A blog about food in Thailand
and elsewhere.


Monthly Archives: December 2012



Burmese curry restaurants

Posted at 4am on 12/5/12 | read on
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Relatively little is known about Burmese food outside of the country. And even those who visit Myanmar tend to come away from the country with a generally negative impression of its eats, as summarised in this excerpt from the most recent version of Lonely Planet’s Myanmar (Burma) guidebook:

Burmese food has a reputation for being oily. We won’t deny this, but in its defence will posit that much of this is the fault of the curries.

The centrepiece of any Burmese meal, hin, Burmese-style curries, are generally cooked until the oil separates from all other ingredients and rises to the top. The Burmese term for this cooking method is s’i pyan, ‘oil returns’, and the process ensures that the rather harsh curry paste ingredients — typically turmeric, tomatoes, ginger, garlic, onions, and shrimp paste — have properly amalgamated and have become milder. Some restaurants also add extra oil to maintain the correct top layer, as the fat also preserves the underlying food from contamination by insects and airborne bacteria while the curries sit in open, unheated pots for hours at a time.

The good news is that all this oil isn’t necessarily meant to be eaten and it’s usually easy enough to work around it. Those who got burned by the spiciness of Thai food will be pleased to learn that Burmese curries are the mildest in Asia in terms of chilli power — in fact most cooks don’t use chillies at all in their recipes. It’s also worth mentioning that the most common curry proteins you’ll encounter are fish, chicken, prawns or mutton. Relatively little beef or pork is eaten by people in Myanmar — beef because it’s considered offensive to most Hindus and Burmese Buddhists, and pork because the nat (spirits) disapprove.

Most importantly, it’s crucial to keep in mind that a curry only constitutes a single element of a Burmese meal. The requisite side dishes, which include various soups, salads, dips and fresh herbs, often have little or no oil.

So yes, when eating in Myanmar, you’re going to encounter a bit of oil. But the sheer diversity of dishes that make up a traditional Burmese meal acts as something of a counterpoint to this. Upon arriving at any Myanma saa thauk sain (‘Burmese Eat Drink Shop’ — a Burmese curry restaurant), after you’ve chosen a curry, fried dish or salad, a succession of side dishes will follow. These include soup — either an Indian-influenced peh-hin-ye (lentil soup, or dhal) or a tart leaf-based hin-jo (sour soup) — as well as a tray of fresh and par-boiled vegetables and herbs, to be eaten with various dips ranging from ngapi ye, a watery, fishy dip, or balachaung, a dry, pungent combination of chillies, garlic and dried shrimp fried in oil. By the time it all arrives, you’ll be faced with a huge — practically overwhelming — spread of dishes that runs the gamut of ingredients, textures and flavours.

I can’t imagine a better introduction to this type of eating than Aung Thuka:

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Located near the Shwedagon Pagoda, Aung Thukha is a Yangon restaurant legend that excels at herbal, relatively light Burmese dishes. This emphasis on herbs is evident in the house soup (pictured above at 8 o’clock), which is clear and delicate, and is flavoured with little more than slightly pungent local leaves. The fried dishes and curries have the requisite oil, but are also relatively light and fragrant; I particularly love their rich, tomatoey fish cake curry (pictured at 12 o’clock, above). Aung Thukha also do some very good salads — all made to order — including a tart and refreshing tomato salad (pictured at 3 o’clock). And after you’ve finished the savouries, you’ll receive the traditional Burmese dessert of a lacquer tray of pickled tea leaves, ginger and nuts, and crunchy chunks of palm sugar.

Aung Thukha
Dhamma Zedi Rd, Yangon
Lunch & dinner


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An analogue to this is central Yangon’s Shwe Mei Tha Su, the Muslim version of the Burmese curry restaurant:

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Instead of the clear, herb-based side soup, here you’ll get a bowl of slightly watery lentils studded with root vegetables. There was a salty/spicy balachaung and a side of crispy papadums. They do a great shauq-thi dhouq, a salad made from an indigenous, lemon-like fruit (pictured at 10 o’clock). And a Muslim-style curry shop is one of relatively few places in Myanmar where you’ll find beef (in the centre of the pic above), and the beef curry here is fragrant and sweet — practically bordering on candied — a stark contrast with predominately salty/savoury ‘Buddhist’ Burmese dishes.

