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.