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Aromatic Burmese Fish Stew

As promised, here’s the companion dish to the Burmese black eyed peas I made last week.

Can we have an honest moment about fish stew? It’s usually a pain in the butt. Many recipes call for fish stock; they require you to brown the fish before stewing it, which makes a mess and smells up the house; and at the end of the day, after painstakingly browning lots of little pieces of fish, perhaps some onion and other vegetables, you end up with a big pile of nondescript food that doesn’t always seem worth the effort.

Not this stew. This one’s different.

Naomi Duguid is the genius behind this recipe. It comes from her new book, Burma, and it fed a dinner party of 8 people Friday night, plus leftovers for both of us the next day.

Unlike its more fussy compatriots, this fish stew contains only fish, tomatoes, spices, and water. If you have a food processor or spice grinder, you’re good to go. You just blend a bunch of spices into a paste, add them to water to make a broth, and cook fish and tomatoes in that broth for scarcely 10 minutes. Then, you eat.

Because I was serving this at a dinner party, I wanted the cooking time to be more flexible. After bringing the broth to a boil, I turned the heat so low you could barely see the flame. Then I added the fish. The fish basically poached in a hot water bath, taking its merry time while we schmoozed and sipped wine. By the time we got to the table, about an hour after I added the fish, it had cooked perfectly. It was flaky and firm, but not at all tough. The tomatoes had melted into the broth. Over white rice, topped with some herbs, it was just perfect.

If you serve this for a more casual dinner, you might consider skipping the sides entirely and just serving the stew in bowls over rice, topped with herbs or even a dollop of yogurt. It’s a pretty brothy stew; you’d be missing out if you couldn’t slurp it all up. Because we served it on plates with a bunch of sides, I ladled out a couple spoonfuls of the broth and mixed them with 2 tablespoons of rice flour, then poured that makeshift slurry back into the stew. The slurry thickened the broth just a bit, giving it a texture somewhere between broth and gravy. Still very liquidy, but with enough body to not be wholly out of place on a dinner plate.

I’ll give the Burmese food a rest for a while, but I’m not promising I won’t be back with more of it at some point. I can hardly help myself.

Aromatic Burmese Fish Stew
Adapted from Naomi Duguid’s new book, Burma

serves 6

Ideally, you’ll make the spice paste in a food processor. That’s certainly easiest. However, if you don’t have a processor, you can make it in batches in a spice grinder. Duguid also says you can use a mortar and pestle, which I assume is traditional, but it’ll take you forever, and you’ll wind up with a somewhat coarse paste. I’m not so into the texture of lemongrass, but if you are, don’t let me stop you from doing things the old-fashioned way.

I’ve included instructions for thickening the broth below, but that’s optional. If you’re serving the stew in bowls, you definitely don’t need to do it. Just be sure to serve it with both forks and spoons.

If you can find whole tumeric root, definitely use it here – it has a bright, floral flavor that really adds something to the stew. That said, Duguid offers ground tumeric as an acceptable substitute.

If you happen to have Burmese crumbled toasted soybean disks, you need two tablespoons for this recipe. For the rest of us, I’ve offered Duguid’s recommended substitutions below.

Lastly, because you’ll be dumping all the herbs and spices in a food processor anyway, no need to be precise in your cutting. Just chop everything up and dump it in the processor bowl. In a pinch, you probably can get away without chopping the garlic or shallots.

1/4 cup chopped lemongrass (1 stalk yields almost exactly this much)
1 2-inch knob of tumeric root, chopped; or substitute 1 tablespoon ground tumeric
2 tablespoons kosher salt
4-5 medium shallots, sliced (about 1/2 cup)
5-6 cloves garlic, sliced (about 1/4 cup)
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro stems (Duguid calls for roots but I couldn’t find them)
1-4 green cayenne or other green chiles, sliced (Duguid calls for about 1/2 cup, but I’m warning you, that is a lot of chiles. I used only 2 serrano chiles and the stew was plenty spicy for me.)

8 cups water
2 medium tomatoes, cut into wedges
2 teaspoons miso (preferably brown but any works)
3 pounds skinned, filleted mild but thick white fish, such as halibut, cod, or hake; cut into 2-inch pieces
2 scallions, minced
2 cups loosely backed Thai basil and/or cilantro leaves
2 tablespoons rice flour, optional

Combine lemongrass, tumeric, shallots, garlic, ginger, coriander, 1 chile, and 1 tablespoon salt in the bowl of a food processor and blend until smooth. Add a couple tablespoons of water if necessary, and scrape down the sides occasionally.

Meanwhile, bring the water to a boil in a large pot or casserole. Add the spice paste, the remaining tablespoon of salt, and the tomatoes. When the water returns to a boil, boil hard for 10 minutes.

Turn the heat to medium-low. Scoop out a little broth into a small bowl and dissolve the miso in the broth, then add back to the pot. Add the fish, cover, and simmer for about 10 minutes, until the fish is cooked through. Add most of scallions and herbs, stir to combine, and remove the stew from the heat.

Serve over white or brown rice, with the remaining herbs and scallions.

* If you want to thicken the stew, follow the instructions for the miso: scoop out some broth, stir the rice flour into the broth until smooth, then pour the slurry back into the broth and stir to combine.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Dena F. April 12, 2013,

    I am still dreaming about this fish stew! Truly delicious.

  • Hannah April 13, 2013,

    Oh, I can’t wait to make this stew! We’re still having chill and rain, so a spicy soup sounds divine. I’ve been wanting to cook with fresh turmeric, too. I’m due for another round of Burmese cooking, so thank you for the inspiration!

  • Joanna April 24, 2013,

    This recipe looks great! The instructions mention ginger, but it’s not in the ingredient list. How much should I add?

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