Monday, March 19, 2012

Burmese Chicken Curry

I pick up recipes like crazy cat ladies collect strays.  All over the world and from anyone who will share with me.  They come home to live with me and become my own.  The favorites stay forever. When we were living in Brazil, I made friends with a lovely Burmese lady named Ma Toe (and I say Burmese because she does – never ever heard her call it the M word, even when we visited her there.)  Far from a stray, she was an inspiration.  She earned her MBA in the United States with an eight-year-old daughter in tow, up and leaving the family who had practically disowned her in an manipulative effort to make her stay with an abusive first husband.  She is bright, compassionate, funny, multilingual, an excellent cook and the single most humble person I have ever met. 

She lived right across the street from me and we bonded first over cooking.   I would bake her things and she would cook me things and we enjoyed an open door policy few neighbors can tolerate.  Cooking together was the most fun.  She was the mother of one teenage girl, still going to school in Burma, so she would often swoop in and talk my two little ones into going to her house for some treat, both because she enjoyed their company, but also to give me a moment to myself.  Now, that is a good friend.

Over the years, we have seen each other as often as we can.  But I have never stopped making her Burmese chicken curry.  It’s become a part of our family repertoire.

Our last time together was in Singapore in 2009.  My mother was there for eldest daughter’s high school graduation and since it was Mother’s birthday, she got to choose the meal and the cake, as we do in our family.  Her request was Burmese chicken curry and tres leches cake.   What a treat it was to cook with Ma Toe again!  Dinner was delicious and the company sublime.

There she is, serving her delicious curry at our home in Singapore!

Burmese curry does not use spices, just a paste made of onions, garlic and ginger, cooked until fragrant and then reddened with cayenne and paprika or annato.  For chicken curry, you add cinnamon sticks when cooking.  For fish curry, you can add tomatoes and lightly crushed lemon grass stalks.  Do not deviate.  Ma Toe would not approve.

For the paste:
4 large onions
2-3 normal heads of garlic or 4-5 small ones
About 5-6 inches of fresh ginger
1/2 cup or 120ml canola or other light cooking oil plus a little for the pot
1-2 teaspoons cayenne
2-3 teaspoons of paprika or ground annato

For the chicken curry:
I whole chicken, cut into pieces or 5-6 chicken breasts, with bones, cut in thirds
Sea salt
Black pepper
2 good serving spoons Burmese curry paste
2 sticks of cinnamon
4-5 potatoes
Good handful of cilantro or fresh coriander

Peel your garlic or buy fresh already peeled.  Do not use garlic paste or chopped garlic in a jar.  They have other ingredients to keep the garlic from discoloring which add a weird flavor.  I spread newspaper on my coffee table and watch TV while I peel.  Goes quick.

Peel your ginger and chop it finely.

Peel your onions and chop them into quarters or eighths.

Put the whole lot into a blender with the canola and 1 cup or 240ml of water.  Here Ma Toe would use just oil so don't tell her about my substitution with water.  Her paste is richer and her curry gets a dark red slick of oil on top when it is cooked.  Divine but not as healthy.  Shh. (Feel free to use all oil if calories are not an issue for you.  Seriously, much richer!)

It may not all fit at once so put what you can and blend for minute or two then add in the rest.  Blend until you have a smooth paste, turning the blender off and pushing the bits down occasionally.

Heat up a little more canola oil in your pot and then pour in the paste.  

Cook and cook and cook, stirring occasionally.  It turns green as you cook it which is pretty cool, since you put nothing green in there.  I don’t know why that always fascinates me.  Like magic.

Once I asked Ma Toe how to know it was ready and she said, “When it doesn’t smell like onions anymore.”   I’d say about 20-30 minutes will do it.

Now add the cayenne and paprika.  Cook a little longer and stir thoroughly until the color changes.

Now we are looking more like curry!  If you like spicy, you can add even more cayenne. 

This is going to be enough paste for two more pots of curry so let it cool a little and bag two-thirds of it and pop it in your freezer.

This is excellent for vegetable curry as well.  Ma Toe often does eggplant.  Delicious!

On to the actual curry. 

Season your chicken with salt and pepper. (This can even be done earlier, while your paste is cooking.)

Pop the chicken in the pot with the paste and stir to coat the chicken with the paste. 

Two good serving spoons!

Now add enough water to cover the chicken and add in your cinnamon sticks and cook, covered, for about 20-30 minutes over a low fire.  Stir occasionally.

Meanwhile, peel your potatoes and cut them into pieces.  Not too small or they will turn to mush in the pot.

Stir the curry occasionally.   After the 20-30 minutes is up, add in the potatoes and give them a good sprinkle of salt.  Make sure to poke the potatoes down in the liquid to cook. 

Meanwhile, chop your cilantro.

Cook, uncovered, until the potatoes are done, stirring occasionally, perhaps another 20-25 minutes.  Check the seasoning and add more salt, if necessary.

Check out the second photo after I put the potatoes in and you can see
how much this slowly reduced, thickening your sauce. 

Top with the chopped cilantro and serve over white rice.  

We also add in more pepper in the form of my homemade pepper sauce.  But that's just us. 



  1. Have to try this just to see it turn green! I am teaching English to a bunch of Burmese ladies so will tell them I tried your recipe.

  2. I know, Sandi, isn't that just weird? When I remarked on it the first time, Ma Toe said, "That is why we add the coloring." I have to say, I think it looks more appetizing red too.

  3. love this and what an amazing lady she sounds like, my sis in law is Burmese and keep adding to the Tues Food Market board :=)

  4. Then you know what quiet, delightful people they are, Rebecca! Will do!

  5. Sounds delicious! Can't wait to try it. Thanks, Stacy.

  6. Thanks, Lizann. I just got an email from Gillian and she made it and was eating it for lunch. She said it wasn't as red as mine but was still delicious. I guess it depends on your paprika strength. Let me know how it goes!


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