Have you ever heard of Burmese food? I certainly hadn’t before visiting the country. Well, I assumed the people in Myanmar eat, of course, but I didn’t know what exactly constitutes Burmese cuisine. Before arriving, I questioned the very existence of a unique culinary history in Myanmar–that fertile stretch of land sharing borders with Thailand, Laos, China, India, and Bangladesh and providing a home to diverse ethnic and religious groups. Which was of course a very stupid thing to question, given that Myanmar meets all the criteria for having a good food culture, namely everything mentioned above: fertility, ethnic diversity, a location in the crossroads of some of the world’s most beloved cuisines.
Yet Myanmar is consistently ranked low on various Human Development Indices, and the UN’s World Food Program notes that the country is particularly vulnerable to food insecurity due to local policies, food costs, and climatic interruptions to the agricultural cycle. How could a country host a great food culture in the face of so many other issues?
The answer: I don’t know. Perhaps the situation varies according to region. However, the culinary traditions of the Bamar people come out strong in the excellent Burmese food available in Yangon. I was amazed by the consistency across price points of your average Burmese meal. Whether the bill ran $1.50 or $11.50 for a complete meal for two, the Burmese food we ate in Yangon was delicious.
Your typical Burmese lunch or dinner starts with a few basics: a plate of rice per person, a shared platter of boiled or steamed vegetables with a spicy dipping sauce, and tea. Each diner then selects a small curry for him or herself from a display, and the table will share a veggie dish or two. In a restaurant, it’s common to be served a cup of soup with your meal and a dessert when finished, though on the street those would be sold as extras. What results is a colorful table full of food and bursting with flavor. Myanmar will certainly become a foodie destination in coming years.
Let’s look at a few of these dishes, shall we?
Clockwise from top left: spicy stewed beef curry; chicken curry; fish balls with tomatoes and peppers; mild squid and vegetable curry.
Most restaurants and street vendors offer an astounding assortment of meat preparations, all lined up in metal tins and ready for you to browse. While chicken, beef, and pork are certainly available, the proteins on call can be far more diverse than your typical western restaurant, with small birds, assorted fish and seafood, and many mystery meats also making an appearance.
Meats are almost always curried in a uniquely Burmese fashion. Unlike their neighbors to the east and west, Burmese curries are oil-based. Though they are packed with spices, they fall lower on the heat index than Indian, Bengali, or Thai curries. They’re also incredibly tender; the oil bath does the funky, cheap bits of meat some good while left to cook over low heat for many hours.
The oil can throw off some tourists, but I found it to be quite nice. You simply scoop your protein of choice on top of your rice and leave the oil in the serving bowl.
Clockwise from top left: green plantains; eggplant with fish; a boiled vegetable tray with dipping sauce; bitter greens.
The primary vegetable displayed on the Burmese table is the tray of assorted boiled veggies and herbs. It sounds boring, but with a bright, slightly fishy, slightly spicy dipping sauce, the veggie tray veers more towards chips ‘n salsa than carrots ‘n ranch. The vegetable selection is exciting and exotic, too, with greens you’ve never seen before, tea leaves, crunchy beans, and gooey okra. Because everything is boiled, I felt safe gorging on the vegetables to pack in some nutrition among the curries.
Cooked and spiced vegetables are common as well. They’re lined up in abundance to taunt and harass the indecisive among us at the point of ordering. Soft, smokey eggplant dishes were my favorite, as they were often spiked with salty fish. Some Burmese vegetable preparations feel familiar, like yellow curried potatoes or stir-fried mixed vegetables. Others are completely confounding.
The plantain dish, pictured up top, was one of the more confusing selections. I thought that a preparation of a green, skin-on member of the Musa genus would be unbearably bitter. Instead, it was grounded and dull in its bitterness–like coffee or dark chocolate–not chalky and bright; I was surprised how much I liked it. The bitter greens, also pictured, tasted distinctly like a goat barn. I ate them with the vegetable dipping sauce and oil from another curry; Andy let them be.
Left to right: chinese tea; herby green soup.
With the cold vegetable platters and lukewarm curries, the teas and soups offer a bit of warmth to a Burmese meal. The soup provided with a meal generally takes one of two forms: a green, herbal broth made from gourd greens, or a savory bowl of tomatoes, onions, and fish. While I would prefer the tomato and fish soup as a standalone option, the green option provides a nice break from the spice-heavy curries.
Tea is available everywhere, not just at Burmese eateries. It’s a staple of life in Myanmar, and if you aren’t drinking at least 5 cups of the stuff in a day, you’re probably doing it wrong. Most restaurants in Myanmar keep a self-serve pot and cups on the table, even if the cuisine isn’t Burmese. I’m not sure what the real blend is called, but it all tastes the same. The locals just called it “Chinese.”
Left to right: jaggery with sticky rice flour balls, tapioca, and shredded sweet coconut; fried peanuts and tea leaves.
It seems like everywhere you walk in Yangon, there’s some shop selling sweets and treats of Indian origin or inspiration. There are huge restaurants devoted to sweet cold drinks and folks cook up fried dough with a pan and tank of propane in every small nook. While I didn’t see any Burmese-style sweet shops, a typical Burmese meal will end with a dessert. Some are quite sweet, like the bowl of tapioca and jaggery pictured above. Others are probably not what your average American would consider dessert, though they’re still delicious. An example of an unsweet Burmese dessert is the round dish of fried peanuts and pickled tea leaves pictured above. Though not always eaten as an after meal treat, the combination of energy-boosting, slightly bitter leaves and the crunchiness of the fried peanuts do a fine job of preventing a food coma in the aftermath of a huge meal. It’s certainly of a different character than many desserts, but I found it a surprisingly satisfying end to a Burmese feast.
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