Celebrating the land of a million pagodas

Camas native returns to promote ‘The Burma Cookbook’

“The Burma Cookbook” authors Morrison Polkinghorne (left) and Robert Carmack (center) sign copies of their book and talk with friends and other community members who turned out for their presentation at the Camas Public Library on Wednesday. Buy this photo

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"The Burma Cookbook," set for official release on Friday, will be available to purchase at most major booksellers.

On Saturday, my Mt. Norway kitchen was overflowing with the aromas of delicious, savory delights — pork marinated in ginger and a thick, sweet soy sauce, then cooked for nearly two hours on a low heat with Asian chile powder to create a unique stew.

Mint, onion, ginger and garlic later joined the flavor palate to create a potato salad tossed with gently seasoned oil.

On Sunday, sweeter scents prevailed as a mixture of fresh pineapple, sugar, cinnamon and clove simmered on top of the stove in my favorite bright red dutch oven. The result was a ridiculously sweet, syrupy jam that I later spooned into a hot cup of English breakfast tea, and spread on top of a slice of crusty bread.

These amazing fragrances were produced by dishes I — an admittedly less than seasoned chef — created from recipes picked from the 175 that appear in the 392-page hardcover first edition of “The Burma Cookbook: Recipes from the Land of a Million Pagodas.” It was written by Camas native Robert Carmack with his longtime partner Morrison Polkinghorne, who designed the tome and photographed all of the images inside.

The book’s official release by River Books of London is Friday, but I had the opportunity to get my hands on a copy when the pair stopped by the Camas Public Library Wednesday for a public presentation that touched on the food, people and history of the Southeast Asian country of Burma — also known as Myanmar.

Their talk in Camas, which is part of an international book tour, was illustrated with modern day and historical photos, music and readings from the book itself.

Carmack and Polkinghorne call Sydney, Australia home, but explained they have been visiting Burma, located east of India and west of Thailand, for nearly 20 years and conducting research for the book for the past 12.

“It’s not just a cookbook. It’s also a travel log. It’s also a history,” said Carmack, who is the author of four other cookbooks. “We went into the history of Myanmar and Burma, its colonial history and its antique ancient history, because we wanted to do a celebration of an oppressed people. It’s just by coincidence that our book is coming out at the same time that this country is opening up as it has in the last 18 months.”

It was 1996 when they first visited Burma, a country they describe as one with a long and multi-faceted history and a native people who have a lot of pride.

“Most of all, in Myanmar we were struck by the kindness and generosity of the people,” Carmack said. “They truly were treating us like valued guests, not tourists. In spite of all their adversities and travails, we found a people who, as Herbert Hoover described them, are the only genuinely happy people in all of Asia.”

They drew significant inspiration for the book from one of the country’s most famous landmarks — The Strand Hotel. In fact, its image is featured on the cover, and in Burma the book is sold under the name “The Strand Cookbook.”

Polkinghorne and Carmack first stayed at The Strand in 2000 after winning a three-night stay as part of a charity auction.

“After that, it was hard to stay anywhere else,” Carmack said.

The luxury colonial-style hotel originally opened in 1901 when Myanmar was still a British colony.

“It’s a walking history lesson,” Carmack said. “There are 32 rooms in this beautiful hotel. It was taken over by the Sarkies brothers in 1906, and during that time every anybody with money — barons, government officials, royalty, stayed there. Walking down the wainscot corridors, you can almost hear Somerset Maugham’s and Rutyard Kipling’s footsteps. Of course, it was also the headquarters for some of the best food. It’s that charm, that architecture and that history that prompted us truly to write “The Burma Cookbook.”

During the past decade, Carmack and Polkinghorne had the opportunity to study The Strand’s culinary legacy and work with its chefs — past and present. Polkinghorne perused all of the archives at The Strand, and even took pictures of all of its original cutlery and crockery — many of the photographs appear in the book.

Included in “The Burma Cookbook” is a recipe for one of The Strand’s most famous dishes — lobster Thermidor, which has been prepared there for more than a century.

“Myanmar lobster is some of the best in the world,” Carmack said.

But the cookbook’s recipes are not all directly connected to The Strand. The glossy black pork cooked in my own kitchen, using many ingredients readily available at any Asian market, is described as popular at Myanmar spreads. The potato and mint salad was originally sampled by Carmack and Polkinghorne while visiting the Shan hills of Kalaw. And finally, the recipe for the decadent pineapple and coconut jam — listed by Carmack as one of his favorites — is a “sweetmeat” sold at Mandalay’s Zeygio Market.

Carmack describes most of the recipes included in the book as “approachable,” and without obscure or too many ingredients that could make attempting to prepare them intimidating.

“It will be sold around the world, so it needs to be practical for around the world,” Carmack said.

The book is available at leading booksellers and distributed in America through the Antique Collectors Club.

For more information, visit www.burmacookbook.com.