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Jun 7, 2007 04:40 AM

A Short Essay on Burmese Cuisine [Moved from Boston Board]

Since there is now a new restaurant (again) in Boston, I thought I might write a short essay on the subject - to provide an introduction to a completely different Asian cuisine in an easy to understand manner.

I have read a few critiques of the various Burmese restaurants around the country, and noticed that, invariably, Burmese food is compared to Thai or Chinese or Indian or some other nation's cuisine. And I hope that this essay will help place Burmese food into its own context - and its enjoyment assured! My almost hidden intention is to allow the harshest critics of this food a basic understanding of the subject - since here in the USA, we tend to change other peoples cuisines (if not their cultures) to meet our expectations rather than to critique it in its original context. As a Burmese-American foodie, then, here is my contribution to enjoyment of Burmese food.

The main thing to keep in mind though is that each dish may have a "classic" Burmese (or Shan, or Kachin, or Kayah, or Mon, or other indigenous) rendition and a plethora of individualized interpretations – just as pizza, tomato pie, cheese pie, etc., have their renditions throughout the USA. To further this point, the classic Burmese "Indian" dish of "sour cooked pork" ("wet-thar achin chet") uses pork and very sour mangoes. The home cook then adjusts to the meat at hand (pork or beef or chicken) and the sour ingredients at hand (ranging from the traditional sour mango to canned indian lime or mango pickles). The Burmese restaurant in Washington DC uses beef.

Burmese food is not some variation of Chinese and Indian. Burmese cuisine is based on a large number and variety of dishes which obtain their various flavors from the thousand cultures that is Burma (the original name of the country was "pyi htaung zu bama naingan daw" - or "one thousand countries united into a royal Burma"). As in appreciating good wine, the aroma and flavor of Burmese cooking is nuanced and may be appreciated by an understanding of its components. In general, there may be one or more aromas (and I will here use the wine analogy) of “forest earth”, “sea”, “sour olives”, “musk”, etc. The tastes may consist of bitter, sour, spicy, salty, sweet, unctuous, bland, peppery, and so on.

Although come critics would insist that there is little in the way of complexity, I would suggest that complexity will be found in ample abundance in each dish – one has only to be aware of it and appreciate it for what it is. The complexity in Burmese food is found more by focusing on each mouthful rather than expecting it to immediately overwhelm the tastebuds. This is in keeping with the culture which encourages contemplation and meditation. To demonstrate this point at its best, I would say that the taste of tea leaf salad (lephet thoke) reveals its complexity only when each mouthful is carefully chewed for a longer time than normal. No fast food gulping here! In fact, Burmese food would probably fit well into a culture of slow cooking AND “slow eating”. (As an aside try this Burmese technique the next time you have some fabulous chocolate: let the chocolate take its time to melt in your mouth rather than rushing through it by chewing. You will have experienced an aspect of “slow eating”). Some foods are best masticated well, while others are best left to reveal their flavors in their own time.

As an example of the wide variety of dishes (but sadly usually unavailable outside of Burmese home cooking), "royal" pork with shimmering black bean paste ("wet thar pone yay gyi") or "night market" noodles with duck meat and duck fat ("kyar zahn jet"), or "southern" pork with sour bamboo shoots ("wet thar hmyit chin"), or "national" chicken soup noodles ("jet thaar khauk swear") and the ever present fish noodle soup ("moe hinghar"). In short, flavors of Burmese cuisine are subdued and nuanced with the flavors that are salty, sour, bitter, spicy, or even sweet.

This cuisine, like the people, is very individualized. Most dishes are made so that they exhibit a "basic flavor" which can be customized for individual preferences. When served in the traditional style, there may be anywhere from two to a dozen or even more condiments on the table - combinations which allow each person to adjust the final flavor to their own taste! The normal accompaniments would be "ngapi" (a shrimp paste based sauce - not something for the western palate, although several respectable food magazines are trying to introduce it in the western world), "balachaung" (a crispy combination of shrimp, garlic, onions, etc) and several cut fresh raw vegetables including lettuce, cabbage, cucumbers, tomatoes, mini-eggplants, etc. Various pickled vegetables may be present. Every Burmese restaurant should have these condiments at the table for a nominal price (or even free of charge)!

When eating at home or in a restaurant, the traditional way is to eat en-familie or “family style” – each dish is passed around following the bowl of rice – and each person serves themselves to whatever dishes they want. Then follows a round of everyone helping themselves to the appropriate accompaniments/condiments. The rice is invariably mixed with one or more of the items on the plate and eaten with the fingers. Each mouthful can then be adjusted to be different – or the same – depending on the mood and wishes of the individual. In a restaurant, a dessert spoon sized spoon and fork may be provided – the food is eaten with the spoon with the fork used to push the food onto the spoon.

Burmese tea or other drinks such as lemonade or beer are often served with a meal. Dessert in the form of sweets, salads (the tea leaf salad or ginger salad is considered dessert), or beetle leaf ends the meal.

For more celebratory occasions, desserts such as mo(u)nt lone yay baw (“round cakes floating on water”); mo(u)nt see jaw (oil fried chewy pancake); khauk mo(u)nt (folded cake), or others would be served to close (or rather prolong) the meal and allow enjoyment of friends and company.

I hope that this short essay will help you select the restaurant AND the meal the next time you see a Burmese restaurant. Please let me know if you want to get more information on any dish.

