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Daniel Neman: How do you make a spectacular meal? Sometimes all it takes is a little effort

By Daniel Neman
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Book cover of "Burma" by Naomi Duguid.

My wife looked at me with a mixture of admiration and incredulity and said, “Only you would go to all this trouble.”

I was making Burmese Chicken — or rather, I was making my own variation on Burmese Chicken. I was mincing together garlic, ginger, lemongrass and onion, and it was taking quite a while.

But I was having fun. Or at least I was enjoying myself. I was talking with my spouse, listening to my favorite radio station and obsessively chopping small bits of onion, lemongrass, ginger and garlic into even smaller bits.

What could be better than that?

Actually, I can think of one thing that was better, and that is eating it. Going to all that work for a dish that did not turn out well would have been disappointing. I’ll admit it.

But when the final result ends up being as superlative as this one was, then the labor involved only adds to the feeling of accomplishment. But it is more than merely a feeling of accomplishment, it is also a darned good dinner.

As it happens, my favorite cuisine in the entire world is Burmese. Burma, which is now called Myanmar, borders India, China, Thailand and a little bit of Bangladesh and Laos, and its food is like a magnificent melding of the best part of all those cuisines.

But Burmese restaurants can be hard to find. Other than a fast-food joint in a local mall food court that at least has a Burmese name, the closest Burmese restaurant to St. Louis is in Columbia, and they only mix in a couple of Burmese dishes among its Thai offerings.

So when I see a recipe for something Burmese, I jump on it. Even if it means a little work.

This particular recipe caught my eye from a “Milk Street” cookbook, which dubbed it Burmese Chicken. It was an adaptation of a different recipe, reworked to make it faster and easier, and cooked in a pot instead of stir-fried in a wok.

Obviously, I didn’t want to take the faster and easier route. So I went back to the “Milk Street” source of the recipe, a book called “Burma,” by Naomi Duguid.

In that book, the recipe has the more appealing name Aromatic Chicken from the Shan Hills. But like the faster and easier version, it calls for one-quarter cup of oil.

I’m sure all of that oil for four servings yields a distinctive, authentic and no doubt delicious dish. But I just didn’t want all those calories. And besides, I was in a mood to grill.

So I cut out all of the oil, added some lime juice (the original recipe called for lime leaves, and I didn’t feel like going to the international market to see if they had any), minced it all together and applied it as a paste for an hour before grilling it.

It may not be authentically Burmese, but it was outstanding. And cold leftovers the next day were just as stellar.

It was absolutely worth all the trouble. There’s probably some sort of a lesson there, if you look for it hard enough.


Yield: 3 to 4 servings

8 garlic cloves

1 (2-inch) piece ginger

Pinch red pepper flakes, or much more if you want it hotter

1 medium onion, chopped

3 stalks lemongrass, inner layers only, chopped

1 tablespoon salt

1 tablespoon turmeric

1/4 cup cilantro leaves, chopped

Juice of 1/2 lime

1 (4-pound) chicken, cut into serving pieces

1. On a large cutting board, mince together garlic, ginger, pepper flakes, onion, lemongrass, salt, turmeric and cilantro. Place into a large bowl and stir in lime juice. Add chicken pieces and coat them with the paste. Refrigerate for 1 hour.

2. Set up a grill for indirect cooking. Wipe the paste off the chicken pieces and grill them away from the source of the heat, covered, for 50 minutes. Remove the white meat and continue cooking the dark meat, covered, for 10 more minutes.

Recipe by Daniel Neman, adapted from “Burma” by Naomi Duguid