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Inspired, she captured Myanmar cuisine

Page Bingham holds a prawn as it would be eaten in Myanmar, with her fingers, enhancing the flavor of the food. It’s cooked with chilies and tamarind. Page Bingham holds a prawn as it would be eaten in Myanmar, with her fingers, enhancing the flavor of the food. It’s cooked with chilies and tamarind. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
By Omar Sacirbey
Globe Correspondent / January 20, 2010

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CAMBRIDGE - The Shan region of Myanmar, the Southeast Asian country once known as Burma, is home to a unique culinary culture that boasts diverse dishes, from starters like mustard soup and mango salad, to entrees like grilled fish in banana leaf and steamed ginger chicken. But to truly enjoy these meals, the Shan advise, forget utensils and eat with your fingers.

That’s Page Bingham’s advice, too. “Food has the most taste when it comes from the fingertips,’’ says Bingham, a Cambridge resident who has documented this and other Shan culinary features in “A Taste of Shan,’’ her newly published recipe and photo collection from this vibrant and mystical region. Bingham is donating royalties to the Foundation for the People of Burma, a humanitarian aid organization.

“Each recipe has a history,’’ says Bingham. Myanmar is a closed society that evokes images of oppression, poverty, and residents afraid to speak openly, for fear of being heard by spies. Bingham says she was tailed by government officials, although she got used to it. “They’re always following you. But it was so obvious, it was kind of humorous,’’ she says. “I wasn’t worried because I wasn’t doing anything subversive, I was just getting recipes.’’

While the bleak images are real, she says, they should not obscure the fact that the Shan region is full of hospitable, resilient, and funny people. “I wanted to show the other side.’’

Bingham went to Myanmar to save her marriage, she writes. About seven years ago, she and her husband had hit a rough spot and separated. When she was invited to visit by a friend who was doing research work in Yangon, the capital, she decided she needed the time away - and stayed for a year. Bingham became fascinated by the region and began a fruitless search for a cookbook. There were none. “You should write one,’’ said one bookstore owner. “Then I can sell it here.’’ She ended up rescuing recipes that, she was told, have yet to be recorded and face declining use as Shan cuisine is overtaken by the cuisine of the region’s substantial ethnic Chinese population.

On a recent evening in her Cambridge home, Bingham prepares two favorites: stir-fried prawns with tamarind sauce and a typical tomato salad.

For the prawn dish, Bingham heats a cast iron wok ( a large skillet is a good substitute) and begins by frying a mixture of shallots, garlic, tamarind sauce, red chili peppers, fish sauce, and sugar. Although the book has a somewhat labor-intensive recipe for tamarind sauce, on this particular night, Bingham uses a canned Thai version. She brings the blend to a boil, adds large shrimp, and garnishes the finished dish with cilantro. The Shan tradition works well here: Fingertips bring out intense flavors that start sweet and tart, and finish hot.

“At first I was intimidated,’’ says Bingham, who was new to Asian foods. “But once you do it a lot, it gets easier.’’

The tomato salad requires many of the same ingredients as the prawn dish; it’s an easy and sensible side. A refreshing and light dressing of rice vinegar and fish sauce - no oil - offers an appealing complement to the tart and more concentrated tamarind sauce.

Bingham’s book has sections on street food, eating with the Shan, and a basic glossary. Each recipe is preceded by a brief and often interesting or humorous anecdote about how Bingham acquired the recipe. She received the formula for steamed ginger chicken, for example, from a member of a deposed Shan royal family whose “passion for all things Shan is as strong as his passion for talking,’’ Bingham writes. “ ‘Easy to make and delicious,’ were his parting words as I fled before he could launch into another soliloquy.’’

One of Bingham’s favorite features of Shan is the teahouse culture. Not unlike pubs, tea houses are ubiquitous, especially in the regional capital of Mandalay. They give people a place to gather and socialize, and also provide an unofficial social net, giving teenagers and young men a place to work during the day, and to sleep at night. While ubiquitous, each teahouse brews its own unique blends daily.

Because of the accidental way in which she began the book, Bingham ended up learning about the region in a way that a regular tourist never could. “Food is a great icebreaker,’’ she says. “That’s how I got to know the people.’’

An added bonus: The project helped her reconnect with her husband, Jim Anathan, who responded to her e-mails with encouragement and helpful comments. They are together and, among other things, sometimes cook together.

To order “A Taste of Shan’’ (Marshall Cavendish Cuisine, 2009), go to www.amazon.com.