin

1tsp paprika

8 fresh or dried curry leaves

2 medium onions, sliced

1 spring onion, green and white parts, shredded

4 garlic cloves, sliced

2cm piece of ginger, peeled and sliced

1 butternut or kabocha squash (Japanese pumpkin), peeled and cubed

1tbsp sugar

1tsp shrimp paste (belacan)

2tbsp fish sauce

Rice to serve


1. Heat the oil in a saucepan over a high heat. Add the turmeric, coriander, cumin, paprika and curry leaves to the oil and allow to sizzle for a few seconds.

2. Now turn the heat down to medium and add the onions, spring onion, garlic and ginger and fry for 10 minutes, until fragrant and the onions have wilted and some have crisped up.

3. Add the squash, sugar, shrimp paste and 300ml of water. Stir well. Cover and cook for 25 minutes, or until the squash is tender. Add the fish sauce, stir again and serve with steamed rice.


Fragrant, warming and very fresh.

"This dish is usually made with fish 'steaks', aka cutlets, but it is just as good with fillets or whole fish," explains food writer MiMi Aye.

"The type of fish doesn't really matter either, as the luscious, spicy sauce is the thing, so it works equally well with, say, cod or salmon."


(Serves 2-4)

For the fish:

1tsp salt

2tbsp plain flour

1tsp ground turmeric

1/4tsp MSG or 1/2tbsp chicken or vegetable bouillon

1 whole sea bream or sea bass, or 4 basa or catfish slices (sold frozen in Asian supermarkets)

120ml groundnut oil or other neutral-tasting oil, plus an extra 2tbsp

For the sauce:

4 medium onions, sliced thinly

1/3 standard tin of chopped tomatoes (about 135g)

3 fresh tomatoes, diced

1tbsp fish sauce

1/4tsp MSG or 1tbsp chicken or vegetable bouillon

For the garnish:

2 finger chillies

Handful of coriander leaves, chopped

Rice to serve


1. Mix the salt, flour, turmeric and MSG in a large dish, then add the fish. Turn the fish over in the seasonings, making sure it is thoroughly coated. Heat the 120ml of oil in a wok or large frying pan over a high heat until sizzling, then carefully add the fish. Fry for two to three minutes on each side. Remove the fish using a slotted spoon and set to one side on a dish.

2. In the same wok, heat the remaining two tablespoons of oil over a high heat and add the sauce ingredients. Fry for five minutes, tossing and stirring regularly. Turn the heat down to medium-high and continue to fry for another 10 minutes. Add the fish and the chillies, and toss gently in the sauce. Dish up on a platter, scatter the coriander leaves on top and serve with steamed rice.


A perfect picnic dish.

"This is apparently the dish that my mother used to win the heart of my father," explains food writer MiMi Aye, author of new Burmese recipe collection, Mandalay.

"They were at medical school together in Mandalay, and she was the only one out of the lot of them who could cook. Whenever the students went on a group picnic, everyone insisted she made this egg salad. It's simple and light, and gorgeous in a sandwich, or on toast (seriously)."


(Serves 4)

1 round or butterhead lettuce

6 eggs

1tbsp crispy fried onions, homemade or shop-bought, to garnish

For the dressing:

1tbsp groundnut oil or other neutral-tasting oil

2tbsp smooth or crunchy peanut butter

2tbsp fish sauce

Juice of 1/2 lime

1/4tsp MSG or 1/2tbsp chicken or vegetable bouillon


1. Mix the dressing ingredients together in a small bowl.

2. Separate the lettuce leaves, wash, drain thoroughly and tear each leaf in half. Place the torn leaves in a large salad bowl.

3. Soft boil the eggs: Place room temperature eggs in a saucepan, cover in cold water and heat on high until the eggs start to boil and bubble furiously. Immediately turn the heat down to medium and continue to simmer for another seven minutes. Remove from heat and submerge in cold, running water to stop the eggs cooking. Cool, peel and quarter them.

4. Drizzle the dressing all over the lettuce leaves and massage with your hands so the leaves become coated and slightly wilted. Add the cooled soft-boiled egg quarters and combine gently to avoid breaking them up.

5. Scatter the crispy fried onions on top and serve with plain rice or in a sandwich

Mandalay: Recipes And Tales From A Burmese Kitchen by MiMi Aye, photography by Cristian Barnett, is published by Bloomsbury, priced £26. Available now.