Myanmar is a dream destination for the global tourist seeking to explore new terrains with untouched, natural beauty, simple people and peaceful domains with a strong Buddhist influence. Cuisines and food are always an important part of travel, and till recently very little was known about Myanmar cuisines beyond its borders. People tread cautiously when it comes to deciding what to eat, what is safe, and which eateries to visit. These fears are actually unfounded in a land that is so blessed in terms of natural resources, with abundance of beans, pulses, fruit and vegetables, seafood, meats and poultry-sufficient variety for both vegetarians and meat lovers. Myanmar cuisine however, has yet to tempt tourists in droves, more due to lack of information and access than anything lacking in the variety or taste. It is only after a trip to Myanmar that people go back and start looking for Burmese sections of Asian restaurant menus, craving for oh-no khow suey, mohinga, laphet and more. Little wonder then, that its not just Myanmar residents like me, but there is a genuine spreading interest in Myanmar cuisine across the globe. Across continents, small eateries serving exclusive Burmese specialties and pan Asian restaurants displaying an extensive Burmese section, have spring up, and doing extremely well. Names like Burma Burma in New Delhi, India, Mandalay and Rangoon Sisters in London, Inle Myanmar in Singapore, Rangoon Ruby in San Francisco…. are doing the rounds and gaining popularity-very much at the top for those given to experimenting new cuisines.
Interestingly, it is not the wide delectable array of seafood preparations, the innovative Burmese tapas, or their refreshing, nuttily different salads, that are remembered, but almost always, it is Khow Suey, and to a lesser extent, laphet that leave a lingering taste and remain a distinct memory. In my extensive travels, I have never come across anything like laphet-the fermented tea leaf salad, that gives an oily pickled taste to its blend of textures and f l a v o u r s – t h e tangy softness of the tea leaves, the crunchy heaviness of refried beans of different types, the fresh crunch of cabbage and onions, the optional hot spiciness of green chillies. But as a resident of Myanmar for over 4 years, I feel that Myanmar cuisine offers so much variety, and there is so much more to their cuisine than khow suey and laphet, that the international experimental palette can enjoy and savour.
A journey along the Myanmar cuisine trail It is difficult to segregate national dishes from regional specialties. Myanmar’s seven states have their own distinct food preparations and delicacies determined by availability of ingredients and the climatic conditions of the place. It is fascinating to find an eclectic blend of sweet, sour and salty, enhance the taste of a dish, even for those inclined to wrinkle their nose at a sweet tinge to a meat dish. While Burmese preparations have evolved from multifarious ways of handling local produce, the refinement came from Chinese, Indian and Thai influences. Under British Rule, a taste for coffee, cakes and flan developed, and continues to this day. The older generation, in the 60-plus category will vouch for growing up eating Indian food, complete with lentil curries, chapatis and meats made with spices popular in both countries. Thailand, its neighbour with which it shares a 2100 km long border, has also influenced Myanmar’s cuisine with herbs and flavors in soups, salads, main courses and coconut based desserts.
For an average Myanmar native, rice with a salad suffices. There is an amazing variety of salads, rich in taste with the addition of chillies, crushed peanuts, garlic and lemon or raw mango. Laphet appeals to the international palette with its blend of fermented tea leaves, onions, cabbage and tomatoes, peanut oil, chillies, roasted peanuts and sesame seeds. Other salads taste as exotic, be it the pennywort leaves salad, the rainbow salad, mango, raw papaya or ginger salads, not forgetting the Burmese tofu salad.
Locals and tourists savour the hot, flavourful soups that accompany a typical Burmese meal. Mohingya is the national dish of the country, made with rice noodles added to fish stock and condiments. A very distinctive taste can be enjoyed while trying the Burmese soup soup, chin hin, made from roselle leaves. Ohn-no-khao-swe is a universal favourite, a breakfast dish in Myanmar, but served as an exotic addition to any menu for exclusive gatherings in India, Singapore, Thailand and beyond.