Shwe Mei Tha Su
173 29th St, Yangon
Lunch & dinner


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Upcountry, Burmese-style curry restaurants that exemplified this type of dining include San Ma Tau, another old-school, hall-like restaurant in Hpa-an, Kayin State. This place had the biggest range of balachaung I encountered just about anywhere in Myanmar (pictured at the top of this post), and lots of interesting fresh herbs and vegetables to accompany them. They also served a great number of really delicious veggie-based sides, from a dish of slow-cooked, nearly melted eggplant to a small side of flash-fried okra.

San Ma Tau Myanmar Restaurant
1/290 Bokyoke St (Hwy 85), Hpa-an
Lunch & dinner


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There’s not a lot of good food in Nyaungshwe, the jumping-off point for Inle Lake, which makes Lin Htett all the more interesting:

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This is another place that takes its vegetables seriously — many of them grown on Inle Lake’s famous floating gardens. They do some excellent salads here, including a refreshingly herbal pennywort salad and a tart tomato salad (pictured at 2 o’clock). And not surprisingly, freshwater fish features on the menu, and they do a great, rich Burmese-style fish curry.

Lin Htett Myanmar Traditional Food
Yone Gyi Rd, Nyaungshwe
Lunch & dinner


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Lethoke

Posted at 6am on 12/7/12 | read on
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Lethoke refers to a type of Burmese salad — thoke — whose essential element is that it’s mixed by hand — let. Despite being an old term, vendors and cooks at the street stalls and restaurants of Myanmar continue to use their hands — not a spoon — to make this type of dish.

I first became aware of this style of cooking when, on my first trip to Myanmar, I stopped at a streetside stall in central Yangon to eat a salad. I was a little shocked when the vendor began mixing the salad by hand — gripping, squeezing and pinching the ingredients with her bare fingers — but the real surprise came when, as I began eating it, she proceeded to slowly and deliberately lick her fingers clean while watching me eat…

Despite this introduction, I wasn’t dissuaded, and since then have eaten many, many types of lethoke (nowadays, many vendors wear disposable plastic gloves). Perhaps the most famous version of the dish, and among my favourites, is lephet thoke, a salad of pickled tea leaves, fried nuts, and thin slices of cabbage, garlic, tomato and fresh chili:

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But in Myanmar one can make a lethoke out of just about anything, including rice, noodles or even sliced samosas:

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the latter served on the streets of Yangon with a thin lentil dressing.

The most common type of lethoke revolves around vegetables or fruit, which can range from meaty tomatoes to the tart flesh of shauk thi, a large citrus fruit that I’ve only ever encountered in Myanmar. One of the more unusual and delicious versions of the dish I’ve tasted was a lethoke made from a bitter, indigenous vegetable known as kyaung sha thi, which translates as ‘cat tongue’ (in northern Thailand, it’s known as lin fah — ลิ้นฟ้า — ‘sky tongue’, and in science as Oroxylum indicum). Mi-Mi Htun, proprietor of the family-run Moon-Light Rest House, in Thazi, Shan State, was kind enough to show me how she makes this dish (shown at the top of this post). Not many of you will be able to recreate it at home, but I think it’s worth sharing as an illustration of a typical Burmese-style lethoke, in particular one that emphasises the overwhelmingly savoury ingredients and flavours — fried shallots, toasted chickpea flour, dried shrimp, turmeric oil — that Burmese people love.

‘Cat Tongue’ Salad (Kyaung Sha Thi Thoke)

‘Cat tongue’, a bitter vegetable
Salt
Shallots, sliced thinly
Garlic, sliced thinly
Oil for frying
Roasted peanuts, ground
Dried shrimp, ground to a near powder
Lime, to taste
Roasted chickpea flour (also known as gram flour or besan)
Oil steeped with turmeric, to taste
Salt

Slice the ‘cat tongue’ thinly, mix with salt and set aside.

Slice shallots and garlic thinly and fry in oil until brown and crispy. Allow to drain on paper towels.

Squeeze and rinse the cat tongue two or three times until the bitter juices are mostly extracted and the cat tongue is soft.

Using your hand, combine cat tongue with peanuts and shrimp. Squeeze, but don’t mush or use too much force. Season to taste with lime, bean powder, oil and more salt, if necessary.

Burmese teashops

Posted at 5am on 12/11/12 | read on
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Myanmar’s teashops are not just places to have tiny cups of sweet, milky tea or coffee, or bottomless pots of weak Chinese tea. They’re also places to catch up with a friend. They’re where you go for a smoke. They’re almost certainly a better place for breakfast than your hotel or guesthouse. And they’re where gossip is passed around, deals made and, if you believe the rumours, government spies are rampant.

