A TASTE OF BURMA

EN­JOY THE ORIG­I­NAL FU­SION CUI­SINE — THE FLA­VORS OF ASIA’S CROSS­ROADS.

Seabourn Club Herald - - CUISINES OF THE WORLD - By Steve Ell­man

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.

FOR STARTERS

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

Mo­hinga Durian

Ngapi

Shrimp curry

Fried rice and egg break­fast

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