By Michael Maung and Christina Yin
The Burmese cuisine has been influenced by the respective cuisines of China, Thailand and India. But the Burmese only used the concepts from these cuisines for inspiration. People in Burma have adapted these concepts to the local environment and to local taste. They have created variations of the Chinese, Thai and Indian dishes by adding or removing ingredients and by using different cooking techniques. As a result, Burmese cuisine has special preparation techniques and distinct flavors that are unlike any other. Hence, the Burmese cuisine has its own unique identity. The Burmese cuisine is considered attractive because of its exotic look and taste. Here is a popular expression that sums up traditional favorites: "Of all fruit the best is the mango, of all the meat it is pork, and of all leaves it is tea."
Inspiration from China
Chinese influence in Burmese cuisine is shown in the use of ingredients such as bean curd, soy sauce, noodles, ginger, garlic and onion as well as in stir-frying technique. However, Burmese use a different way to stir fry. They stir fry onion and garlic until the mix is golden and fragrant, then that is slow-cooked with other ingredients, such as beef, pork or chicken instead of the fast stir-fry method of the Chinese. That is why Burmese say good Burmese food starts with good fried onion and garlic.
Inspiration from India
India influences are found in Burmese versions of dishes such as Samusas and curries, especially in spices used. Curries are delicately scented with cardamom, cinnamon and cloves, pickles and chutneys ĘC pointing to a deeply-rooted Indian connection.
Inspiration from Thailand
The Burmese can't make it through a meal without seasoning their food or making a dip with one version or another of naapi, a paste made from fermented fish or shrimp. Yet at the Burmese table, these distinctive flavors are deftly blended, and what ends up on the plate is familiar yet intriguing. As with Thai food, coconut milk is the basic ingredient for Burmese food. One example of Thai-influenced Burmese food in our menu is On Noh Kauswer, in which soup is cooked with coconut milk.
Inspiration from Europe
Burma has been under British domination for close to a century, until 1948. Britons are responsible for some elements of the Burmese cuisine, and people can taste in some dishes both American and European concepts. While the British were refining the art of High Tea, the Burmese discovered and developed Lephet. Unique to Burmese cuisine, Lephet is an unusual ingredient made by fermenting green tea leaves. Burmese created "Tea leaf salad," called "Lephet thoke" in Burmese.
Burmese cuisine also contains a variety of salads centered on one major ingredient, ranging from rice, noodles, glass vermicelli to ginger, mango, tea leaves, lime and fish paste. The most popular example of this traditional preparation is the Tea leaf salad, a large plate carefully arranged with a multitude of ingredients ĘC including peanuts, sunflower seeds, roasted split peas, fried garlic and sesame seeds ĘC mixed at the table according to the diner's tastes.
Burma in a bowl
The local fish soup, called Moo Hinga, is a typical Burmese meal. The Burmese crave a steaming bowl of Moo Hinga in the morning the same way Americans stumble to their local coffee shop for a daily jumpstart. Street vendors on virtually every corner ladle out this fish chowder to sleepy workers, with its cheerful hint of turmeric and scent of lemongrass, ginger and chili. It is a hearty meal, especially if eaten with garnishes such as hard egg, lime, cilantro and dry chili. So plan on ordering nothing else, or splitting a bowl with friends.
Traditionally, Burmese eat their meals with dishes on a low table, while sitting on a bamboo mat. All the dishes are served at the same time. Fragrant steamed rice is central, accompanied by a main dish such as a curry, two different salads or a vegetable dish, and a large communal bowl of a simple broth soup for sipping throughout the mea.
Out of respect, the eldest diners are always served first. Even when elders are not present, the first morsel of rice from the pot is scooped out and put aside as an act of respect to one's parents ĘC a custom known as Oo Cha, or "first served".