Food & Drink

Here's Why You Need To Get To Know Burmese Food

Now is the time to tune into the sour, savory world of Myanmar's eclectic cuisine.
10/28/2014 07:00am ET | Updated October 29, 2014

Of all the Asian cuisines that have spread over the globe, Burmese food hasn't gotten the attention it deserves. There's a more than understandable explanation for this, given that the country was isolated for almost 50 years due to a repressive military dictatorship. As the "second-most isolated country in the world after North Korea", according to filmmaker Robert Liebermanhe who filmed a documentary in Myanmar in 2012, the country endured gross human rights violations that the world is still discovering. Although the military junta relinquished control of Myanmar in 2011, the military still maintains significant influence in Myanmar's government and the country still suffers from oppression, extreme poverty and serious ethnic conflicts. Still, Myanmar is making significant progress toward becoming a transparent democracy as it opens up to the rest of the world. With Obama's visit to Yangon in 2012 and tourism opening up across the country, the world is watching Myanmar. One thing they'll surely be watching with increasing attention is the food.

Burmese food, like most national cuisines, is the sum of many regional parts. Myanmar is a country made up of many ethnicities, and each one has its own special dishes and styles of cooking. A few unifying factors that span this diverse country are the overwhelmingly sour and savory flavors that dominate the food, as well as the tendency for dishes to be served with a ton of accompaniments -- be they soups, boiled vegetables, herbs or dipping sauces and pastes. The emphasis is on strong, pungent flavors, not sweet or spicy flavors like you might find in neighboring countries like Thailand or India. As is the case in many Asian countries, rice is the cornerstone of many people's diets in Myanmar. Rice comes white and fluffy on its own or with curries, it's made into noodles or formed into glutenous rice cakes that are eaten as a snack or dessert on the street. Another common thread in Burmese cuisine is the ubiquitous use of salads, which are made with anything under the sun. Whether it's noodles, rice or vegetables, anything can be turned into a Burmese salad, which are crunchy, spicy and sour. Finally, the pervasive influence of international cuisines, namely Chinese and Indian, can be found all over Myanmar.

There are a world of dishes to discover in Myanmar, and as the tide turns in this fascinating "golden land," as the country is called, more and more people will start realizing the glory of the country's diverse and unique culinary traditions. No longer will Myanmar be the "undeserved straggler in the American hierarchy of Asian cuisines," as the New York Times puts it. Now is the time to turn your senses onto this sour, savory and fascinating cuisine, before the rest of the world catches on.

Here's a primer of important ingredients, dishes, styles of preparation and dining, and some of the most widely known regional specialties in Burmese cuisine.

Ngapi
wagaung/Flickr
Ngapi is a fermented fish or shrimp paste used heavily in southern and western Myanmar. It can be used as a condiment or can be mixed into a dish. Like most dishes, there are regional variations of ngapi: it might be very salty or not salty at all, watery or thick, made with ocean fish or freshwater fish depending on the location.
Mohinga
Alison Spiegel
A staple breakfast dish across the country, mohinga is a noodle soup made from a fish broth and thickened with chickpea flour. While variations, predictably, can be found everywhere, a typical bowl includes thin, round rice noodles, lemongrass, ginger, fish sauce, the pith of a banana tree's stalk and some lentils or vegetables. It's hearty and filling, but not overly heavy or oily like so many other Burmese dishes. It's commonly said that if Myanmar had a national dish, mohinga would be it.
Salads, Including The Famous Tea Leaf Salad
Alison Spiegel
A close second for a national dish would be the tea leaf salad. Bitter and tart, the tea leaves -- called lephet -- can be eaten on their own at the end of a meal or as a snack (which is especially handy if you need a little caffeine kick). Or, the leaves can be mixed into a salad, called lephet thoke. This widely popular salad can take many forms, but usually includes crunchy dried peas and beans, peanuts and garlic. It might also come with shredded cabbage or tomato, which cut the bitterness of the tea leaves and are thus two helpful ingredients for the uninitiated. Beyond the tea leaf salad, Burmese salads can be found in any shape or form. Tomato salads -- mixed with onion, peanuts, garlic, and sesame seeds, to name a few -- are popular, as are cucumber salads and noodle salads. The Burmese even turn samosas into salads, which is totally brilliant. If it can be tossed with peanuts and spices and served cold, you've got a Burmese salad.
Mild Curries
Alison Spiegel
Curries in Myanmar are much milder than the ones you'll find in other countries like Thailand or India. For the spice-challenged or for people who are just getting to know the wonderful world of curry, Burmese curries are a great starting point. They are mild because they are cooked with a ton of oil, which, if cooked long enough, breaks down the harshness of ingredients like chilis or ginger. Oftentimes oil is even added to the top of a curry after it has been cooked down, making for an incredibly filling dish. The reason? Curries might sit out all day in large pots, and a layer of oil preserves the food below and protects it from things like bugs or bacteria.
Street Food
As it is in so many other Asian countries, food is constantly being prepared, served and consumed on the street in Myanmar. In Yangon, you might find Indian-style vegetarian dosas, glutinous rice pancakes covered in sesame seeds and dipped in jaggery, barbecued meats, skewers of pork offal, Chinese dumplings and fresh fruit all on one block.
Teahouses
Alison Spiegel
Tea shops are found all over the country, in the form of a few plastic stools set up around a street stand, or in more formal cafes. Men and women go there to drink tea, eat and chat. Chinese tea is popular, as is a chai-like black tea served over a layer of sweetened condensed milk.
Fresh Fruit
Alison Spiegel
Myanmar's tropical climate produces an array of exotic fruit, which can be found at street markets all over the country. Dragon fruit, with either red or white pulp, is popular, as is the funky-smelling durian and the bumpy custard-apple (pictured here alongside dragon fruit). Bananas, guavas and mangoes are also common.
Toddy Palm Sugar
Alison Spiegel
The sweet sap from a certain kind of palm tree called the toddy palm is widely used in Myanmar to make candies, syrups and even alcohol. To make candies, the palm sugar is tapped from the trees, boiled down and either cut by itself or mixed with ingredients like tamarind or coconut shreds.
Shan Noodles
wagaung/Flickr
The Shan are the second biggest ethnic group in Myanmar after the Bamar, and their cuisine can be found around the city of Mandalay and the famous Inle Lake. Shan-style rice noodles, which are kneaded with turmeric oil, are thin, flat, sticky and delicious. They might be served with ground chicken or pork, onions, chili and crushed peanuts in a shallow broth or full soup.
Chickpea Tofu
Alison Spiegel
Also found in the Shan state, chickpea "tofu" is a regional specialty. It's made by mixing chickpea flour with water and turmeric over heat. The mixture can be eaten warm, in a porridge-like dish, or can be set out to firm up to a tofu-like consistency. From there, the "tofu" might be sliced and eaten fresh, or fried and eaten with a dipping sauce (pictured here).

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