Reflecting the cultural and ethnic diversity of this country, situated between the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, the Burmese cuisine is very rich and diverse, where is visible a strong Indian and Chinese influence.
Compared to neighbouring Thailand, Burmese dishes may seem poor and too simple, but have the advantage of offering a wide variety of tastes in the same meal, ranging from salty to bitter, and from spicy to sour. Away from the refined palates and sweet taste of Thai curries, and with a strong presence of oily and deep-fried food.
Both meat and fish, from river or sea, are present in many of the thick and fatty curries, that usually are part of a traditional Burmese meal. Around a big bowl of rice are served small plates, with these curries as also lentils or beans stewed, stir-fry vegetables, raw vegetable salads, pickled bamboo shoots, a platter of fresh vegetables such as okra, green beans, small eggplants, cabbage, etc…. A broth of vegetables, very light and clear, is served in a small bowl with this meal, that can be flavored with raw garlic, chilies, and a mixture, dry or oily, of dried shrimps.
Burmese meals are usually taken among family and friends who gathered around the table sharing the various dishes and mixing them the plate with small pieces of rice. Meals are taken in quiet, little given to conversation, with attention directed to the food.
The tea is always served with meals, as also in almost all places, from tea shops, restaurants, cafes and even street stalls, which is available for free, keep in the thermos or in the traditional kettles, and drunk in small bowls, that usually are waiting on the top od the tables.
A regular presence at meals and also used for the preparation of salads is the “laphet”, a fermented green tea leaves mixture, that have very characteristic acid flavor.
The “laphet” in the main ingredient of one of the most popular salads, which also have chopped tomato, cabbage finely sliced, crispy fry peanuts, chickpeas or broad beans also fried and is seasoned with lime juice. To this mixture, that is served cold, can be added rice, getting the name of “támin dhouq”.
Another popular salad is let “thoke” made from wheat noodles (that differ from the traditional rice noodles by the yellow color), that is mixed with vegetables and seasoning with mysterious sauces; all these ingredients are involved with chickpea flour, to become less wet, resulting in a strong meal, good the start of the day.
But the most popular dish of Burmese cuisine is undoubtedly the “mohinga”: rice noodles soaked in a thick broth made with a mix of vegetables, standing out the spring onions, zucchini, and banana trunk sliced… yes! the tender parts of the trunk of the banana tree are also used for cooking in Burma. Sometimes this broth is flavored with fish or crab, but due to the overcooking, just the taste remains.
This soup is seasoned with onion, fried or raw, garlic, dried chilis, fresh coriander and a few more condiments coming out from anonymous bottles that are placed around the table where this dish is prepared. The “mohinga” is a typical Burmese street food, prepared and sold in small street stalls that are set up early morning and run until around 9 or 10 a.m, return in the afternoon, around 4 p.m. until sunset.
The “mohinga” soup can be enhanced with samosas, fried tofu or some fried vegetables, chopped and placed on top. But usually, this soup has a topping of a crispy wafer, made from lentil flour, and fried in oil.
For vegetarians, there are several options in the Burmese cousin, and it’s not difficult to find, especially in large cities, in the neighbourhoods dominated by Hindu and Indo-Burmese population. From neighbouring India, particularly from the southern state of Tamil Nadu, come the curries and dosas, as also parathas, naans, and samosas… in more Muslim areas or neighbourhoods, it’s particularly easy to find the “biryanis”, rice mixed with a meat curry, but in Burma is easy to find a vegetarian version of this dish.
Being the curries the most popular of the traditional Burmese cuisine, and despite Burma being a Buddhist country, it’s not so easy to find vegetable curries, especially in rural areas where the options are limited to chicken or pork. But is always possible to have a proper meal, with rice and the others side-dishes that are usually served with the meal, like stews, beans, raw vegetables, etc…
In the cities, usually by the end of the day, there are several stalls that make fried rice or fried noodles, and as the food is prepared in the moment is always possible to ask to use just vegetables.
Both meat and fish can be cooked fresh, and are sold in all markets, that work both early in the morning as in the evening; but at the end of the day, the hygienic conditions deteriorate significantly by the intense heat and by the presence of flies… lots of flies. But the dried fish are also very popular, filling large areas in the markets with its characteristic smell which joins the dried seafood, often tiny shrimp, widely used in the preparation of salads. The dried meat is also part of Burmese cuisine, and easy to identify in curries by its dark color and compact texture.
And now the sweets!!!… they are an important aspect of a gastronomy of any country, and Burma offers plenty of variety: from traditional Indian sweets to the Chinese cakes, stuffed with a chickpea mixture. In general, the Burmese sweets are made from rice, both from glutinous rice as from dough made with rice flour, creating consistent and gelatinous puddings and tarts, mainly with a wet texture.
Very often the condensed milk is used as a sweetener, and is very easy to identify by the taste, as also by the can, always present in shops, restaurants, tea-shops and street stalls
These sweets have frequently a fresh grated coconut topping, or in the case of glutinous rice, a mixture of roasted sesame with salt, which brings an excellent contrast to the sweetness of the condensed milk.
Another specialty is the puddings made with semolina: sweet, sticky but delicious, that can also be made with over cooked rice or noodles.
To this rice sweets, there is also a big variety of deep fry sweet dough, filled or not with a sweet bean paste or lentils, the soft and oily crepes filled with the same mixture, and fried bananas, a Thai influence but here a heavier and greasy version.
Besides sweet shops, that usually can only be found in larger cities, the best place to try these delicacies are the markets where ladies sell sweets made by themselves, giving a homemade taste and creating many variations from city to city and even from stall to stall, a show of creativity and diversity.
Like other Asian countries, there is here what we call the “cult of the table”, with food is taken when one is hungry, despite the time of the day, without starters or deserts. Food can be found almost everywhere, from restaurants to markets as also t the countless street stall, that can be found a bit everywhere, from the big cities to small villages. Knives are absent and all the food consumed with a spoon and sometimes a fork.Despite you can have food during all day, there are specific times for each kind of meal, with markets, shops and streets stalls being subject to very specific schedule, which requires some effort to learn and incorporate. For example: you can’t find “mohinga” at lunch time, as also impossible to find pahratas in the middle of the morning, who wants to eat “samosas” will have to wait for the end of the day, and those who choose a “laphet” salad to accompany a beer will have to wait for the sunset. However, the big cities like Yangon and Mandalay are more flexible since there are many restaurants, while small towns the food is mostly consumed in markets and streets stalls, where is very often the takeaway system, here called “pásê”.
Above all, what stands out in Burmese cuisine is its diversity, varying significantly from region to region, and even from city to city, being a result of the geographic presence of Burma between the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. The markets reflect the local products, subject to seasonality and to the local products, in a country where the weak transport system don’t promote big exchanges and where the political system are not open to imports, keeping the Burmese gastronomy almost intact.