What is Shan cuisine? 5 Best Shan dishes.

I’m back! I’ve been offline for a while, for several reasons. All the details of which I won’t bore you with right now. The main reason is I’m back in Manchester. There’s several more amazing places I discovered with exquisite food which I still need to tell you about. So now, let me continue to take you on my adventures……

First, the geography of Shan State

The state of Shan is a vast and fertile hilly plateau, where much of the country’s produce is grown. It occupies about a quarter of the total land mass of Burma. The climate is temperate with long sunny days, creating the perfect climate for a range of diverse fruits and vegetables. Inle Lake grow abundant sweet tomatoes on the floating gardens. Tomatoes appear a lot in Shan cooking.

Abundant fruits and vegetables grown mainly in Shan State, appear at markets.
And more……

There are several major ethnic groups living within this state all with its own identity and cooking traditions. The Shan people are the second largest ethnic group in Burma. Their influence (in food) spreads widely across the country, making it a popular and widely eaten cuisine all over Burma.

You will identify with some of the influences which come from the Yunan region of China, which Burma borders.

(Incidentally, a vineyard exists close to Inle Lake! We visited this vineyard back in 2013. A treacherous climb up to the winery and even more treacherous descent in the complete darkness. This travelling about in the darkness was a bit of a running theme. The wine was pretty good. Perhaps, my holiday goggles were on?!. The vineyard, I believe is owned by a German family. Vines brought back from Europe and planted in 1999).

5 most popular Shan dishes

  1. Shan Noodles – this dish is almost as much loved and ubiquitous as mohinga. The Shan noodles are served as a soup or as a dry dish, and uses either fresh or dried sticky flat rice noodles. The meat sauce flavoured with a spice mix similar to Chinese five spice powder is poured over the noodles and finished off with garnishes of peanuts, chilli, pickles (mustard greens usually favoured) and young tendril, such as pea shoots.
  2. Shan Sticky Rice (called nga t’min in Burmese) –  the literal translation is fish rice but the fish is only a small addition, crumbed over the top as a mere gesture. (though some recipes do add more and mix it into the rice before shaping them into balls). The rice is made with sticky rice (Shan rice tends to be more glutinous). There’s also a similar dish called t’min chin, meaning sour rice. Both are yellow in colour by adding tumeric in the rice cooking process.
  3. Meeshay – A noodle dish made with thick rice noodles and a meat sauce. A variety of toppings are added ranging from fermented mustard greens, peanuts, coriander, chillies, soy bean paste, crispy onions, hard boiled eggs! (as always recipes vary)
  4. Shan Tofu – A popular street food snack. This is in fact not tofu as we know it, which is made of soya (as in the case with Chinese or Japanese tofu). It is made of chickpea flour. Here I must draw parallels again, with a Sicilian street food called ‘panelle ‘. If you shut your eyes you could be biting into exactly the same thing on the streets of Sicily (minus the tamarind chilli dip). If you’re interested Georgio Locatelli provides a recipe in his cookbook Made in Sicily.
  5. Tomato & fish paste relish (In Burmese keyun chin thee n’gapi chet) – this has been added as personal favourite as it was often cooked by my mother, who is of Shan heritage (my grandfather was a Shan Elder). It is basically, tomatoes, lots of it, n’gapi (shrimp paste), dried shrimp powder, shallots and chillies.

A Recipe for Shan Tofu

The chickpea flour is mixed gradually with water (about 2 to 1 ratio of flour to water, plus a pinch each of salt and turmeric) and cooked in a pan on a low heat on the stove top until it thickens. At which point you have to work fast and transfer it into a container where you need to let it cool and set before the next stage of cooking. Basically this is cutting into approximately 1″- 2″ squares, then deep frying until golden.

Crispy fried Shan Tofu

Sure, sounds easy, right? But boy is it hard work to make! It is such a simple instruction to follow but executing it correctly to achieve the right silky consistency and texture is not dissimilar to achieving that perfect risen souffle or chocolate fondant. It’s technical know how and experience.

When I started out at street markets it was very popular, particularly as it is vegan and not many places (even only a few years ago), had any vegan offerings. Unlike the morally hip trend it is now! Almost all in the food business would be foolish not to offer a vegan alternative on their menu now.

It was on my market menu for a brief moment only. I say brief because I quickly realised the effort far exceeded any profits I made, which was pretty much zilch! Either I had to spend all night making vast batches to reach the point of making enough to sell at break even or find some way of mechanisation of the process! Needless to say, I took it off the menu. Part of my lack of business acumen, or some might say niaevity when I started out!

What makes Shan food distinctive is the use of sticky rice and noodles of the same flour. Also soy beans and chinese chive (ju myit) root. The use of more chillies perhaps, fermented pickles most notably the mustard green. And a very unique ingredient called peh-boh in Burmese, fermented soy beans which have been dried into thin disks. This ingredient is used in all sorts of ways, added to curries and or crumbled up into salads or used as a condiment with dried shrimps, chillies, fried garlic. A bit like balachaung.

Ingredients used in Shan cooking. Chive roots (top left) & Shan tofu (next to it)

Thanks for reading! 🙂

If you enjoyed reading and learning about Burmese food then do like my page and follow this blog as I have more recipes and stories about my travels to blog…. video clips will follow soon too!




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