Fish Coconut Curry – From Myanmar With Love

With this week's Chef Watch focussing on Stuart Smith who majors in fish, it seemed appropriate to include a fish recipe. Last week's guest recipe provider, Myint Su attracted a lot of interest, particularly the Burmese connection. Bang on cue, she has delivered another Myanmar dish, this time a fish curry. Many of you asked for some more information on the trust set up Myint Su and husband Clive. Theirs is an extraordinary story, which we'll tell in two parts. The first section relates to the Mangalar Trust which was mentioned last week. I've summarised their work from press releases issued a few years ago.

The second is proof positive that the course of true love never did run smooth. Did it occur to you to ask how a young lady from Burma, then one of the world's most proscriptive dictatorships, came to marry an Englishman and settle in Edinburgh? We've missed Valentine's Day by a fortnight, but I can reveal that for the first time, Mills & Boon comes to Tom's Food! We'll call it Clive's Story.

If you want to jump straight to the recipe, skip the next four paragraphs. If you want to leap straight to Clive's Story (and why wouldn't you?) you'll find it at the end of the recipe.

The Mingalar Trust is a family trust set up by Myint Su and Clive, with the primary aim of supporting education in Myanmar at whatever level it is most needed, but in particular in the Teaching of English as Foreign Language (TEFL). It is a registered Scottish charity. They funded it originally from money  earned from the guest house (Mingalar Guest House) that they ran in Edinburgh, and latterly from the rental income.

Myint Su was an assistant lecturer in the University of Rangoon for 7 years in the early 1960s until she came to Scotland in 1967 as a Colombo Plan scholar in the Teaching of English as a Foreign Language to Moray House College of Education and then to the Department of Applied Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh.

She returned to work at the Institute of Education in Yangon in 1971. After some difficulties she rejoined her husband, Dr Clive Criper in Edinburgh in 1973 and then went  on with him to Malaysia.  He was seconded to work for the Ministry of Education in Malaysia under an aid scheme run by the British Government’s Ministry of Overseas Development. She resumed her career in teacher training and textbook writing.

The particular aim of the Trust in Myanmar is to support a programme of extensive reading in English by providing suitable reading materials and a methodology for introducing them even in circumstances where skilled or fluent teachers may not be available.

The political situation in Myanmar and the income source being on hold because of COVID mean that the future of the trust is uncertain. Ever the optimist, Myint Su is hopeful that normal service can be resumed before long.

Fish Coconut Curry

This is more like that which most people are used to as a curry than the beef hsi-pyan (see last week's Tom Cooks!) because there is more liquid in the gravy. Be warned that the shrimp paste (nga-pi) which is widely used in South-East Asian cooking may be offensive to many European noses but it is an essential ingredient in Burmese dishes. It can be bought in Chinese or Thai supermarkets. (Editor's Notes - One of the reasons for the subtle variations in the food of south east Asia is the variety of salt substitutes, ranging from light soy in Japan, through fish sauce in Thailand and Vietnam to shrimp paste in Myanmar and Malaysia. In India they use salt as we do. I had never heard of pangasius, which is referred to in the ingredients. It can be found in Asian supermarkets. Firmness is the issue for a fish curry. I tend to use monkfish. Myint Su points out that it is expensive. I reply that nothing is too good for readers of Tom Cooks! Remember not to boil the sauce after adding the coconut milk. I can't remember why but trust me, I used to be a lawyer.)


900g firm white filleted fish such as cod or pangasius, cut into pieces approx 5 - 7cm; 2 onions or shallots crushed in a food processor; 3 garlic cloves sliced and crushed or pounded in a mortar and pestle; 3 tbsp oil; 2 tsp turmeric; 2 tsp shrimp paste (from Asian supermarkets); 3 stalks lemon grass, stems bashed; 1 tin coconut milk; salt and pepper;  1-2 tsp crushed chilli, or chilli and garlic sauce (from Asian supermarkets) chopped coriander for garnish; 2/3 fresh red chillies, cut lengthwise, seeds removed and cut into strips, for garnish (optional).


Rub salt, pepper and turmeric well into the fish. Fry each piece in a little oil at a high heat till slightly brown on each side and set aside.

Add the onions or shallots, garlic and stalks of lemon grass to the pan and fry gently for 10 or so minutes till the onion is transparent. Add the shrimp paste and chilli (or chilli sauce, if using) to the onion, mix well and continue frying for a few more minutes.

