I lived in Burma for a couple of years recently and had been warned before I moved there that the food wasnt a highlight. Even Burmese people I spoke to once I arrived disparaged their nations cuisine. Sitting slap, bang in the middle of a gastronomic golden triangle, I was very surprised by these assertions and set out to find out the low down on Burmese food for myself.
Like its neighbours, the staple of any Burmese meal is rice. Aromatic fragrant rice is most commonly used and is often soaked in coconut water to create coconut rice. Coconut rice isnt a sweet dish and is only lightly flavoured, so it still accompanies the ubiquitous curry very well indeed.
The curry is another staple of the Burmese diet. I love Burmese curries because Im not a big fan of spicy food, and neither, generally, are the Burmese. This seems surprising when the Indian and Thai influences are considered, but the Burmese do not spice their food in the same way as their neighbours, and in fact usually put chili in a small saucer on the table so that each person can add as little or as much as they like.
I had been told that Burmese food is oily. This I found to be true. Even Burmese people complain about the amount of oil used in most dishes and grimace when the curry comes with a floating, oily ring on the top. Luckily it is quite easy to scoop out and usually the resulting food still tastes delicious. Popular ingredients in curries include chicken, pork and mutton. They are like a cross between Thai and Indian and tend to include a lot of coconut milk. One of my favourite curries at a local restaurant was the mutton with new potatoes. Lots of little potatoes enlivened the taste and of course, when combined with rice took my starch intake to new heights.
Like Thailand, Burma is a country of salads. Im not so keen on the salads as I find them a bit one dimensional, but when added into a whole meal, accompanying other dishes I am quite happy to tuck in. The problem for me is that each salad tends to focus on one ingredient and as someone used to mixed salads it can get a bit boring. Glass noodles are popular as well as ginger and vermicelli.
The most popular dish in Burma must be mohinga. This is fish soup with rice vermicelli and is usually eaten for breakfast, although it is available all day round from street stalls and hawkers. I like mohinga but prefer to eat it later in the day as the strong flavour of the ingredients is a bit much for me early in the morning. Fish and seafood in general are the main ingredients of much of Burmese cooking and also form the basis of most stocks used for soups.
Like many countries in the region, Burma has very social customs regarding eating. Meals are shared, which means, as a guest in the country you have a lot of chances to try a variety of cuisine. Traditionally Burmese people eat sitting on a mat on the ground, usually putting the food on a low table. But in restaurants it is normal to have dining tables and chairs. In restaurants you will always receive either chopsticks or spoon and fork, but at home Burmese people eat with their right hand, mixing different dishes with rolled balls of rice. This can get messy for a newcomer but the Burmese people will always be patient and smile as the food dribbles down your chin and onto your new white shirt.
I am focusing on Burmese food here. But of course, the Burmese culture is only one of many that exist in the country. The food is also influenced by the many ethnic minorities that make up the rest of the country. In Yangon for example, Shan food is also very popular and there are restaurants devoted to the creation of papaya salads and tasty tofu fritters. Rakhine and Mon food is also known to be very good and if you are lucky enough to travel to these regions you will have the opportunity to compare the cuisines.
My eating investigations ended in a generally favourable review. I did sometimes find the curries too oily and I often got irate at the way chicken was cut up with every piece including a nasty little sliver of bone, but the combination of Thai, Indian and Chinese flavours with some extra zing that is all Burmas own is something that still gets my mouth watering.