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A beginner’s guide to Burmese cuisine

Plus, a recipe to make the national dish

Tofu dish from Top Burmese in Portland, Oregon
Top Burmese

When it comes to Asian cuisine, there are several heavyweights. Chinese, Japanese cuisine, and Thai jump to mind, three major cooking styles that have crossed many oceans and created solid footings abroad. But what of the smaller nations and their unique culinary customs?

Burma is one of those Asian countries, roughly the size of Texas and wedged between Bangladesh to the west and Thailand and Laos to the east. It’s important to note that the nation also goes by the Myanmar name, depending on who you ask. Political turmoil over the last several decades has seen not only a tug-of-war regarding its national title but also a struggle to define itself. Generations of British colonialism faded into brutal military rule and several uprisings.

This is the land of large pythons and precious stones. Some 90% of the globe’s rubies come from Burma. Rice is Burma’s biggest export and the landscape is dramatic, with towering mountain ranges, verdant jungles, and incredible old towers from bygone civilizations. Some 100 ethnic groups call Burma home, making the population of more than 53 million extremely diverse.

With tons of coastline, thanks to the adjacent Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, Burma cuisine is unsurprisingly driven by seafood. This is the land of fish sauce and dried prawns. The national dish is mohinga, a breakfast dish made with rice noodles and fish soup. Inland, there’s more in the way of pork and beef and plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables

Local Burmese restaurant in the U.S.

A shot of four dishes from Top Burmese in Portland, Oregon
Top Burmese

Kalvin Myint is the co-owner of Top Burmese in Portland, Oregon. He was born in Burma and moved to the States when he was a kid. Growing up, he learned to cook and create the unique flavors of his home country through his family. It’s a style of cuisine heavily influenced by nearby nations but also very much its own thing.

“Burmese food is heavily influenced by the neighboring cultures of India, China, and Thailand,” Myint said. “We use common spices and ingredients, yet the way those spices and ingredients are mixed make it unique.” He adds that it’s almost always shared family style and tends to begin with rice followed by various curry dishes.

His favorite dish on the menu is the tea leaf salad, a mix of fermented tea leaves, tomatoes, cabbage, roasted peanuts, sunflower, sesame seeds, and chickpeas. It’s topped with fried garlic, and a dish Myint said is easy to prepare yet super delicious. “I love eating healthy, so it’s a perfect dish for me,” he explained. “It has leafy greens, veggies, nuts for protein, and last but not least, the fermented tea leaves which has naturally occurring beneficial bacteria in it.”

From a culinary standpoint, Myint has inherited a philosophy that suggests tasty complexity can come out of pretty straightforward cooking. “What I learned from my family is that when it comes to Burmese cooking, less is always more,” he said. “Sophistication in taste does not need sophisticated ingredients. Different ratios of spices and varying cooking techniques can make a vast difference in the outcome of the dishes. That said, overcooking and over-processing is a big no-no, as it can destroy the natural beneficial properties of food.”

When eating at his restaurant, Myint suggests being curious and trying a bunch of different dishes. Top Burmese does smaller portions of just about everything to accommodate such an approach. Diners can bounce around, trying the Moh Hinga (a chowder-style soup with rice noodles and tilapia), the beef curry with coconut rice, Burmese Samosa Soup, and the Payon Thee Hinn (sweet pumpkin curry served with Jasmine rice).

Eating customs of Burmese

A dish from Top Burmese
Top Burmese

In Burma, custom says to eat at a low-set table often atop a bamboo mat. There’s always a healthy spread of dishes, and the eldest are served first (in fact, even when no elders are physically present, it’s customary to set aside a bit of rice in their name). Usually, drinks aren’t served with the meal. Instead, diners enjoy sips from a communal broth.

The curries, in particular, tend to involve fewer ingredients than their Indian counterparts and are milder, made with more ginger and garlic. There is a host of ingredients unique to the region, from djenkol to rambutan. And given the additional diversity imparted by a plurality of religions (with heavy Buddhist and Muslim influences), there’s a lot of nuance to the cuisine.

How to make mohinga

Tilapia dish
Nate Steiner / Flickr

As mentioned above, mohinga is a Burmese fish noodle soup. It’s also all about the fragrant broth and flavorful toppings. Here’s how to make it at home.

Ingredients:

For the broth:

  • Fish (Top Burmese uses tilapia)
  • Water
  • Lemongrass
  • Onion
  • Garlic
  • Ginger
  • Dried chilies (optional)
  • Turmeric
  • Fish sauce
  • Chickpea flour (or peanut flour as a substitute)

For the noodles:

  • Rice noodles (cooked according to package directions)

For the toppings (choose some or all):

  • Hard-boiled eggs, sliced
  • Fried shallots or split peas fritters
  • Fresh coriander, chopped
  • Red onion, thinly sliced
  • Lime wedges
  • Chili flakes (optional)

Method:

  1. Simmer the fish, lemongrass, onion, garlic, ginger, chilies (if using), turmeric, and fish sauce in water until the fish flakes easily.
  2. Remove the fish, debone it, and flake the flesh. Strain the broth.
  3. In a separate pan, fry a paste made from pounded or finely chopped onion, garlic, ginger, and chilies (if using) with oil. Add turmeric and paprika, then cook for 1 minute.
  4. Add the flaked fish and cook for 10-15 minutes.
  5. Gradually whisk the chickpea flour (or peanut flour) into the broth to thicken it.
  6. In a bowl, combine cooked rice noodles, broth, and flaked fish.
  7. Add your choice of toppings and enjoy!

Burmese food will likely never rival Thai or Chinese food in terms of popularity, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth exploring the genre and enjoying every flavorful bite.

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