It was an eye-opening introduction to a remarkably beautiful country. Once upon a time, its people took Keeping Up With the Joneses to a degree Patricia Routledge’s Hyacinth Bouquet would have accorded the highest respect. On the plains of Bagan alone, an area 104 kilometres square, 3822 surviving temples and pagodas vie with each other in degrees of stature and grandeur. Some of them are as small as an outside loo, some as large as a tool shed, all built so close together you sometimes have to squeeze between them.
Between 1044 and 1287, Bagan was the capital of the Pagan Empire. Its rulers and subjects built more than 1000 stupas, 10,000 small temples and 3000 monasteries. Why?, I asked a woman passing by on a bicycle. She shrugged. “One villager builds a temple on his piece of land to his god of worship. His neighbour feels obliged to follow, and builds one bigger and better.”
When you see the cauliflowers piled mountainously high in every local market, you might think the Burmese are doing the same today with vegetables. It’s an astonishing country of abundant produce, the great proportion of it grown on man-made floating islands dotting the 113-square kilometres of Inle Lake in the centre of the nation. And its cauliflowers are not the size of a baby’s head. They are the size of a beach ball.
They seemed so incongruous, displayed alongside mounds of bak choi and aubergines and green vegetables more obviously associated with Indian and Chinese dishes. Cauliflowers, more happily grown in cool daytime temperatures, are to me a vegetable of Northern Europe.
But the people of Burma/Myanmar don’t smother their cauliflowers in cheese and white sauces. They steam their florets and turn them while warm in finely chopped mint, sesame seeds, chillies, fried garlic, and a drizzle of a tahini-like sauce for a delicious one-dish meal or salad.
It was the English who introduced the cauliflower to a hotter part of the world - to India in 1822. Long before, Pliny had been familiar with the cauliflower, referring to it in the 1st century AD as a pleasant-tasting cabbage he called a ‘cyma’. In the 12th and 13th centuries, Arab botanists pointed to Cyprus as the origin of the plant - another hot country. But the then French rulers of that island in the 16th century began to trade the seeds into western Europe and on into France from Genoa.
Even with such a distinguished lineage, cauliflowers have long suffered the burden of a poor reputation that is mostly the result of being dreadfully overcooked, a circumstance not well disguised by coating it thickly in a cheesy bechamel sauce.
Then suddenly, about a couple of years ago, British hipsters decided the cauliflower would replace kale as the fashion-forward dish of the day. (Whoever decided kale was fashionable? And why?) It may have been due to the rise in vegetarianism, or to the fact that cooks began to recognise that cauliflowers, like haricot beans, and brussels sprouts, and other often maligned vegetables, have acquired ruined repute because they can slide from crunchy to sludgy in a matter of boiling minutes. So take care with this recipe.
Roast cauliflower steaks with spinach pesto
- 1 whole cauliflower, washed, leaves removed and reserved to roast or steam with another dish
- Olive oil
- Juice of half a lemon
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 200C.
Cut the stem of the cauliflower to stand it upright. Cut down into 2.5 cm slices. Oil a baking sheet, rub the steaks both sides with olive oil, squeeze over the lemon juice, season and roast for 15 minutes and serve with a generous tablespoon of pesto.
Alternatively, rub both sides with olive oil, lay in a very hot dry pan and cook over high heat about 5 minutes each side until soft and charred, squeezing the lemon juice over at the finish.
- 60g fresh spinach leaves, well-washed and stemmed
- 15g flat leaf parsley
- 65g walnuts, toasted
- 20g Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
Put all ingredients into food processor and process to a fine paste the thickness of double cream. Season to taste and scrape into a glass container, loosening the pesto with a little warm water if necessary. Top with a thin coat of olive oil to prevent the pesto from discolouring and store in the refrigerator. Will keep for several months.
This column written by Julia Watson originally appeared in the November 2019 edition of The Bugle.