Add the tin of coconut milk, bring it to a simmer and then add the pieces of fried fish gently so as not to break up the pieces. Simmer for 5 or 6 minutes more so that the fish is heated through. Serve sprinkled with coriander and the strips of fresh red chilli. As usual, the curry is best eaten with rice.

Clive's Story (Some romantic violin music would be good at this stage)

When I returned to Edinburgh after working abroad in Uganda I found my eyes were always going to a very beautiful woman from Myanmar in the post graduate course I was teaching. But she was so unapproachable that I had to wait for her to feel so sorry for the teacher who kept getting ill from some tropical disease. After the end of the course she delivered a caramel custard to aid my recovery. So it all began with a caramel custard! (I can feel another recipe column coming on - Ed)

Luckily she stayed on to do a higher degree for 2 further years. At that time Myanmar (Burma) was ruled by a military dictator with total power. It was impossible for most people to either leave the country or do anything against the rules. So ‘courting’ such a beautiful young woman was difficult. She lived in a hostel, but unfortunately there were Army colonels living in a flat opposite. If she had been seen with me, she would have been sent home so, to take her out, i had to go in my small coupe to get her and then she had to hide under the dashboard to avoid being seen.

Besides the military I also had to face the family: another brother in the Burmese embassy in Paris was sent over to check me out. Luckily I passed that test by taking him on a whisky tasting tour in the local pubs. I had to work hard to get her to contemplate marrying a foreigner so my courting was prolonged. The bureaucracy was baffling. Myint Su thought she must be honest and ask permission of the Minister to marry me while saying she would of course go back home after the course was over. The next thing that happened was that her eldest brother was penalised and his passport and exit visa for him and his family were cancelled. He of course was furious at the naïveté of his little sister in thinking she should ask permission.

Then came the major decision as to what to do: in the end we decided to get married just before she had to return to Myanmar. That was not easy as it had to be secret so the military would not know she had broken the rules. So we could have no family at the wedding (just 2 neighbours as witnesses) and to my mother’s heartbreak Myint Su could not be given a ring at the wedding and I had to substitute a gold wristlet instead.

Many difficulties over the next nine months until I got a tourist visa (only one week maximum at that time) to go into Burma to marry her openly in a Buddhist ceremony. From that time on multiple difficulties arose.  When I applied for another tourist visa nine months later, it was refused on the grounds that I was no longer a tourist as I was now married to a Myanmar wife. So, for a total of two and a half years, Myint Su was not allowed to leave the country and I was not officially allowed in. The way out of Burma was by secretly crossing the jungle into Thailand. Then I discovered what I was worth. If it came to a choice between love and a husband, and being eaten by  leeches then it was avoiding the leeches which won.

The way out of this deadlock only came when Myint Su had a brilliant idea of writing to the new wife of the general asking her to do something auspicious for her marriage by helping Myint Su to get permission for her to rejoin her husband. She sent the letter by ordinary post and by the greatest good fortune it was not intercepted.  Within a week she was rung up by somebody from military intelligence saying that she was causing a lot of difficulty and if she did nothing more she would get her exit permission within a few days. So it happened.

Lots of other difficulties in the intervening period, like having to learn how to write ‘love letters’ when you knew it they were being read by official censors and much else but this small account is not meant to put you off your food.

And 50+ years and three children  later, they are still living happily ever after.



  1. Michael Greenlaw on 26th February 2021 at 10:48 pm

    Wonderful story of inter cultural love – and the recipe looks no’ bad either.

  2. Neil on 26th February 2021 at 11:09 pm

    I was going to post last week saying that the best fish curry I ever had was in Myanmar. Butterfish curry – couldn’t get enough of it. It’s an amazing country. The food varies from the north to south as you would expect, but 6 years on it’s still the memory of butterfish curry that remains and I would go back in an instant for that alone. Well that and another trip to the golden rock on the back of a truck – life insurance included in the price of the ticket.

    • Tom Johnston on 27th February 2021 at 10:50 am

      Interesting. I’ve travelled a bit in S E Asia, and did consider Myanmar. At that stage I think I was a bit templed out. The cuisine sounds interesting,though. I’ve eaten food prepared by my pal Myint Su on a few occasions, and it’s quite different from that of the neighbouring countries,

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