With its long coastline, huge rivers and monsoon rains, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is a land of rice, fish, and fruits and vegetables of every kind. Lying between China and India, and sharing borders with Bangladesh and Thailand, Burma has been an Asian crossroads for centuries.
The main meal of the day, served around noon and centred around rice, is the place to find Burmese food at its most distinctive. There are curries – of fish, beef, pork, chicken, vegetables or eggs (see golden egg curry, recipe opposite) – and salads, all served family-style and shared. Burmese curries depend on generous quantities of minced eschalots, fried in peanut oil tinted with turmeric powder, to which garlic or ginger are added, and sometimes tomatoes; chillies are used sparingly. Fish sauce, shrimp paste and dried shrimp all play a role in giving umami – meaty depth of flavour – to curries, soups and condiments.
The meal always includes a soup and a plate of raw and steamed vegetables – from okra and small eggplants, to leafy greens and snake beans. Condiments, such as the classic dry relish called balachaung, complete the table. Tea leaf salad (laphet toke), a mix of pickled tea leaves, roasted soybeans, peanuts, fried garlic and sesame, is often served at the end of a meal.
Many of the breakfast dishes and snacks have their roots in Indian or Chinese tradition – not surprising given the number of people of Indian and Chinese origin who have made Burma home over the centuries. Flatbreads called nanpyar are baked in a tandoor oven and eaten with cooked chickpeas for breakfast, while flaky parothas are an afternoon snack. Steamed dumplings and Chinese-style filled buns called bao-zee are served at many teashops.
Centuries ago, the idea of noodles came from China, but Burmese cooks have transformed them into distinctively Burmese dishes. Favourites include mohinga, fine rice noodles bathed in lemongrass-scented fish broth thick with sliced banana stems; and ohn-no khaut swei – noodles topped with a delectable coconut sauce.
1. Chickpea flour
Usually labelled ‘besan’, chickpea flour is lightly toasted in Myanmar. It is used to thicken soups and add texture to salads. It also gives a lightly toasted grain taste. It’s available from Asian food shops.
2. Shrimp paste (ngapi)
Many cultures use fermented shrimp paste. They are all essentially the same, but can differ slightly in the exact preparation. Ngapi is used in Burmese curries and sauces to add depth of flavour. It is available from Asian food shops; substitute belachan.
A rhizome, like ginger, turmeric is used in its dried powdered form in many Burmese dishes, either added at the start of cooking, as the oil heats, or rubbed into meat and fish before they are cooked.
4. Dried shrimp
In Myanmar, dried shrimp are often ground to afluffy texture, or used whole in soups. They vary in colour from pale pink to dark red; buy deeply coloured shrimp, and larger ones if possible, and choose ones that are dry, but not rock hard.
5. Dried red chillies
Chillies are used with restraint in Burmese cuisine, and most often as dried red chillies ground to a powder. The chillies are often lightly roasted before being ground. For convenience, we have used store-bought coarsely ground chilli.
Photography by John Laurie.