Burmese food… where India meets China!!

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.

mohinga, pela facilidade em se encontrar nas ruas de qualquer cidade ou povoação, à beira da estrada, junto a mercados ou em ruas secundárias, pode ser considerada o prato mais popular entre os birmaneses, sendo muitas vezes consumido ao pequeno almoço.
“mohinga”, a noodle soup, easy to find on streets stalls of any city or town, as also in markets; it can be considered the most popular dish among the Burmese, often consumed at breakfast
pão frito, uma espécie de farturas mas sem açúcar, que é popular ao pequeno-almoço como acompanhamento do café ou do chá
deep-fried bread, light and without sugar, which is popular for breakfast or with a tea or coffee
preparação da let thoke, uma salada à base de massa, legumes frescos como tomate e couve, com muitos anónimos e indecifráveis condimentos, tudo ligado com farinha de grão e misturado com as mãos
Preparation of “let thoke”, a noodle salad, made with fresh vegetables such as tomato and cabbage seasoned with many anonymous and indecipherable condiments, all mix with chickpea flour and fresh hands
let thoke
“mohing” on the left and “let thok” right…  on the back is cooked plain rice, served with the broth, that often is served as side dish of salads
ingredientes para mohinga e let thoke
ingrediants for the “mohinga” and “let thoke”

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.

preparação de fritos à base de lentilhas, pequenos peixes ou de camarão seco, que depois de fritos forma uma espécie de bolacha que poder ser consumida como um snack ou como acompanhamento de sopas
deep fry salty crackers to eat with the burmese soups
doces de massa de arroz recheados com uma pasta feita à base de côco fresco e açúcar
sweets made from rice flour and fill with fresh coconut and sugar. they are cooked over the fire along the street of Mandalay, resulting in a sponge texture
restaurante de rua em Yangon
Street restaurant at Yangon
praticamente toda a comida é confeccionada em fogões a lenha, tanto em restaurantes como, nos mercados e em bancas de rua
In Myanmar almost all the food is cooked with fire stoves
restaurante de rua em Yangon
street restaurant at Yangon

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.

salada let thoke
“let thoke” salad where the funny taste of fermented the green leaf mis with the fry peanuts
Venda de doces junto ao mercado no centro da cidade de Yangon
Sweet sold in on of the markers that every morning fill up the Yangon streets
o famoso MSG, ou mais comumente designado de glutamato monossódico, um intensificador de sabor que está mais ou menos presente na confecção da comida que se encontra nos restaurantes e nos vendedores ambulantes, um pouco por todos os países do sudoeste asiático, mas que na Birmânia é mais evidente, chegando a ser usado em substituição do sal
The MSG, a kind of salt that is a popular presence in Asian food, but that in Myanmar is very common leaving a thirsty sensation in the month
várias variações de arroz glutinoso, que pelo seu paladar naturalmente adocicado serve de snack ou complemento ao pequeno-almoço, dificilmente se encontrando à venda depois das dez da manhã
Stick rice with different presentation… some more salty, others more sweet… the black one is my favourit

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.

preparação de comida num dos muitos restaurante de rua em Yangon
street food at Yangon
confecção de noodles numa das ruas de Yangon, onde a pasta feita à base de farinha de arroz e água é “espremida” através de um passador específico, para dentro de uma panela de água a ferver, ficando cozidos em pouco mais de um minuto
making rice noodles in the streets of Yangon

 

Restaurante de rua em Yangon servindo os tradicionais pequenos-almoços indianos de dosa e puri, acompanhado de sambar e chutney de côco.
South Indian style breakfast, “dosa” and “puri”, served with sambar and a spicy coconut chutney
laphet, folhas de chá verde fermentadas
“laphet”… fermented tea leafs
açúcar de palma, também designado de jageri, que se encontra à venda nos mercados, apresentando-se quase em “bruto” de aspecto escuro ou mais “limpo” ganhando tons de amarelo-torrado, mas sempre de cheiro e sabor intensos, bem longe do excessivo e artificial sabor do açúcar refinado a que estamos habituados
Palm sugar, also call “jageri”, with a intense flavour and smell
refeição típica birmanesa, com sopa e vários acompanhamentos que se misturam com o arroz
typical Burmese meal, with rice, soup, vegetables and salad… in a vegetarian option without the greasy meat of fish curries
pequeno restaurante em Nyaung-U, com a salada de laphet, foi acompanhada da cerveja Myanmar, a mais popular, num país onde o consumo do álcool não é muito evidente, com excepção dos Thingyan Festival e acontecimentos especiais, onde cafés e a maioria dos restaurantes não vende bebidas alcoólicas
restaurant at  Nyaung-U

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.

sumo de cana de açúcar, feito na hora, e que é verdadeiramente irresistível nas horas de maior calor, juntado à frescura do gelo a aparente energia do açúcar, com o suave e fresco paladar da cana de açúcar... até parece uma coisa saudável!!!
Sugar cane juice, it’s irresistible during hot days, giving freshness and energy
preparação de pahratas num estabelecimentos em Mandalay
dough for “pahratas” waiting to be cooked
espécie de puri de tamanho gigante, pão frito numa chapa sobre as brasas com um pouco de óleo e que companha geralmente com um caril de grão ou de lentilhas, refeição reservada para o pequeno-almoço, numa clara influencia indiana
A giant “puri”, flat bread cooked in a metal surface over the fire, that is a influence of the Indian gastronomy
Como acompanhamento do chá ou de um café tomado ao meio da manhã, os dumplings, recheados de carne ou de feijão, são herança das comunidades de origem chinesa que se encontram espalhadas por toda a Birmânia
The “dumplings”, sweet or sour, fill with meat or beans, are an influence of Chinese cuisine and are popular with a tea or a coffee takes in one of the many tea shops
Salada de pahrata, onde esta é cortada em tiras e servida com cebola, uma variante birmanesa à indo-muçulmana pahrata
This is a “pahrata” salad a oily snack served with raw onions; a Burmese twist to the south Indian “pahrata”
Numa das ruas de Yangon, encontram-se pequenas bancas de venda de comida, em especial durante a manhã, altura em que os fritos são muito populares, seja bananas seja somente de massa simples, recheada de lentilhas ou grão
Several kinds of deep-fry stuff that are a bit everywhere in the streets of Yangon, usually early morning or later, in the end of the afternoon
Loja de venda de carne seca, muito consumida na Birmânia, assim como o peixe
Dry meat in a shop in Yangon in a country where due to the long distances is still very common to find dry meat and dry fish in the markets

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”.

mohinga numa das ruas de Sittwe, que foi quase sempre a minha opção nesta estadia na Birmânia, seja como pequeno-almoço ou como um vespertino jantar pelas quatro e meia da tarde, pois às cinco horas já esgotou!!!
One of the many “mohinga” that were my favourit option for breakfast… this one in a backstreet in Sittwe
A mohinga da despedida da Birmânia, servida à beira da estrada de acesso ao posto fronteiriço de Myawady minutos antes de cruzar a fronteira com a Tailândia
The last “mohinga” before leaving Myanmar, served in a road side restaurant nearby the Myawady border crossing to Thailand

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.

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