Kyammar bar zay (May you be healthy)

ps – The recently opened “Yoma” restaurant in Boston (Allston) has a wonderful array of classically cooked dishes which are authentic representations of their respective indigenous origins (often Shan – one of the States of Burma). Not many other chefs would take the risk of introducing these dishes in their authentic, unaltered form, and I encourage you to patronize this remarkable effort. As with every new endeavor, this little gem has its birthing pains (apparently in some slow service at peak times). But the quality of the food is wonderful and I would encourage you to nurture it to its full potential. Boston will then have another ethnic restaurant that it can be most proud of!

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  1. Thanks for the great introduction - very exciting, what with all the talk of fermented tea leaf salad on this board!

    1. Thank you Sister Y! I hope that by now you have had a meal at a Burmese restaurant.

      The other day, I was at Yoma again, and witnessed some people ordering - obviously they had no idea what Burmese food was like, and the poor owner was not quite adept at recommending his own cooking. SO ... here is my suggestion for "first timers" trying out Burmese.

      First - decide if you want a quick snack or a full meal. This is because many Burmese restaurants mix "itinerant peddlar" dishes with "night market" dishes and add in a few homestyle/restaurant style meals - and if you want an authentic meal, you might want to take my suggestions below to heart.

      1. For a "quick snack" meal for one, order one of the appetizers (Boo thee jaw, Tohu jaw, or samoosar) followed optionally by a "single serving meal" such as mohingha, tohu thoke, khauk swear or See jet khauk swear. Thats it. have green tea with your meal.

      2. For a quick snack meal for two, mix and match two of the appetizers and share, but order individual dishes of the "single serving meal" without sharing.

      3. For a late afternoon meeting of friends, order several plates of appetizers and tea, or, several orders of lephet thoke (green tea salad) or gin thoke (gingger salad) and chew well and enjoy the company. Feel free to leave a good tip for usimg the place as a coffee house, but please make way for others when they are waiting.

      4. For a group dinner, share several appetizers (order one appetizer or more per person at the table). Order several curry dishes such as Pork Curry, KongPoungJee, Beef Curry, Chicken Curry, Shrimp Curry, Cooked vegetables, Fish preparations (as recommended by your server). Stay away from the "one dish meal" dishes. Order LOTS of rice and have dessert afterwards.

      YoMa Burmese Restaurant
      5 N Beacon St, Allston, MA 02134

      1. I tried Burmese food for the first time this past weekend. Between two of us, we had a green tea leaf salad, fish cake salad, pork tongue and ear salad, and pork with pickled mango curry with rice. I should have read this post before I went, I was really surprised at how small the portion of curry was. So for future reference, you should order more dishes than you think you'd need (meaning more than one app and one 'entree' per person).

        No pickled condiments at the table, but the flavors were vivid and pronounced. I was surprised at the OP's description of the food as subtle. I'm always afraid of restaurants (particularly Thai) diluting the real flavors of the dish for Western palates, but I was glad this place didn't.

        3 Replies
        1. re: janethepain

          My recommendation was based on how Burmese people would eat these dishes. For example, Tea leaf salad is something that is offered to visitors as a welcome snack (just as in the USA, one would offer visitors chips and dip). More of the same is generally how one would order the "night market noodles" ("see jet khauk swear") or "fish noodles" ("mohingha"). Each of these dishes is meant to be adjusted when successive bowls are ordered. For example, my first bowlful of mohingha would be with split pea crackers ("pear jhan jaw"), and my second bowl would be with deep fried gourd ("boo thee jaw") - perhaps with more lime and hot peppers in the second bowl!

          In any case, I am very happy that you enjoyed what you ordered - after all, your enjoyment is what matters most! By the way, where did you have this wonderful meal? Not many places serve pork tongue and ear salad! The pork and pickled mango .... yummmm! How much were you charged for the small servings? Hopefully not much more than a big mac!

          1. re: cornFusion

            haha it's interesting to see that the green tea salad is the equivalent of chips and dip. The restaurant also had a bread and bean puree? appetizer that looked good.

            I had this all at Burmese Cafe in Woodside, Queens (New York). If you look at the New York region Outer Boroughs board, you'll see it. Luckily it was all pretty cheap; actually the pork curry was cheaper than the salads, which surprised me (but I didn't feel ripped off). I did notice that they had a "Burmese Chinese" section of the menu. Photos here!

            1. re: janethepain

              Thanks very much for your reply. The bread is "nanpya" (cooked in an oven that is like an indian tandoor) and the beans - "pear bjok". So the dish is called "nanpya pear bjok" (simple, huh?). It is usually eaten for breakfast with lots of tea or coffee. The beans are actually garbanzo beans cooked until they are soft, and lots of sesame oil poured over and some salt added. I like to mash mine with a fork and use it in lieu of peanut butter.


        2. It's great to read your intro to Burmese food. It's made me rather hungry reading the dishes you mention. I would agree with you that the Burmese restaurants should have the ngapi kyaw and ngapi dip with an array of vegetables on the table!

          I would love to find a Burmese restaurant with a simple concise menu (I rather they did only a few dishes really well than many that are mediocre) to offer someone new to the cuisine an authentic experience. Personally I love eating with my hand like we used to in Burma, especially when it comes to salads/thote. It think there's something wonderful about using your hands – the additional sense of touch adds to the eating experience.

          Unlike the US, we are quite limited to the number of Burmese restaurants – there is only 1 in UK and 1 in Sydney where I am currently. I would love to visit Yoma – I've heard from Thawdar that her husband makes the Shan tofu himself.

          If there isn't a local Burmese restaurant near you and you are up for cooking it yourself, I have put up several easy recipes on my website. I hope more people will discover this diverse yet unique cuisine.