It’s evident that Hsan Myint Aung builds his life around food. He has run Sun’s Burmese Kitchen with his wife, Erlinda, in Blacktown for close to 10 years, but even on his days off, he is out visiting markets and grocers, “always looking at all the ingredients”.
“Even when I’m not working … That’s why I know all the shops,” he says, rattling off a list of suburbs whose grocery geography he’s familiar with.
He enjoys every cuisine, but has fond memories of Hainanese chicken rice in Singapore. “I spent about 10 years in Singapore, when I was young,” he says. “I was working on the ships; that was about 40 years ago. I can tell you, I loved to eat chicken rice.”
And when I send him a photo of the rice vermicelli I’ve bought to make mohinga, he texts me back a photo of the brand he recommends, Golden Swallow; he tells me the one I bought, Wai Wai, is better for frying.
Mohinga, a lemongrass and fish soup, is about as robust as breakfast gets. It’s thickened with toasted ground rice, has a whopping 300ml of fish sauce, and is served with rice vermicelli, crispy fried shallots, eggs, lime, chilli, coriander and, at Sun’s Burmese Kitchen, a yellow split pea cracker.
Traditionally, the soup would also include finely sliced banana stem, used as a vegetable in parts of south and south-east Asia; nobody sells it here, but Hsan grows his own at home.
Have You Eaten, a map of Sydney in cuisines, lists Sun’s Burmese Kitchen as Sydney’s only Burmese restaurant. The Burman Kitchen in Surry Hills would once have been the second, but it closed permanently in February 2020.
“Actually, it was very hard to open the restaurant,” Hsan Myint Aung tells me.
“Thirty years ago, when I came, there was nothing, no [Burmese] shops – but I would cook at the church, for the community, for family friends and things like that. After that they [said], you better open a restaurant!
“Burmese food is … everybody didn’t know about it. That was the real main thing – [it was] a very big challenge. I had to really struggle at the time.”
How about now? He laughs. “A lot of people know now!”
Given how uncommon Burmese food still is in Australia, he takes particular pride in how faithfully his restaurant cleaves to the cuisine; dishes like danbauk, which he says is like a Burmese biryani, and kyay-o, a noodle soup with pork offal, are signature menu items.
“It’s really authentic, you know; I never modified it.”
These days, Sun’s has a dedicated following. Located in what was an LGA of concern during Sydney’s lockdown, the restaurant stopped offering even takeaway at the end of July. When their Facebook page announced they were reopening in early October, the comments were filled with overjoyed customers keen to satisfy their cravings again.
After nearly 10 years, what lies ahead for the restaurant?
“I’m tired already!” he says, laughing. “I’m going on 70 – I’m not a kid!”
Joking complaints aside, though, he says his son and wife want to continue running the shop – an assurance that will undoubtedly keep his regulars rejoicing.
Prep 30 min
Cook 1hr 20 min
For the fish
300g catfish (available frozen at Vietnamese grocers; alternatively, use yellowtail)
300ml fish sauce
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 stalk lemongrass, finely chopped
For the soup
¼ cup vegetable oil
5 brown onions, finely sliced
2 stalks of lemongrass, finely chopped
2cm ginger, grated or finely minced
6 cloves garlic, grated or finely minced
1 ½ tsp paprika
1 ½ tsp ground turmeric
1 litre + 500ml water
400g rice vermicelli
2 hard boiled eggs
Crispy fried shallots or garlic
Chilli flakes or powder
1 bunch fresh coriander
1 lime, quartered into wedges
Combine the fish sauce, 200ml water, one teaspoon of turmeric and one finely chopped stalk of lemongrass in a small saucepan along with the catfish. Bring to a boil over high heat, then cook for 15 minutes. Remove the saucepan from heat, take the catfish out of its cooking liquid and allow it to cool. Do not discard the cooking liquid; it will be used later to season the soup.
Once the catfish is cool enough to handle, remove the skin, then carefully lift the meat off the bones. Be thorough with this step; the catfish will break down almost entirely when it is cooked in the soup, so make sure not to leave any small bones in.
Toast rice in a dry pan over low heat, keeping it moving to ensure the rice toasts evenly. Once it is a light golden colour, about 10 minutes, transfer it out of the hot pan into a bowl. When it is cool enough to handle, grind the rice into powder in a clean coffee or spice grinder, or in a high-powered blender. You should end up with about 75g of ground rice (toasting removes a few grams of moisture).
Heat vegetable oil in a large frying pan over medium heat, then add two of the finely sliced brown onions, two finely chopped stalks of lemongrass, the ginger, garlic, paprika and turmeric. Sauté for two to three minutes until fragrant, then add the cooked fish and turn heat to low. Keep cooking the mixture over low heat, breaking the pieces of catfish up with a spatula as you go. After about 15 minutes, the mixture should have deepened in colour slightly as the onions and garlic caramelise.
Bring one litre of water to a boil in a large saucepan. Mix the ground rice with remaining 500ml of cold water, then, while stirring, slowly pour the ground rice slurry into the boiling water; this will ensure there are no lumps.
Add the cooked catfish mixture, then add the remaining finely sliced onion and bring the pot to a boil; once it does, turn heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes (or longer – Hsan Myint Aung says the longer it cooks, the sweeter the onion will be). Season the soup with four to five tablespoons of the leftover fish sauce used to cook the catfish; adjust to taste.
To serve, cook rice vermicelli in boiling water according to instructions; divide the vermicelli among four bowls, then ladle soup over the top. Serve topped with fried shallots or garlic, halved boiled eggs, chilli flakes or powder, coriander and a wedge of lime.
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