The Strand Hotel in Burma’s largest city Rangoon was built by the famous Sarkies brothers, who were also responsible for Singapore’s Raffles Hotel. When it opened in 1901, it was one of the most luxurious hotels in the British empire. Famous guests included author Rudyard Kipling, Edward VIII and the Earl of Burma Lord Mountbatten.
But a few decades later, the hotel’s fortunes had changed dramatically: it was used as a barracks and stables by the Japanese during World War II, and completely abandoned after the country claimed its independence in 1948.
In 1993 the restored building opened as a boutique hotel and today it stands as a lasting reminder of the colonial history of the country now known as Myanmar.
It’s fitting, then, that The Strand features prominently on the cover of Robert Carmack and Morrison Polkinghorne’s new Burma Cookbook, which spans the country’s culinary history from the time of empire to the present.
“[The Strand Hotel represents] a hundred years of history, of colonialism and independence, coming to today,” says Carmack.
“It ties the past to the present.”
Sitting side-by-side in the book are traditional Burmese dishes such as mohinga (fish noodle soup) and kha yan chin thee those (tomato salad) along with classic colonial fare like lobster thermidor and roast beef – which the authors recently ate at the Candacraig Hotel at Pyin Oo Lwin (formerly Maymyo).
“That’s why it’s called the Burma Cookbook not the Myanmar Cookbook, because [we wanted to include that] sort of colonial style and history of Myanmar,” he says.
The book is the result of more than a decade of research including months criss-crossing Myanmar chatting to the locals about recipes and ingredients. Some vintage cookbooks obtained from London booksellers proved useful for rediscovering some obscure old recipes
The Strand Hotel too served as a resource as well as an inspiration, with Carmack and Polkinghorne given access to its remaining archives of menus, photos and documents along with its chefs.
“The kitchen staff were very helpful with us saying ‘this would be what we would do with this and that’,” Polkinghorne said.
The pair – who are nominally based in Sydney but spend much of their time researching and running Globetrotting Gourmet food tours around Southeast Asia – had different roles on the book.
US-born Carmack – a classically trained chef now specializing in Asian cuisine and the author of five cookbooks – did the writing while Polkinghorne, an Australian textile designer and importer, was responsible for the photos and look.
“We did it with an Edwardian flavour to connote that history, with an Edwardian font and we took elements of Edwardian design but it is distinctly a fun retro look,” Carmack says. “It’s very contemporary but respectful.”
Polkinghorne also had the job of testing all the recipes to make sure they would work in a typical Western kitchen.
“We worked on the poori puffball recipe a lot,” said Polkinghorne. “You have to make a very flat dough and then when you fry it in the oil a minute it’s supposed to puff up into a great big ball. Getting that technique right, learning how to do the thickness and the size and the edges, and writing that all down was fabulous.
“We made quite a few mistakes there but to finally achieve that little puffball was just phenomenal to do.”
Carmack said he strove for approachability while retaining authenticity with the recipes, adding footnotes with variations instead of changing ingredients.
“Some are easy, some more complex, but they are not dumbed down or bastardised,” Carmack said.
“We don’t want people to feel intimidated thinking that these are ethnic or Asian dishes I’ll never make. All of these would work in a Western kitchen.”
The Burma Cookbook is available now from Monument Books.