Originated from the Inle Lake, which sits on the plateau amidst the Shan Hills in the Eastern part of the Country, this one-dish recipe is not to be missed when you are visiting Burma. This second largest lake in Burma lies nearly 3,000 feet above the sea level and it is home to world famous leg rowing fishermen, floating markets and floating “Inn-Thee” tomato farms.
Inn-tomatoes are infamous for the environmental damage they cause to Inle Lake, with the overuse of pesticides and fertilizers in tomato cultivation, whereas they bear a good name for their fine thick flesh with few seeds, thin delicate skin and sweet flavor.
Shan State being a landlocked region, Inle Lake is the major supplier of freshwater fish for Shan people. The abundance of fresh water fish and tomatoes is believed to be the motive for the Inn-thar’s invention of kneaded fish rice. Reflecting the simple and humble lives of Inn-thars, the classic Nga-Htamin-Nal involves few simple steps, using all locally grown produce. As the dish continues to make its way outside of Inle Lake and into cities and restaurants and households all over Burma, there has been slight departure from the most traditional recipe.
My maternal grandmother being a Shan, Nga-Htamin-Nal is no stranger to our household and the version that my household has adopted is easy in preparation, simple in ingredients but great in taste. Snakehead murrel fish (nga-yant in Burmese) is the original choice of fish but any fleshy, succulent and sweet freshwater fish would do justice to Nga-htamin-nal.
I am using ‘mrigal’ carp (nga-gyinn in Burmese) in today’s recipe. This white carp fish is quite delicate in texture and in flavor that extra care is necessary to prevent the improper cooking techniques from destroying its texture and other ingredients from overpowering its flavor. The fish is simmered in plain water over low heat together with turmeric powder, dried red chilies and a lemongrass stalk, just to help obviate the fishy smell. Simmering the fish is a clean and unadulterated way of cooking to maintain the integrity and nutrition of the fish.
Serving: 2-3 persons
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cooking Time: 30 minutes
- 3 bowls of cooked White Rice
- 1½ lb. of gutted and washed and scaled carp, cut into 2 inch chunks
- 1 tsp. of Turmeric Powder (1/2 each for simmering fish and making garlic oil)
- 6 cloves of Garlic (3 each for simmering fish and making garlic oil)
- 1 Lemongrass stalk
- 2 Dried Red Chili Peppers
- 7 Inn-Thee Tomatoes (or any kind of fleshy, sweet tomatoes)
- 1 chopped Large Onion
- 5 tbsp. of Peanut Oil (1 tbsp. for Tomato Paste, rest for garlic oil)
- 2 tbsp. of Fish Sauce
- ½ tsp. of Salt
- Green Onions
- Garlic Slices
- Hooker Chive Roots
- Deep-fried Peanuts
- Double-fried yellow tofu made from yellow split pea flour
Simmering the Fish
- Put the fish chunks in the wok together with 3 cloves of garlic, 2 chilies, a lemon stalk, salt, turmeric powder and 1 cup of water. Place the wok on the stove and turn the heat to medium low.
- While cooking the fish, spoon the simmering broth over the top of the fish so that the whole chunk get infused with the flavors and fragrance.
- Let the fish simmer for 4-5 minutes, depending on the size of the pieces you’ve cut, till it is cooked enough to flake off easily.
- You will know the fish is ready if they are relatively firm when you press on them and when they change from translucent to solid white color.
- Turn the heat off and let the fish cool off.
- Remove the skin and bones from the fish and shred with your fingers.
- Save the water the fish was simmered in, as some of the sweet juices of fish dripped into the water. Also to save are the garlic cloves and the chilies. Pound the chilies into a fine paste in mortar and pastel.
Making Tomato Paste
- Heat peanut oil in a saucepan over medium heat.
- Finely chop the onion and sauté until golden-brown and softened. About 3-4 minutes.
- Add the pounded chili paste and cook for 1-2 minutes till you start smelling the aroma. Most of the flavors from the chilies have already seeped into the fish and the use of it here is merely to give beautiful color to the dish.
- Add the diced Inn-thee tomatoes along with sweet juices from the fish and the cooked garlic. Season with fish sauce.
- Cook over low-medium heat for about 5-6 minutes.
- When ready, the paste should be thickened with no excess liquid.
Making Garlic Oil
- First, peel and roughly chop the garlic cloves.
- Heat a skillet over medium heat and add the peanut oil. Once the oil is heated, add the chopped garlic.
- Stir gently and every so often to ensure even browning and to avoid the garlic from getting burnt and bitter.
- A pinch of turmeric powder is added to give the oil a bright golden color.
- When the garlic start to turn into light golden brown color, turn the heat off and continue stirring. The residual heat will continue to cook and darken the garlic little more. Then let the garlic oil cool.
- In a mixing bowl, add all the rice, tomato paste, half of the shredded fish and 3 tbsp. of garlic oil,
- Mix and knead the rice until all the ingredients are well combined and sticky consistency is achieved.
Garnish and Serve (for one serving)
- Fill a small bowl with kneaded fish rice. Flatten it with back of the spoon and pat it down firmly.
- Invert a large serving plate upside down on top.
- Holding the bowl and the plate tightly, flip them over.
- Gently and slowly lift the bowl.
- Garish the dome of rice with shredded fish flakes, garlic chips and a drizzle of garlic oil.
- Serve together with fried peanuts, fried tofu, sliced garlic, green onions and hooker chive roots.
Best Food Accompaniment: Light, peppery or spicy Soups or Hot Tea
Burmese Language Lesson
- Ngar –> Fish
- Htamin –> Rice
- Nal –> Kneaded
- Inle –> Small Lake (pronounced as Inn Lay)
- Inn-Thee –> a particular type of tomatoes grown in Inle Lake
- Inn-Thar –> Inle Lake dwellers
- Shan –> One of the eight major ethnic national groups in Burma (Myanmar)
Note: In a traditional version, boiled fish and tomatoes are kneaded with glutinous Shan Rice. When Shan rice is not readily available, using regular rice cooked with more water is absolutely fine. Some add mashed, boiled potatoes to get the ideal sticky consistency but I skip the potatoes because this will defeat the purpose of highlighting the fish and the tomatoes.