Snack items and finger foods that serve as starters include a wide range of satay sticks, batter fried bean sprouts and tofu squares, deep fried prawns, fish fritters, samosa and more. Each of these is flavourful and appealing to people from all over. Standing alongside the locals at tea stalls one finds bag packers, tourists and people from the expatriate community.
Myanmar is a leading producer of rice, and this staple is eaten multiple times a day accompanied by curries and soups, salad and stir-fried vegetables. Nothing satisfies the common man as much as rice even if it is eaten only with Ngapi, the famed local fish paste. Fried rice, prawn rice, coconut rice, sticky rice are some of the varieties enjoyed by locals and foreigners alike. Danbauk, is the Burmese variation of the spicy Indian biryani, and universally enjoyed.
The list of curries that can be served with rice is rather long. Depending on the selection of meat, some tempting options include, spiced pork with green mango, chicken with squash, golden egg curry, yellow lentil curry, Burmese hilsa fish, and prawns in tomato curry, to name just a few. Indians and Myanmar locals enjoy eating rice with their hands, mixing small morsels with the curry. Some unique Myanmar preparations Every country has a handful of unique preparations that leave a lingering tasteful memory, and whose mention conjures images of the country of their origin. The Italian pizzas and pastas, Spanish paella, Mexican tacos and Chinese dim sums, all lead as favourites of their countries. From its vast repertoire of preparations, I have been able to identify five dishes that have Myanmar stamped on them.
Laphet – La phet is the popular tea leaf salad, which is eaten at any time of the day, with rice at main meals, or as a snack option. The use of fermented tea leaves gives it a unique taste. Tea leaves are fermented in an elaborate process perfected in Myanmar, particularly in the Shan state, which takes months. The fermentation process transforms the chemistry of the leaves, reducing the smell, bitterness and astringency, toning down the taste and leaving a lingering aftertaste. The fermentation process involves boiling fresh tea leaves, squeezing out the water and packing them in claypots. Natural bacteria ferments the leaves and they lose their bitterness. They are subsequently soaked in water, drained and seasoned with salt, garlic, ground chillies, peanut oil and lemon juice. This is then ready to be mixed with a variety of re-fried dried beans, shredded cabbage, onions, tomatoes, roasted peanuts and sesame. Laphet is served to guests, and on special occasions as a special treat.
Shan chickpea tofu – The name is deceptive since tofu is typically made out of soy milk, a substitute of cheese that is made from fresh cow’s milk. The Myanmar version is made from chickpea flour that is mixed with water, seasoned with salt and heated till it becomes thick and creamy, poured into a greased tray and allowed to set. It is then cut into squares and can be eaten fresh, added to salads and soups, or fried. Bean stuffed pancake – Beq parata is wholesome and resembles a pancake but is stuffed with one of the many varieties of beans cultivated in Myanmar. The parata is rolled out of a thick flour dough, and stuffed with boiled, seasoned beans, and fried liberally in clarified butter before being cut and served. It is a filling side dish at main meals, and eaten with relish by locals and foreigners alike. Atho – This qualifies as typical Burmese street food, available at every nook and corner, and thoroughly enjoyed by the locals at all times of the day. A meal missed, eat Atho; feeling hungry, have atho…and this name rings in one’s ears, as a local favourite. Atho is simply a combination of boiled noodles and fresh raw vegetables, and seasoning including a bit of flour to thicken and enhance the texture. Food colouring gives it a darker colour, and red chili flakes make it hot and spicy.
The final word on Myanmar cuisine is about the ubiquitous beetel leaf. Most adults in Myanmar are seen chewing something all day, their mouth full, and often, their conversation incomprehensible. The beetel chewing habit is centuries old, and stacks of triangular beetel leaves that encase cut beetel nut, lime paste, tobacco etc. it serves as a stimulant and people are unable to stay without it in their mouths all day, except at meal times.
In this age of experimentation and exploration, tastes and flavours, cuisines and local delicacies figure high on tourists’ lists. When in Myanmar, they would love to taste local fare, and the lingering unusual flavours, will soon increase the popularity of this lesser known cuisine.