Myanmar’s cuisine is weaving its way up on the world’s culinary map and emerging as one of the exotic cuisines more because very little is known about it beyond its borders, and availability limited to homes of the expatriate Myanmar folk. The internet offers sketchy information shared by visitors who have chosen to write about it in travelogues etc., and authentic websites offering complete information, have yet to surface. The international tourist doesn’t quite know what to expect and though taken in by the abundance of street food, keeps wondering how it is made and what the unique ingredients are.
One such delicious ingredient is bean curd or tofu, that is eaten in Myanmar in various forms and for every course of the meal in some form or other. It is the ultimate protein source for vegetarians and vegans, who lose out on the protein and mineral richness of meats, and it is now finding favor across countries alike. Tofu is synonymous with healthy food and is available in health food stores all over the world now. Its largest daily consumption is in countries like Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam, Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Myanmar. Tofu is a meat substitute, a farm product that has gained popularity as mock meat, providing the nutritional benefits of meats to vegetarians and vegans. It is believed to have invented in China around 164 BC by a Han Dynasty prince. The technique of its production is similar to that of cottage cheese, the only difference being the use of dairy milk in one and soy milk in the other, the nutritive value, color, consistency and texture remaining strikingly similar.
The religious and health reasons behind the swing away from consumption of meats, seafood and poultry, have led to the popularity of tofu, and its extensive use in diets.
Soybeans-the source of tofu
Tofu is made out of soy milk, which is extracted from washed, soaked soybeans. Soybeans are one of the most common legumes, cultivated extensively in Asian countries like China, India, Myanmar and others. It is treated as a cash crop as soybean oil is second most consumed oil worldwide, after palm oil. This sub tropical crop is highly in demand as a source of edible oil and as a raw material for the livestock feed industry. Soybeans became popular when research indicated the richness of their protein, vitamin and mineral content. The soybean contains a perfect balance of fat, carbohydrates and amino acids needed by the human body to assimilate the nutrients. According to the FDA, a low fat diet combined with 25 grams of soy protein daily, helps reduce the risk of heart disease.
Soybeans are eaten in cooked form, sprouts, and made into cakes, powder, soy milk, and in various fermented forms.
How Tofu is made
The word tofu is derived from the Japanese word ‘tofu’, which in turn comes from the Chinese ‘doufu’, but both literally mean, ‘bean curdled’, and hence bean curd.
Tofu is a non dairy substitute of cottage cheese, but twice as rich in protein content. It is used extensively in most Asian cuisines, and is made out of special varieties of soybeans that are quite different from the ones used for oil extraction and soy meals.
Tofu is made in smaller scales in shops, and on a large scale in factories using mechanized equipment to convert the soy milk into tofu through a chemical reaction on milk. Soy milk is extracted after the dried beans have been soaked, dehulled and wet ground. The milk extracted, is then boiled and coagulated using coagulants like nigari ( magnesium chloride) or Epsom salt (magnesium sulphate) or Gypsum (calcium sulphate). Based on the chemical used, the extracted curd becomes rich in calcium or magnesium. Contemporary tofu producers use more than a single coagulant in order to derive different tofu textures and consistency.
Once the curd separates, it is strained and pressed into blocks or rolls, and cut into smaller pieces before being packaged. It can be kept for nearly a week, and some varieties for even a month.
Typically a kilogram of raw material yields 2.8 to 3 kilograms of tofu.
Some of the tofu varieties used regularly include the soft, silken and firm varieties. Silken tofu is the softest, fresh and one that falls apart very easily, and is therefore packed into plastic tubes. Soft tofu is also delicate but has more body to it, which facilitates cutting and handling. Soft tofu is also easier to cook without seeing it disintegrate. The easiest and most commonly used variety is the firm tofu that can be added to soups and curries, fried, braised and grilled. It is also sold as sticks, sheets and chunks. Each of these are processed in the same way except that the firm tofu is pressed for longer and more pressure is applied on the mould. Numerous other varieties are commercially available, like egg tofu, sweet and fermented tofu.
Soybeans in Myanmar
Myanmar is slowly emerging as one of the leading producers of soybean to add to its growing list of beans and pulses grown on its fertile soil. The earliest documented record (in English) of soybean cultivation in the country can be traced to 1879, though there may be local records of its cultivation a long time before.
Currently, nearly 167,000 hectares of land are used for growing this valuable cash crop to meet local demand for soybean oil, soy milk, tofu, soy powder and cakes, and fermented products like soy sauce etc. The acreage, however, is not sufficient to meet local food requirements and an increase in its production can help Myanmar achieve food independence, since soybean oil can reduce import of edible oil and the pressed waste can be used to make animal feed, to feed livestock.
Soybean production makes perfect sense for Myanmar since it fits into the country’s primary rice based cropping system. It can be planted in the rice off season, after the rice has been harvested, and generate revenue for farmers during that time. Soybean cultivation also enriches the soil, while also breaking the disease cycle of pests in farms that fester due to continuous rice cropping.
For the farmers, it proves to be a cheap source of protein to supplement their carbohydrate rich diet.
Soy related Burmese cooking ingredients
Soybean cake- Pe bya -dried soybeans are soaked, steamed, fermented and made into cakes, which are roasted Soybean paste- pe ngapi- a vegetarian substitute of fish paste Soy sauce-light and dark-used in place of salt, for seasoning and flavor
Tofu in itself, in all its variants and varieties remains quite bland in taste, and it is perhaps this quality that makes it a versatile food product. It is hence able to absorb the taste and flavor of all the herbs, spices and sauces that are added to it, and it tastes different each time, and is adaptable to every cuisine. When fried, it becomes crunchy and rich, when steamed, it remains light and soft, added to curries it absorbs the flavor and color of the sauce, and in salads, it enhances the taste of the medley of greens. Some of the Myanmar cuisine favorites include the double fried tofu fritters, Shan tofu salad, tofu soup, stir fries and curries.
Shan Tofu – A Unique variant
While the soy bean curd is used extensively in salads, soups, starters and main course dishes, Shan tofu, called to hpu, is different from all other types since it is not made out of soy milk. Made out of split chick pea flour (internationally known as garbanzo flour or gram flour), it is soy free, but as creamy and silky in texture as silken tofu, though it hold its shape well without crumbling. It is made out of flour mixed with water, cooked till thick, and left to set, before being cut into desired shapes for frying etc. The yellow colored cake is cut into triangles or oblong sticks and deep fried to be served as a crisp snack, or added plain, to a salad.
Rice tofu, made out of rice flour, is also a specialty of the northern Shan state. Tofu remains one of the most nutritious non dairy products that needs to be incorporated into every one’s meal plan to ensure appropriate nutrients being absorbed by the human body to facilitate a long and healthy, disease free life.
Tofu nutrition facts
- Low in calories
- Rich in iron
- No saturated fat
- Good source of protein
- No cholesterol
- High in minerals