A TASTE OF BURMA
ENJOY THE ORIGINAL FUSION CUISINE — THE FLAVORS OF ASIA’S CROSSROADS.
About as far off the typical tourist path as you can get without leaving the planet — a place wreathed in the aura of legendary names like Rangoon and Mandalay — Burma has a culture and cuisine whose riches are relatively unknown to the Western world. Thailand's curries and noodle dishes are found everywhere. Vietnamese pho and bahn mi have approached lift-off. Will Burmese be the next Southeast Asian culinary wave?
The land — Myanmar, officially — was a mystery for the last half a century, cut off from the world by a fiercely nationalistic military regime that held power from the early 1960s until 2011, subject during the last of those years to a diplomatic and economic embargo by nations appalled at the army's harsh rule. Reforms that blossomed in democratic elections in November 2015 may signal that the veil has been lifted for good.
The first wave of outsiders to visit this place of saffron robes and golden pagodas is finding a cuisine shaped by a distinctive climate and geography. Myanmar is tropical, tempered by the prevailing seasonal winds: rainy during the summer monsoon and dry when the winter one blows. It has mountains in its north, jungle in much of the south and the great Irrawaddy River running through its central basin, ending in a massive delta at the Andaman Sea. On the Andaman and the Bay of Bengal, Myanmar has more than 1,200 miles of coastline. Through the centuries, this geography has attracted traders from neighboring behemoths India and China — an influence seen and tasted in the Burmese kitchen today.
On what do the more than 50 million people of Myanmar dine? As the staple of their diet, they eat rice, of which they grow some 50 million tons a year. And with their extensive coastline, naturally enough, seafood enhances or flavors most of it, chiefly in the form of ngapi, a salted, fermented fish or shrimp paste. On these simple building blocks the Burmese have raised up an elaborate culinary castle.
Those twin staples appear at the typical Burmese breakfast meal, a rice noodle and fish soup called mohinga. Generally considered one of Myanmar’s two national dishes, it is served in homes throughout the country and by street peddlers who go door-to-door with aromatic cauldrons of soup and soup fixings hung from poles over their shoulders. The dish varies from region to region but most often is done up with garlic, onion and lemongrass; thickened with chickpea flour and sometimes garnished with fried chickpea fritters. More elaborate versions appear at weddings and other special occasions; as street food it is now eaten throughout the day.
Myanmar’s other iconic dish is lahpet, pickled green tea leaves, which is served as food as well as a beverage. It frequently appears as salad, usually with tomato and cabbage, finished with a dash of lime juice. In its purest form, simply steamed and fermented, it holds a central place in Burmese culture, appearing at ceremonial gatherings in sets of lacquer dishes, the leaves surrounded by assorted condiments — dried shrimp, fried garlic, shredded coconut and more. It may be offered up as tribute to the guardian spirits of the land, and is valued for its medicinal powers, as both a digestive aid and a stimulant.
Tea leaves are not the only surprising component of Myanmar's salads, or thoke, as they are called. Rice or rice noodle are common foundations, tossed with slivered vegetables of every sort — raw, boiled or preserved. Crunch is prized, so peanuts, peas, beans, fried garlic or dried shrimp are often used. Even Burma's take on samosas — Indian-style fried savory pastries — can be diced and tossed with the rest of the ingredients, splashed with tamarind or lime juice and the ever-present fish sauce.
ORIGINAL ASIAN FUSION
Main dishes in Myanmar reflect regional tastes and the nation's many different ethnic groups. Broadly speaking, these meals can be grouped as curries, stir-fries or rice/noodle dishes, but with highly individual, greatly flavorful variety. Myanmar's long southern panhandle runs hundreds of miles along a border with Thailand, and is home to the pad thai–like kat kyi kaik (“cut with scissors,” which the noodles are, as they are stirred). Tossed with egg, bean sprouts, onion and dark soy sauce, the savory dish is often garnished with seafood, though other meats are used as well. Myanmar's ethnic Chinese cook similarly with wheat noodles, favoring duck or pork finished with garlic, soy and onion. The Shan people of Myanmar's north, descendants of an ancient kingdom that included parts
of China and Thailand, have noodle dishes as well, theirs with chicken or pork, a wide palette of spices and typical garnishes of mustard greens.
Curries in Myanmar are typically milder than those of India and Thailand, weighted toward garlic and ginger, and resembling those two cuisines' in their long cooking time, such that what begins as a thin soup ends up as a thick gravy. Whatever meat or fish makes up its core, a Burmese curry is served as the centerpiece of a broad array of dishes — rice and salads, raw and cooked vegetables, fresh spices and dips of chilies and (of course) fish sauce.
Among dishes that have rice as the basic ingredient, the Burmese have again borrowed from their neighbors. A Chinese-style fried rice with boiled peas, htamin gyaw, is a common breakfast dish among the poor; local adaptations of India’s biryani, for those who can afford meat, are stir fries of rice with mutton or chicken, often finished with mango pickles, mint and chilies.
Tourists with more daring palates may want to try the more exotic and uniquely Burmese items from Myanmar’s kitchens. Gyin thoke will thrill those who love ginger, using the spicy root as the main ingredient in a crunchy, palate-cleansing salad, tossed with sesame seeds and fried beans. Si htamin, glutinous rice cooked with turmeric and onion, makes a hearty breakfast. Kyit sara, semolina chicken, takes boneless, skinless chicken and cooks and pounds it into a paste mixed with grain or bean flours and finished with cinnamon powder and fried onion. The most daring of diners will want to try wet thar dote htoe, “pork on a stick”, skewered pork offal cooked in soy sauce and served with raw ginger and chili sauce.
SWEET SOUTHEAST ASIA
More tempting to the taste buds is the Burmese dessert menu. Those with a sweet tooth will have a whole new world to explore, where a wealth of native fruits provides pungency to meal’s end. Those new to most Westerners will include durian, whose spiky shell encloses flesh so sweetly aromatic it can be overpowering; rambutan, whose reddish, long-haired surface hides a pale center of grape-like mildness; and jackfruit, an enormous stubbly bulb with a starchy core holding hints of apple, mango and banana.
Beyond the exotica, rice pervades even the sweet stuff here. Sticky rice is blended in loose cakes of butter and coconut milk, peanuts and shredded coconut, raisins and cashews. Rice pudding is doused with palm sugar and lime water. Rice pancakes are finished with coconut, syrups and sweet bean paste. With the same choices of garnish, puddings or balls of tapioca and banana will be prepared in much the same way.
A whole Burmese meal will strike every note, from savory to tart, astringent to sticky sweet. Visitors lucky enough to dine in the homes of native Burmese will most likely find themselves seated on floor mats at a low, communal table spread with a cornucopia of dishes. Your hosts, if traditional, may eat with their right hands, scooping rice into small patties with which to dab morsels from plates to mouths. Utensils are not unknown, however, though spoons may be all there are. Accommodate yourself and be at ease, and let the colors and flavors of Myanmar widen your culinary horizons.
Inle Lake fishermen
Nyaungshwe rice farmers
Fried rice and egg breakfast