Myanmar’s Mouthwatering Meatballs
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because you can help without going hungry.
We’d been on a four-hour hike through the northern hill tribes of Doi Inthanon National Park. The humidity? A more-than-moist 90 degrees. But there we were, an hour southwest of Chiang Mai at Chai Lai Orchid, an eco resort alongside the Mae Wang River. And we’d reasonably developed much more than a thirst. We were epically hungry.
There were classic Thai dishes — think pad Thai or panang curry — and Burmese cuisine inspired by the culinary influences of the folks in and around the kitchen who hailed from Shan, Kayan, and the Karen states of Myanmar, but the hunger was for pork. Specifically, the pork slider. Not some pale little meat patties akin to the beef ones at White Castle back Stateside. Their lemongrass pork sliders were more like meatballs and had been passed down, generation to generation, grandmother recipe–style.
Despite this and centuries of Burmese influence on traditional Thai menus, this dish doesn’t impress most Thai people and is not, in total, all that popular. Unless you’re Shan, the largest of Myanmar’s indigenous natives with 1,000-year-old ties to the land. Or us.
We watched them dice the pork by hand in their open-air kitchen, a painstaking process that requires a cleaver, large cutting board and some serious muscle. Some recipes suggest just grinding the meat in a processor, but the nuances that you get with each bite of hand-chopped pork transforms these balls from regular old meat patties into bite-size delicacies. Little kids constantly buzzed around the entrance, trying to distract their mothers, who were permanently attached to the stove.
It was the perfect harmony between salty and sweet, with a pop-in-your-mouth freshness that satisfied our desire for something hearty in the midafternoon heat.
And some of their mothers? At-risk women — ethnic armed conflict in the Shan state of Burma has seen escalating violence between the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and Shan State Army — learning hospitality skills and English under the aegis of the nonprofit Daughters Rising, all while being paid properly.
But the pork balls? Unlike anything we’d tried before, or even after in the two weeks that followed as we continued to travel throughout Thailand. The flavors found from the lemongrass, garlic, turmeric and ginger concoction deliver nothing sort of a gustatory explosion to our Americanized palates. And I’m a huge fan of lemongrass, courtesy of college, when lemongrass chicken was a mainstay on farmer’s market Tuesdays.
Each palm-size bite was fried crispy from being bathed in peanut oil, but soft, flavorful and juicy once bitten into. It was the perfect harmony between salty and sweet, with a pop-in-your-mouth freshness that satisfied our desire for something hearty in the midafternoon heat. And served on a plate with fresh greens and tomatoes — the staff love to pair it with sticky rice — and priced at 149 Thai baht (about $4), it’s basically a steal.
Since the dish isn’t traditional Burmese food, it’s pretty tough to find, and even more so back in the U.S. But in my desperation to re-create our experience at Chai Lai Orchid, I stumbled on a recipe from Naomi Duguid, who wrote Burma: Rivers of Flavor. She discovered the dish about nine years ago from a Shan couple, refugees from Burma. “It’s a very interesting dish,” she told me over the phone. “It’s very ‘country.’ And when I say ‘country,’ I mean there’s nothing processed in it.”
The deep complexity of the flavors, particularly the lemongrass and fatty meat (“Don’t wreck it by making it lean,” Duguid says), are what make it so accessible. Which is to say, with just a quick trip to the supermarket, you’ll have everything you need to re-create your own pork sliders. Without the 90-degree humidity.