Samui Wining & Dining
Bountiful Burma

As tasty as it is unique, Burmese food awaits your discovery.

 As tasty as it is unique, Burmese food awaits your discovery.Cuisine that’s made to make the heart sing, Burmese food has been off the map for too long, but all that is undergoing a massive change as the country opens up ever more. It may be a few years away, but we can expect to see a slow, steady burgeoning of Burmese restaurants as word of the nation’s cuisine goes global.

Newcomers to Burmese food tend to imagine it resembles all the popular clichés of Thai cuisine: a repertoire of curries, with plenty of coconut on board and of course, above all, spiciness. The secrets of Burmese food may be legion, but one thing’s for sure: it’s not a variation on Thai food at all. The two are very different.

Classic Burmese cooking has evolved into a plethora of dishes that aren’t to be found anywhere else. There are rich, savoury and salty flavours, plenty of ingredients that are unique to the country, and influences from its neighbours in South-East Asia and China. In just a single meal there’s a lot to discover.

The best way to experience Burmese food is to sample it home-cooked, and eat along with a family – they’ll be able to explain what everything is and how it’s made. Or how about a tea shop? They don't just sell tea, and you're likely to find an amazing variety of dishes to try, depending on where the proprietor comes from. You may be offered a traditional ‘htamin thoke’, a type of rice salad, while an Indian or Muslim-owned place may sell ‘poori’ or deep-fried bread served with a potato curry or naan-style baked breads. Other tea shops are more Chinese-style and serve steamed buns and dim sum-like items.

No foray into Burmese food is complete without a mention of its most famed and certainly most unexpected dish: not many places in the world can boast of a popular recipe that calls for fermented tea leaves or ‘lephet’. The dish is versatile enough to be eaten either as a salad or as a dessert, the latter being served on a lacquer tray if you're in a restaurant. It can also be eaten as a main dish when accompanied by a plate of rice. The basic way to make lephet is to mix the sour tea leaves with cabbage, tomatoes and then add beans, nuts and peas.

Curry is a core part of many Burmese meals, but they're quite different from either Thai or Indian curries. They do tend to be quite heavy on either pork, beef, mutton or fish. But they’ll come with various side dishes, most often including some sort of salad, a medley of fried and/or raw vegetables, then dips and herbs. And of course there’ll be rice too. Dips may include the ever-popular fish sauce, ‘ngapi ye’ or the more fiery ‘balachaung’, a dry mix of chillies, garlic and shrimp.

The nation’s unofficial national dish is simply known as ‘mohinga’, a word that has no translation, and refers to round noodles made of rice that come in a fish broth that’s rich in herbs and shallots, and may be further enhanced using the pith of the banana tree. Eaten from breakfast onwards, and a favourite item at food carts, mohinga fuels the nation, both as a main dish and as a snack. Flakes of chilli and lime can be used to flavour mohinga, and it’s often accompanied by ‘akyaw’, or deep-fried vegetables.

Speaking of deep-fried foods, it’s hard to avoid them once you're in Burma. Whether you're buying from a mobile vendor or sitting in a tea shop, the snacks have a tendency to be deep-fried. You'll find an abundance of samosas, spring rolls, savoury fritters, breads and desserts that are deep-fried. Needless to say, just because they're deep-fried, this doesn’t mean that they taste of oil. Try ‘buthi kyaw’, for example, battered and fried morsels of gourd. They're served with a tamarind dip, giving them a unique taste, and may also have bean powder added to give them an extra savouriness. Foods such as these are pretty hard to re-create outside the country, and your typical Asian grocery probably won’t stock all that’s needed for cooking Burmese style.

One dish that perplexes many a visitor is warm tofu or ‘hto hpu new’. It’s more unusual than it sounds, especially as it doesn’t actually contain any tofu at all; instead it’s a porridge made of chickpea flour. It comes from the Shan peoples of northern Burma, who traditionally serve it over rice noodles with chunks of marinated chicken or pork. It’s a lot more delicious than it sounds, and is accompanied by pickled vegetables and topped with chilli oil.

The Burmese are adept at making noodle salads, with the most popular being ‘nangyi thoke’. Round noodles made of rice are mixed with chicken, fish cake, hardboiled egg and bean sprouts to form an unforgettable ensemble. Roasted chickpea flour, turmeric and chili oil add further oomph to this highly tasty dish.

Regional cuisine can be broadly broken down into dishes found in lower Burma with more fish pastes and sour foods, and upper Burma with more sesame, nuts and beans used in recipes.

The spread of dishes that encompasses the cuisine of Burma is a huge, neglected treasure trove of deliciousness. Definitely worth discovering, it’s not as yet widely available, and still awaits to be better known. For the moment, you'll need to hunt it down wherever you can find it, unless you’re lucky enough to get a Burmese chef to teach you!


Dimitri Waring


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