A prelude to this piece; I am still finding it a challenge to write. The words do not flow as naturally as I would speak. When it comes to discussing food and travel I consider myself a good talker. However, I have come to realise that writing in the same voice to make it sound captivating is impossible for me and one which only a gifted person can achieve. I need help! Anyway, I’ll continue in the hope of finding my voice….
So, what is Burmese food?
I’m pondering….Burmese food as one of the last undiscovered cuisines of the world, how would I describe it to the ‘outside’ world? There are ingredients unique to Burma, creating its own identity, such the banana stem used in mohinga and fermented bean paste called ‘pon yay gi’ and fermented tea leaves, called ‘laphet’.
However, it also combines ingredients more commonly found in its surrounding neighbours, and threads of these more familiar ingredients appear in dishes. This melange is no real surprise as it has several neighbours. You’ll find curries influenced by India and stir-frys influenced by China. You begin to understand how migration and food evolves and how food is an underlying and defining expression of cultural identity.
In a nutshell I would describe Burmese cuisine as essentially curries and rice, or in Burmese hin and t’amin. Comprising either meat, fish or vegetables, cooked in various ways. Usually it comes in two forms, a dryish one called ‘seepyan’ or one with a thin sauce.
The curry base starts with the trilogy of garlic, shallots and ginger. Layers of differing ingredients will then be added, spices and anything else available locally. Almost definitely fish sauce, fish paste or pounded dried shrimps (all of which lend dishes the umami flavour depth).
The resulting end dish will have regional nuances and distinctions to what essentially may be the same dish by name. A case in point is the beloved mohinga, eaten all over Burma, the ‘unofficial national dish’. The recipe and taste will differ from place to place, and even cook to cook.
But of course, this isn’t the complete story. There are several dry or soup noodle dishes, several styles of soups, salads, condiments and relishes!
A typical Burmese meal will consist of hin and t’min as well as a soup, salads, side condiments and dips such as ngapi yay (a sauce made from fermented and salted fish paste), served with raw and parboiled vegetables called atoh zyah.
Everything which is served will have varying textures and tantalise the taste buds, ranging from spicy, salty and cooling. All will balance and compliment each other. Without these elements the meal will not be complete.
However, lest not forget Burma is made up of over 125 ethnic communities and there are hundreds of other ethnic dishes not commonly found in Rangoon but found in towns and villages across the country. There are a few specific regional and ethnic restaurants cropping up in Rangoon which I encountered and I will tell you more about these discoveries later, as it deserves a separate write up.
So, here’s a short list of some typical Burmese dishes which is eaten almost all over Burma, not just confined to one community or region. The list is not exhaustive but it’s my list…
1. Laphet (fermented tea leaves)
This is probably one of Burma’s most unique dishes.
Laphet is sometimes referred to as pickled but in fact the tea leaves have been fermented. The tea leaves are washed in steam, the water drained and then left to ferment in clay pots for several months and when they are ready it’s mixed in oil, salt, lemon and some chilli according to the taste of the producer.
As I write, I’m not aware this unique dish is eaten anywhere else in the world. Well, my research into it has not so far turned up any such revelation, except an interesting article. Here I should credit two authors Thazin Han and Kyaw Nyein Aye who wrote an article in the Journal of Ethnic Foods in 2015 on the subject matter from which I have gained more than enough information about its active compounds and health benefits than I might wish to have, to bore even the most enthusiastic food fanatic, but if you are interested do look it up.
The authors cite a strong tradition and history going back to ancient times where the fermented tea leaves were used as peace offerings. Today the extension of this history can be seen through its offering to houseguests as gestures of hospitality, and it is also offered on almost all occasions of any significance such as at weddings and at religious ceremonies.
To make the salad, lightly mix with hands a handful of the tea leaves, some thinly sliced tomatoes and cabbages, a spoonful each of a mix of crunchy fried morsels (these are usually bought pre-made and consist of broad beans, yellow split peas, garlic, sesame seeds, peanuts), dried shrimps, thinly sliced fresh garlic, sliced fresh chillies, fish sauce and a squeeze of fresh lime, all to personal preference and taste.
