Burmese (Myanmar) Cuisine

Where China Meets India
Crossroads of Asia

“The staple food is plain boiled rice, piled up in a heap on a large platter.” — Shway Yoe [1]

Classical Burma/Myanmar sculpture

Kneeling Buddha, Burma/Myanmar,
19th century

Burma, or Myanmar, lies in a critical space between China and India.  This ancient land, home of many nationalities, seems destined to play a pivotal role in trade and investment between her two big neighbors,.

Burmese author, Thant Myint-U, grandson of diplomat U Thant, predicts that with current governmental changes now occurring, the country can emerge as the new crossroads of Asia. [2]

Burmese cuisine is rich and varied, shows influences from both China, India and other parts of Southeast Asia and elsewhere and has significant regional variations.

This is a rice-based cuisine, which also uses noodles, and employs both Soy Sauce, Fish Sauce and Ngapi, a special kind of fermented fish as major salters and seasonings. [3]

Major Ingredients: Rice is the main staple in Myanmar. For a time during the colonial period, the country was the world’s chief exporter of Rice. Main cereals are Rice — including Glutinous Rice and Purple Rice — supplemented by noodles.  There are pink and black varieties of Rice.  Vegetables, fruits, meats and fish are other main ingredients.

Myanmar is home to many vegetables and many fruits

, mostly tropical —

  • Durian

    Cooking with Durian fruit

    Durian

  • Guava
  • Mango
  • Banana
  • Jackfruit
  • Papaya
  • Pomelo
  • Litchi
  • Mangosteen

Plus many others, including some familiar and Western fruits such as Pomegranates, Strawberries, Watermelon and Plums.

Standard seasonings and aromatics include Ginger and Garlic especially. These are combined with other spices and flavorings such as Onions, Red Chilies, Lemongrass and Fish Sauce to make sauces and curries.

“The strongly flavored nga-pi, without which no Burman would consider his meal complete.”–Shrway Yoe

Ngapi, a paste made from fermened fish or shrimp, is an essential to a Myanmar meal, as Shway Yoe said over a century ago. Other seasonings —

  • Turmeric
  • Paprika
  • Cilantro
  • Green Onions
  • Chick Pea Flour (Besan) and Dried Shrimp, ground into a powder and used in salads.

Coconut milk is the cooking medium, as are fish and meat derived stocks.

Cooking Techniques: These include —

  • Roasting
  • Steaming, stewing
  • Boiling
  • Frying
  • Grilling

as well as a combination of more than one technique, depending on the dish.

Myanmar cooks do not use precise recipes but vary the use and proportions of ingredients based on what is available. But they are very careful and precise about cooking times.

Major Dishes: Myanmar cooks prepare a wide range of curries and an extraordinary range of salads, among which one made with tea leaves is famous.  Drinks typically include clear soups.

A number of dishes are inspired or influenced by Chinese or Indian cuisines.

Among the minority peoples of Myanmar, the cuisines of the Shan, Mon and Muslim Rakhine region have made significant contributions to the country’s cooking.The Wikipedia article on Burmese cuisine contains details of many of these dishes. [3]

Street Food: A visit to one of the open air eating houses near the Shwe Dagon Pagoda in Yangon (Rangoon) gives an opportunity to try a buffet made up of typical Myanmar street food.

Guests receive a plate of steamed rice, and can add dishes from a variety of local foods cafeteria style — curries, pickled vegetables, salads, fish fritters.  Together with this meal, the drink might be a clear soup, such as a shrimp soup.

Information Sources/Recipe Sources: The classic cookbook of pre-Colonial Myanmar was the Treatise on Royal Foods (Sadawset Kyan), compiled in 1866, during the local dynasty.Several cookbooks in Western languages exist; links are attached, as well as online sources.

Traditional Myanmar cooks do not use precise recipes, and the procedures, use and portions of ingredients might vary each time a dish is made. If you are from Myanmar or lived there, you probably have your own recipes. Some cooks collect recipes from each other.  Here is a simple one for a Pork Curry, from the late professor James McCawley of the University of Chicago:

McCawley, a linguist known for his eater’s guide to Chinese language menus, was an aficionado of Asian cuisines and an avid cook and recipe collector.[4] Here’s a recipe for a Pork Curry in Myanmar style adapted from one of McCawley’s recipes.

 Pork Curry Myanmar Style

Ingredients:

2 pounds boneless Pork
1 pound Onions
10 cloves Garlic
½ cup peeled fresh Ginger
1 tablespoon Vinegar
1 teaspoon Chili Pepper
6 tablespoons Vegetable Oil, divided in two portions
1 teaspoon Salt
2 tablespoons Sesame Oil
1½ tablespoons Turmeric

Method:

First we cut the Pork in cubes about 1 inch square.

We slice the Onions, Garlic and Ginger finely.

