Suitcase and World: Burmese Cuisine.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Burmese Cuisine.

A traditional Burmese meal.
Photo by Wagaung.  Licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
I know the country is officially known a Myanmar but when I think of the food, I still refer to it as Burmese cuisine. Hence, the title of this blog posting.

I am a foodie.  Food plays an important part in my travels and while I have been to many countries where the food is not very palatable, the opposite is also very true.  There's a lot of lip smacking good food in the world!

I have been lucky to have worked with several people from Myanmar who have also graciously invited me to their homes for a meal.  The food was always utterly delicious.  More often than not, it looked familiar but tasted nothing like the Malaysian, Thai or Vietnamese cuisine that I know.  Unfortunately and this is my fault, I've not kept up contact with those friends and colleagues from long ago so it's been a long time since I've had any home cooked Burmese food.  We do have a few Burmese restaurants and the food is okay but it's never been the same or as delicious as the home cooking I've enjoyed.  So in many ways, I will be (re)discovering Burmese cuisine on this trip and I am very much looking forward to it.

The diversity of Myanmar's cuisine not only reflects the myriad of local ethnic minorities that make up its population but also by Chinese, Indian and Thai influences as these three countries are Myanmar's geographic neighbors.  Religious traditions also play a factor in the food culture of the country.

Of the ethnic groups, the Bamars are the most dominant group but the Shan and Chin peoples also have a strong influence on the cuisine of the country.

Meeshay.  Rice noodles with meat sauce.  Looks like something I would cook up!
(Photo by Wagaung.  Licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
Indian influences are found in Burmese versions of dishes such as samosas and biryani, and Indian curries, spices and breads such as naan and paratha. Chinese influences in Burmese cuisine are shown in the use of ingredients like bean curd and soya sauce, various noodles as well as in stir frying techniques. As in neighboring Thailand, fried insects are eaten as snacks.

The country's diverse religious makeup also plays a role in its cuisine as Buddhists avoid beef and Muslims pork.  Beef is considered taboo by devout Buddhists because the cow is highly regarded as a beast of burden.

Ngapi, a paste made from salted, fermented fish or shrimp, is considered the cornerstone of any Burmese meal. It is used in a versatile manner in that it is used in soup base, in salads, in main dishes and also in condiments.  On the surface, it sounds very much like the Burmese version of Vietnamese fish sauce or the Burmese version of Malaysian belachan - very much a key flavoring ingredient. As you might expect, there are regional variations to ngapi.

Fermented beans, dried bean ngapi chips and bean pastes  - all made from soybeans, factor heavily into the cuisine of Myanmar.  They are used as used both as flavorings and condiments.

Lahpet thouk (fermented tea leave salad).
(Photo by Wagaung.  Licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
Lahpet is another uniquely Burmese cuisine ingredient in a long list of ingredients. It is unusual because it is fermented or pickled tea. Myanmar is one of very few countries where tea is eaten as well as drunk. Lahpet is regarded as a national delicacy.

Burmese dishes are typically cooked using a variety of fresh vegetables, fruits and meats and accompanied but a large variety of condiments that range from sweet, sour to savory. The most popular condiments are pickled mango, balachaung (shrimp and ngapi floss) and ngapi gyaw (fried ngapi) and preserved vegetables in rice wine (from Shan State). Ngapi plays a major part in condiments, as a dip for fresh vegetables.

The most commonly consumed starch in the Burmese diet is plain white rice or htamin , which is served with accompanying dishes called hin.  Glutinous rice, called kauk hnyin is also very popular and a purple variety known as nga cheik  is commonly a breakfast dish. Various noodle types are also used in salads and soups. Typically, vermicelli noodles and rice noodles are often used in soups, while thick rice and wheat noodles are used in salads.

Indian style breads are also popular.  Palata, a flaky fried flatbread related to Indian paratha, is often eaten with curried meats while nan bya, a baked flatbread is eaten with any Indian dishes. Another favorite is aloo poori, puffed-up fried breads eaten with potato curry.  Who doesn't love paratha or poori?

(Photo by Wagaung.  Licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
Mohinga is a rice noodle and fish soup that is considered by many to be the national dish of Myanmar. Mohinga is typically eaten for breakfast. I have had mohinga before and I absolutely love it. I remember one of my Burmese friends was hosting a memorial ceremony for a recently deceased relative. She had several Buddhist monks over presiding over the ceremony. She served mohinga afterwards. I don't remember much about the ceremony but I do remember the delicious mohinga - I know I had at least two servings.

While there are regional variations to mohinga, it's generally accepted that the standard dish comes from southern Myanmar, where fresh fish is more readily available. The main ingredients of mohinga are chickpea flour and/or crushed toasted rice, garlic, onions, lemongrass, banana tree stem, ginger, fish paste, fish sauce, and catfish in a rich broth cooked and kept on the boil in a cauldron. It is served with rice vermicelli, dressed and garnished with fish sauce, a squeeze of lime, crisp fried onions, coriander, spring onions, crushed dried chillis, and, as optional extras, crisp fried fritters such as split chickpeas (pè gyaw), urad dal (baya gyaw) or gourd (bu thee gyaw) or sliced pieces of Chinese donuts, as well as boiled egg and fried nga hpè fish cake). Those fried fritters are utterly addictive. The version I had that morning had fritters made from split mung beans.

Thayet chin thouk, a fermented green mango salad with onions,
chilli, roasted peanuts, sesame and peanut oil.
(Photo by Wagaung.
Licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
Burmese cuisine also includes a variety of salads (a thoke or thouk), centered on one major ingredient, ranging from starches like rice, wheat and rice noodles, glass noodles and vermicelli, to potato, ginger, tomato, kaffir lime, long bean, lahpet (pickled tea leaves), and ngapi (fish paste). These salads have always been popular as fast foods in Burmese cities.

Traditionally, Burmese eat their meals from dishes on a low table, while sitting on a bamboo mat.[1] Dishes are served family style.  Diners eat with their right hand; chopsticks and Chinese-style spoons are used for noodle dishes, although noodle salads are more likely to be eaten with just a spoon. Knives and forks are used rarely in homes but will always be provided for guests and are available in restaurants and hotels.  I have made a note to bring along some plastic utensils as none of the three of us are any good with eating with our hands.  We are so inept that we would starve before we could finish a meal :-)

 Drinks are typically not served with the meal.  Instead, there may be a light broth or consomme served from a communal bowl.  This reminds me of how the Malagasy people ate when I visted Madagascar this past summer.  At other times, the Burmese beverage of choice is light green tea.

Shweyin aye.
(Photo by Wagaung. Licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)
I'm sure we'll also get to taste the sweet dishes that Myanmar has to offer.  I'm particularly drawn to shweyin aye which reminds me of the agar jelly, sago and coconut milk desserts that we often find in Malaysia.  Only difference seems to be that in Malaysia, shaved ice is used rather than ice cubes.  Presuming the ice cubes are made from *clean* water, you can be sure I will be downing bowfuls of this stuff!

For Bro, Myanmar has a wide range of fruits, and most are of tropical origin. He'll be happy with fruits though I know he'll indulge in sweets as well.

I am really looking forward to the meals in Myanmar as well as Thailand.  I am most certain the food will not only be delicious but everything will be so cheap that we can indulge to our stomachs' content and not worry about breaking the piggy bank!

Hmmm....maybe it's time to send Ayşe a text message and see about when we can get together for a Burmese meal.  We have to eat and we might as well do in the name of *trip research* :-)