Burmese Chicken Curry from the Bungalow


Burmese Chicken Curry from the Bungalow


It’s a typical Saturday afternoon and I can hear Amy bang banging the mortar and pestle, smashing up spices for her traditional Burmese chicken curry in her bungalow.

Walking up the side path, a small sunburnt yellow wooden structure, with a crooked door, rusted at its hinges, comes into view. It is built in the style of a Californian Bungalow and this little shed, (also known as Amy’s cave) is likened to a scullery – an insignificant little cooking space out in the backyard.  It never features in photos yet plays a leading role in facilitating the ritual of large cook-ups to cater for her extended family when they gather for celebrations to give thanks, the passing of spirits and all manner of parties.

The bungalow resides by a large eucalyptus tree that attracts colourful parakeets.  Underneath the tree is a spit, still cooling its embers after a weekend party.

Inside the bungalow, is a humble, slightly obscure dark little ordered place of condiments and spices labelled in both Burmese and English in recycled containers, so they’re not confused with the washing detergent and weed killers.

It is populated in a simple style with utilitarian requirements for cooking. There are a couple of wooden spoons, a 25-year old model Chef stove left over from kitchen renovations, neatly tucked in the corner next to the laundry sink.  The corner wall bears translucent oil stains, marking a generation of fry offs simulating an abstractionist painting.  The trusted Chef stove still bangs out a traditional Sunday roast.  A tired and scratched wok takes permanency on its stovetop.

Silence. Operation bang bang is now complete. Amy is standing beside me showing the smashed up garlic, ginger, onion, chilli, and coriander. The combined spicy, strong aromas meld and emanate warmth, in this little unpretentious culinary expanse.

“These are the key base ingredients of any Burmese curry,” Amy tells me. “Then after you have crushed these ingredients, you can add other spices, such as turmeric, paprika anything you like.  I like to push the flavour and add six birds eye chillies.”

“You know,” she admits, “I was never the cook in the family.  It was my little sister, Patricia, who really took a keen interest in cooking.  She’s really the one who has the taste in her fingers.  We also had helpers around the kitchen back in Burma, so I really didn’t take to cooking until I had to.”



She reminisces of the time in Burma, when she was given the responsibility to look after her six siblings when her mother paid their grandmother a visit at a nearby city.  Amy didn’t know what to do and would call on the help of university friends who would advise her to “just add salt” if her combinations would not work out.  Most times it was guesswork.  If they could afford it, servings traditionally consisted of a large pot of yellow split pea curry or dahl, cooked with meat or chicken. Food was rationed out to the brothers and sisters, as these were tough times.

Watching with fascination her swift movements in chopping up the cabbage, cucumber and coriander and her use of unique combinations of roasted pea powder and tamarind paste to dress the fish cake salad, I find it hard to believe that she was once a novice.

I discover that the Burmese cuisine is diverse, having been influenced by Thai, Indian and Chinese cultures and the flavours are a blend of sweet, sour and salt. So the “all coming together” approach to cooking reflects the Burmese history of its cultural mix.

Just at the spices come together, food plays an important role in bringing the family together.  I am shown photos of the extended family sitting on picnic chairs around old card tables awaiting their serve of specialty dishes such as fried noodles with chicken and coconut cream.  Chicken is brought in bulk and served up on the tables.  The cooks all stand, facing the camera showing their large platters, pleased that they have contributed to the infrastructure of eating. As one enters these gatherings they are given the order: “Sit! You must eat!”

Whilst ripping up the bok choy, in a quiet voice, Amy shares the memory of the gathering at her house after her brother’s funeral service.  On that day, the light of the bungalow stayed on until all hours of the morning with its stovetop burning, frying up dim sims, samosas, and rice.  “My sisters and I made sure between the singing, conversation and crying, that everyone was being fed.”  They did this together for support and remembrance to relieve the pain of loss of a loved one.

“I use the bungalow particularly for fries.”  Amy changes the subject. “But not your conventional potato fries, but frying up gourd, with a tempura batter made of pea and rice flour and when cooking fish, so to not smell out the house.  We also make the ballachaung, a traditional Burmese fish relish made with a combination of dried fish and prawns cooked with garlic, chilli and onions,” and other secret ingredients she is not willing to tell.  “It’s a three-day process and I get my husband to help me.”  She reaches for a recycled plastic tub from the shelf, without taking her eyes off the wok and unscrews the lid.  The smell is strong, pungent and very fishy.  She says, “It’s an acquired taste, but goes nicely with rice.”

The delicious smell of the chicken curry wafts from its boil as it has now been transferred to the stove in the kitchen inside the house, to make room in the bungalow for the lentil soup.  It seems that these two cooking spaces share a symbiotic relationship.  Amy orbits like a satellite toing and froing between these two hearths bringing spices from one and returning condiments to the other to complete the cycle of cooking for the varied dishes she is going to serve.

“Look,” she indicates, “Here are the red lentils, good for making dahl,” as she unscrews another plastic recycled container and takes a handful from the container, to show me.

And as I look closely at the floor, her tiny feet have well worn the floorboards at the spot near the stove.  She is like a dancer, having practiced her culinary choreography many times over the years, performing the domestic ritual in cooking for her family in this tiny bungalow.

Amy is now retired and the kids have grown.  She admits she is proud of who she is and what she has achieved.

It’s time to put the rice on and it is at this point, Amy feels that the food is finally coming together.

Dinnertime.  The meal is a colourful sight.  All the dishes are served together.  The chicken curry with its yellow and orange tinges contrasts with the greens and reds of the chillies in the fish cake and bok choy in the salad.  The smell of curry, lemongrass, ginger and coriander combine well with the fish sauce.  The tamarind dressing of the salad is neutralised by the lentil soup with the rice serving as the bed for all these exotic toppings.  To top it off, Amy brings out a spare stash of the Ballachaung she keeps in the pantry and adds it to the mix.

With genuine Burmese hospitality, Amy extends an invitation for me to sit at the dinner table.  In her authoritative and kind voice she gives the order,  “Please Helen, sit.  You must eat!”

And as an obedient ambassador of good taste with a healthy appetite – I sit.

Amy is not a fussy cook, but likes to keep things interesting. She likes color in her food and cooks with a variety of spices so the food isn’t boring. Amy buys a lot of her ingredients from the Footscray Market.


Chicken Curry recipe


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