In  a small bowl we combine Garlic, Vinegar, Chili Pepper, 4 tablespoons of the Oil, and Salt and set aside.

Then we put the Onions, Garlic and Ginger into a food processor or blender and blend to a fine pulp.  Then we scrape the contents of the processor onto a triple thick.

We gather the squeezed-out liquid into a pan with the Pork, Vinegar and the spice mixture.  We heat the saucepan until the liquid boils, then reduce the flame, cover and simmer.  We will cook it until the pork is tender, for a total of about 1 hour.

After the mixture has simmered for half an hour, we heat a wok with the remaining 2 tablespoons of Vegetable Oil and the Sesame Oil.  When the oil is hot, we reduce the heat.

We stir in the reserved aromatic solids together with the Turmeric. Reducing the heat, cover and simmer.  Then scape the solids from the sides and bottom of the wok every 10 minutes.

We repeat this simmering and scraping two or three times, for up to 30 minutes, until the solids are reddish brown and the oils have separated out.  During this process, it may be necessary to scoop some liquid from the simmering Pork mixture and add it to the wok to keep the solids from scorching.

After about 30 minutes of reducing and simmering the mixture in the oil, we transfer this mixture from the wok to the saucepan with the Pork.  We then simmer it uncovered until most of the liquid has evaporated.

This dish is good served with steamed white rice.  The total kitchen time is about half an hour, and cooking 1½ hours. The recipe makes enough to serve 4 to 6 people, depending on the number of additional side dishes.

“An old man was lighting a row of candles before an image of he Buddha. A yellow-robed monk muttered a husky invocation; his droning punctuated the silence.” — W. Somerset Maugham [6]

Crowned Buddha,
Myanmar, 19th century

For Further Information:

[1] Shway Yoe (Sir James George Scott), The Burman (New York: Norton, reprint of 1882 edition) —   http://www.amazon.com/Burman-His-Life-Notions/dp/1148259546
[2] Thant Myint-U, Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia —   http://www.amazon.com/s/?ie=UTF8&keywords=thant+myint+u&tag=googhydr-20&index=stripbooks&hvadid=1146809201&hvpos=1t1&hvexid=&hvnetw=s&hvrand=4986530381302932671&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=b&ref=pd_sl_72fwy4wqrz_b
[3] “Burmese cuisine,” article, Wikipedia  —   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burmese_cuisine
[4] James D. McCawley, Eater’s Guide to Chinese Characters (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984) —   http://www.amazon.com/s/?ie=UTF8&keywords=eaters+guide+to+chinese&tag=googhydr-20&index=aps&hvadid=5935582229&hvpos=1t1&hvexid=&hvnetw=s&hvrand=1415626971602411732&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=b&ref=pd_sl_5zdroiqi2b_b
[5] Some recipe sources:
Naomi Duguid, Burma: Rivers of Flavor (Artisan) —   http://www.amazon.com/Burma-Rivers-Flavor-Naomi-Duguid/dp/1579654134
Copeland Marks and Aung Thein, The Burmese Kitchen (Evans, 194). A pioneer effort to codify in English recipes for Myanmar cuisine; Marks specialized in describing exotic cuisineshttp://www.amazon.com/s/?ie=UTF8&keywords=the+burmese+kitchen&tag=googhydr-20&index=stripbooks&hvadid=5435375185&hvpos=1t2&hvexid=&hvnetw=s&hvrand=995103201822817946&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=b&ref=pd_sl_5gm7iq2ur_b  —
Mi Mi Khaing, Cook and Entertain the Burmese Way (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Karonna, 1974) —   http://www.amazon.com/Cook-entertain-Burmese-way-Khaing/dp/0897200179

Online sources:
Recipes Pro  — Best Burmese Recipes —  http://www.recipes-pro.com/lp1/index.php?k=burmese%20recipes
Mom’s Recipe Finder — Burmese Recipes –
–   http://momsrecipefinder.comhttp://www.hellomagazine.com/cuisine/200906101408/burmese/cookbook/review//?title=Burmese%20dishes&headline=Burmese%20dishes
Hsa Ba Burmese Cooking — related to Tin Cha Chaw, Hsa Ba Burmese Cookbook  —     http://www.hellomagazine.com/cuisine/200906101408/burmese/cookbook/review/
[6] Description of a midnight visit to the Shwe Dagon in 1930. W. Somerset Maugham, The Gentlemen in the Parlour (London: Heineman, 1930)http://www.amazon.com/s/?ie=UTF8&keywords=gentleman+in+the+parlour&tag=googhydr-20&index=stripbooks&hvadid=10212419979&hvpos=1t1&hvexid=&hvnetw=s&hvrand=19294621531082864633&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=b&ref=pd_sl_590c8pa0f6_b —

Pre-Colonial Myanmar
From Monin’s Atlas, 1822

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