- Prep time 40 minutes
- Cook time 55 minutes
- Serves 4 to 6
When my Jewish mom married my half-Burmese dad, she learned how to make many of the dishes he grew up with, including a vermicelli noodle salad that his mother—my grandmother—made for us often. Eventually, my mom had the idea to replace the starchy noodles with coleslaw mix, making the dish lighter, more refreshing, and ideal for serving as a side along with curries and rice. The final product features many elements of traditional Burmese salads, known as thokes, but incorporates some of my mom’s sensibilities—in the sheer quantity of turmeric-fried onions, for example, or the convenience of packaged coleslaw mix. This recipe is also unusual in its use of lemon juice. Limes are generally the citrus of choice in Burmese food, but they weren’t readily available when many of my family members immigrated to the States. So, they used lemons—and the substitution stuck.
The salad is highly adaptable. I include toasted peanuts in this version because I like their nutty, toasty flavor (and they’re commonly used in other thokes), but they’re by no means necessary. Feel free to adjust the quantities of any given component according to your personal preference—the end result will still be salty, sour, spicy, crunchy, extremely addictive. Found on pretty much every Burmese table, balachaung is a condiment consisting of dried shrimp, chiles, and garlic fried until ultra-concentrated and pungent. It can be hard to find, so as a shortcut to making her own, my mom found that grinding up large, dried shrimp with chile flakes makes for a solid substitution.
yellow onions, thinly sliced
1 1/2 cups
neutral oil, for frying
unsalted peanuts, roughly chopped
chickpea (or gram) flour
balachaung (or, 1/4 cup dried shrimp + 2 teaspoons chile flakes)
fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
freshly squeezed lemon juice
kosher salt, and more to taste, if desired
- Cook the onions and make the onion oil: Heat the oil in a large wok or heavy, high-sided pan over medium-high heat. When the oil is shimmering but not smoking (approximately 220°F), add a piece of onion to test the temperature—it should sizzle, but not splatter. Add the rest of the onions and sprinkle with turmeric. Cook the onions on medium heat, stirring frequently, 30 to 40 minutes, until they reach a deep golden brown and look shrunken and “frizzled”—or caramelized with slight crispy bits throughout. Once the onions start to brown, they can burn quickly, so be careful not to overcook. Remove onions from the pot with a slotted spoon or fish spatula and transfer onto a paper towel-lined baking sheet to drain. Reserve oil and let cool to room temperature.
- In a dry skillet over medium heat, toast the chopped peanuts until fragrant, about 5 minutes. Set the peanuts aside, wipe out the skillet.
- Using the same dry skillet, lightly toast the chickpea flour over medium-low heat, stirring frequently to prevent scorching until fragrant and golden in color, 5 to 7 minutes.
- If you don’t have access to balachaung, make the spicy dried shrimp mixture: In a food processor, pulse the dried shrimp and chile flakes to finely chop. The mixture should look dry and almost powdery—similar in texture to coarsely-ground coffee. Feel free to adjust the amount of chile flakes depending on how spicy you’d like the final dish.
- Assemble the salad: Add the cilantro and coleslaw mix to a large bowl. Sprinkle 3 tablespoons of toasted chickpea flour, lemon juice, balachaung (or 2 tablespoons of the dried shrimp-chile mixture), fish sauce, and 1/4 cup of the reserved room temperature onion oil, and mix thoroughly. Once combined, gently mix in about 1/2 of the onions (reserve the rest for topping). Taste and adjust the seasoning. It should be at once salty, sour, funky, spicy, and refreshing. You can serve immediately, but the slaw also tastes great after resting in the fridge for about 30 minutes.
- To serve, top with the remaining fried onions, peanuts, and more cilantro.