Usually it’s eaten at the end of a meal with jasmine tea but it’s also eaten throughout the day as a snack at street stalls or in tea houses. You can spend hours over a bowl of laphet thoke, sipping tea with it, in between small mouthfuls whilst chatting away with friends or family. It is not something to be wolfed down in one go! It tastes a little bitter and astringent probably from the high caffeine content. Anyone who’s tried it will fall in love with it’s unique and addictive taste.
This is best described as a fish soup and rice noodle dish of enormous comforting proportions, commonly eaten as a breakfast dish or as a light snack at any time of the day. It is not a heavy dish. The fish used is a river fish such as catfish or flathead fish. There are several stages to making this dish and a little time consuming to make. In this respect it is quite different to the curries. The stock is made using the fish and it is thickened using toasted rice flour. (Now, this is where the variation and debate will start! Some cooks also add toasted chickpea flour and semolina flour to thicken the soup. Some cooks add just the one flour, others a combination. There I will leave it!) The thickness of the soup comes down to the personal preference of the cook.
A fair amount of ginger, garlic and lemongrass is used to give the dish a fragrance and a pleasing aroma acting as a disguise to any strong smell of fish. Although a fish soup, it is not fishy! Lastly, another unique addition is the inner tender trunk of the banana stem.
The noodles are placed in the bowl and the soup ladled over. The finished dish is served with an array of add-ons. Thin crispy yellow split pea fritters, thinly sliced onions, a sprinkling of dried chilli flakes, some freshly sliced green chillies, chopped coriander, a few slices of hard boiled eggs and a squeeze of lime and drop of fish sauce – all to your own liking and taste.
3. Ohno kaukswe (coconut noodle soup)
This is a chicken, coconut and noodle soup dish. Toasted chickpea flour is used to thicken the broth and although no indication of its use in the dishes name, it is an important element of the dish. It gives a nutty aroma and the longer the dish is left to gently bubble away, like a good stew, the more the flavour will improve over time.
Like mohinga, this is a little time consuming to make and as such it is usually made on special occasions or made in a big batch to feed a crowd.
The finished dish is a thick soup filled with chicken and soft whole baby onions poured over a bowl of egg or wheat noodles just to cover them (although I prefer more!), garnished with slices of hard boiled egg, (in my case many slices), lots of chopped coriander, thinly sliced onions, dried roasted fragrant chilli flakes, sliced fresh chillies a squeeze of lime and a dash of fish sauce, all to your own liking. Sometimes dried rice noodles which have been deep fried to puff up are served as a garnish for an added crunch dimension.
4. Fish Curry
Usually two styles of fish curry are cooked. Either a dryish seepyan or one with a thin sauce. Both styles use tomatoes. Burmese people prefer freshwater (river) fish over marine (sea) fish. It is more commonly eaten and abundant all over the country. This is down to the large body of inland riverways made up of four main rivers. The mighty Irrawaddy, running north to south of the country, the Chindwin (a tributary), the Thalwin and the Sittaung. The waterways and estuaries mingle across the country, so access is never too far away. Common known varieties eaten are catfish, snakehead, butterfish (very popular), featherback, carp varieties and freshwater shrimps (I know this isn’t a fish!).
(Having said this, there is one particular sea fish which is loved, called hilsa. (in Burmese n’ga thalouk). A very bony fish which must be cooked for hours until all the bones have softened to the extent they can be eaten. My mum used to cook this in the pressure cooker to speed up the process and even then I remember it taking an age. My memory may be exaggerating the experience but it definitely seemed like at least a couple of hours, so goodness knows how long it must take in a conventional pot on the stove?!)
A basic fish curry recipe is a quick and simple dish and another one of my favourites. It will contain shallots, garlic, ginger fried off with some paprika, turmeric and tomatoes. All cooked until the oil starts to seperate slightly at which point I’ll add the fish, fresh chillies, fish sauce and salt to taste, and lots of coriander. (Some cooks add lemongrass others like to add curry leaves)
Back at Governor’s Residence they show me how to prepare some typical Burmese dishes; laphet thoke (fermented tea leaf salad), mohinga (fish noodle soup), fish curry (nga hin) and aseihn gyaw (which simply translates as stir fried veg).
All these dishes and how to cook them will appear on YouTube soon…I’ll let you know when it does 🙂