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Explore a taste of Burma

Ten years after a globe-trotting, native Oregonian chef brought flavors of Thailand and Vietnam to the Rogue Valley, he's returning with a taste of mysterious Myanmar.

Also known as Burma, the country has fascinated Robert Carmack and his photo-grapher partner, Morrison Polkinghorne, for more than 20 years. It took the pair more than a decade to research, write and photograph "The Burma Cookbook," the topic of two in-depth cooking classes Saturday and Sunday, March 1-2, in Central Point.

"It is geared not only for the cook, but also the actual traveler and the armchair traveler," says Carmack. "It is part cookbook, history lesson and travel guide all wrapped up into one."

Burmese cuisine also captivated chef Sandy Dowling when Carmack and Polkinghorne served it for a private dinner 10 years ago at her Central Point inn, The Willows. Their cookbook's completion this year provided the ideal occasion to again host Carmack and Polkinghorne for a weekend of exploring both Myanmar's traditional dishes and the former British colony's fusion flavors.

"I think their food is more like Indian food," says Dowling. "Spicy but not too spicy."

The combinations of spices are simpler in Burmese cuisine, making for a "welcome respite to American palates more accustomed to subtler flavours," says Carmack. That quality perhaps contrasts with Burma's perceived inaccessibility to travelers, discouraged by the country's decades of political strife and social oppression.

"It's been hidden for so long," says Dowling.

Indeed, some seasoned sous chefs working in Sydney recently confessed to Carmack and Polkinghorne that they didn't know the geographic location of Myanmar. But "The Burma Cookbook" brings landscapes, people and their way of life into focus with lush photographs and 175 recipes. A selection from the book will compose a full meal for participants in the upcoming Willows classes.

Inspired by both remote villages and fine-dining establishments, such as The Strand hotel in Yangon, recipes in "The Burma Cookbook" are written for use in the home kitchen, says Carmack. The widespread use of tomato, garlic, onion and oil in Burma may remind readers of Greek cuisine, he adds. The most unusual ingredients, such as dried shrimp, often are listed as optional but should be available in most Asian markets.

"If you have an Asian market in your vicinity, go there first ... as they are usually cheaper than supermarkets!" says Carmack.

Oregon's small Pacific shrimp, soon in season, would be a fine substitute in Burmese-style tomato sauce, the chef suggests. The state's gastronomic bounty is one reason for Carmack's return with Polkinghorne. Alder-smoked salmon will find its way into kedgeree during their Oregon stay.

While Sydney is home base for Carmack and Polkinghorne, they call Bangkok their second home but are in the process of moving to Cambodia. They visited Myanmar five times last year for work on "The Burma Cookbook," Carmack's fifth cookbook. Other titles are "Thai Cooking" and "Vietnamese Cooking," presented in 10 years ago at The Willows, as well as fondue and dessert books.

When they aren't writing cookbooks, Carmack and Polkinghorne lead culinary tours in Asia. See www.globetrottinggourmet.com.

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or email slemon@mailtribune.com.

Monti Salad is a recipe from 'The Burma Cookbook,' featured in an upcoming cooking class in Central Point. - Photo courtesy of Morrison Polkinghorne