Myanmar’s cuisine is as varied and distinctive as the country itself. While sharing many of the culinary traditions of neighboring thailand, it encompasses a wealth of dishes and flavors found nowhere else – a legacy of Myanmar’s position at the cultural crossroads of southeast asia. Chinese influence is seen in the ubiquity of noodles and clear, sour soups, while the popularity of Indian curries, breads, and fried snacks dates from the period of British rule. Myanmar offers a veritable feast of flavors for the adventurous palate.
The keynote flavors of Burmese cooking derive primarily from the extensive use of ngapi sauces, which are made using fermented seafood (shrimp, prawns, and fish) pounded with salt and fiery spices. Condiments and pastes, such as the ubiquitous balachaung, are based on ngapi. They are the meal’s apu za or “heating” component, which is always counterbalanced by a-aye za or “cooling” foods, including eggplant, cucumber, and dairy produce. The basic staples are rice or noodles, with protein provided by meat, poultry, or fish, but dozens of pulses, veg- etables, fruits, spices, herbs, and pungent condiments are deployed to concoct even a simple, everyday meal across Myanmar, many of them com- pletely unfamiliar to Western taste buds.
A Typical Burmese Meal
Burmese meals are traditionally eaten on low tables, with diners seated crosslegged on straw mats, although small chairs are more common these days. Among families, the first spoon of rice is always reserved for the elders, whether present or absent – a tradition known as u cha. While rice, curries, meat, and fish are eaten with the hands, chopsticks are used for noodles and spoons for salads. More than a dozen different preparations are served simultaneously, typically in small bowls, along with a pile of vegetables and raw salad, mint, radishes, water- cress, and cucumber.
Salads and Street Foods
The Burmese are great lovers of a-thoq, or salads, which involve a wide range of ingredients blended with spices, oils, and a sprinkle of dry-roasted nuts. Perhaps the most distinctive of all is lahpet thoq, fermented tea-leaf salad, a pungent, slimy tangle of pickled tea leaves with many aromatic additions. On formal occasions it is served in special lacquerware boxes, divided into sections, and few meals are eaten without a taste-tingling portion on the side. The equally popular karyanchintheet thoq (tomato salad) is more likely to appeal to the Western palate. In Shan State, Burmese tofu is often used to make nourish ing, fill ing salads featuring bean sprouts and raw green leaves.
Snacks and even full meals are served from street stalls. Workers frequently breakfast on mohinga, served from steaming cauldrons, while Indian deep-fried samosas and pakoras provide a boost before the commute home.