Their defining element — tea — takes a slightly different form than most of us may be used to, and may not be to everybody’s liking. Teashops are where the Burmese appear to consume the bulk of their sucrose, and your average tiny mug has nearly as much sugar and sweetened condensed milk as it does black tea. The generic word Burmese for tea is lephet ye, ‘tea water’, but if you follow this by saying cho bawq, you’ll get something that’s still sweet, but that at least won’t rot your teeth. The saving grace is the ubiquitous pot of weak green tea that serves as a chaser.

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Burmese teashops are also great places to eat, and the dishes served often reflect the ethnicity of the shop’s proprietor. Indian/Muslim-owned teashops tend to specialise in deep-fried snacks such as samosas or poori (deep-fried bread served with a potato curry), as well as oil-free breads such as dosai (southern Indian-style crepes) or nanbya (nan bread), the latter often served with a somewhat sweet pigeon pea-based dip. This type of teashop also tends to serve an appealing variety of South Asian-inspired sweets. Chinese-style teashops often feature lots of baked sweets as well as meaty steamed buns and yam cha-like nibbles.

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Teashops — in particular, those run by ethnic Burmese — are some of the best places to dig into the world of Burmese noodle dishes. Mohinga is usually available as a matter of course, but other more obscure noodle dishes offered at teashops include oh no hkauk hswe (a wheat noodle dish with a coconut milk broth), myi shay (a Shan-influenced noodle soup with pickled tofu and pork) and nangyi thoke (a salad of wide rice noodles). Burmese-style teashops that serve these dishes are also likely to serve rice dishes such as fried rice or htamin thoke (rice salad), both great for breakfast.

Myanmar’s teashops are also noteworthy for their uniquely Burmese quirks. These include the obligatorily tiny plastic chairs and tables; for a typical foreigner, a drink at a Burmese teashop can feel like a visit to Lilliput. There’s the carefully folded synthetic cloth for communal hand-wiping. There are, of course, the ‘tea boys’, prepubescent teashop staff who race around delivering orders and responding to the squeaky kissing sound that the Burmese use to draw attention. And there are the plastic sleeves of cigarettes that decorate every table; often at a Burmese teashop, in lieu of small change, you’ll be given a couple Londons or 555s.

In Yangon, Lucky Seven is probably my all-around favourite teashop: it’s tidy, has a pleasant atmosphere and the quality of food is high. A similar teashop in the Burmese model is Shwe We Htun; the Burmese-style one-plate dishes here are great. The archetype of the Chinese-style teashop is the tidy Shwe Khuang Laung, and Yatha Teashop is your typical Muslim-run teashop. See map below for locations.


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Deep-fried in Myanmar

Posted at 2am on 12/20/12 | read on
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As mentioned previously, the Burmese love their oil. Your average Burmese-style curry is served with at least two fingers of the stuff; mohinga, the national noodle dish, often comes topped with greasy akyaw, deep-fried savoury bits; and many of the country’s snacks — particularly those sold in teashops — are deep-fried. The paradox is that Burmese vendors aren’t particularly skilled at deep-frying, and many of these dishes tend to be soggy and oily. But one deep-fried staple that the Burmese tend to get right is buthi kyaw, battered and deep-fried chunks of gourd.

I first encountered the dish in a small town outside Mawlamyine, in Mon State, where at the edge of a lake overlooking a dam, several stalls served this dish alone. It seemed an obscure tourist draw, but served freshly fried, the fritters were delicious: hot and crispy, concealing a soft, slightly watery interior of tender gourd. They were served with a sour/sweet dip that appeared to be made from tamarind pulp and a bit of syrup, but that could be savouried up to taste with bean powder:

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Deep-fried gourd is also available in Yangon. My favourite vendor sets up shop every evening on the corner of Thein Byu and Anawratha Roads. It’s little more than a small wok and a few tiny chairs, but served with a similar tamarind-derived dipping sauce (and a communal chequered cloth for hand wiping), the deep-fried gourd here is one of the best snacks in town.

Buthi kyaw (deep-fried gourd) vendor
Cnr Thein Byu & Anawratha Rds, Yangon
4-9pm


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A recipe for buthi kyaw can be found here, at the Burmese cookery website, hsa*ba.

Burmese sweets

Posted at 9am on 12/22/12 | read on
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I don’t have much of a sweet tooth. I probably eat ice cream about twice a year, and I’ll almost always order another savoury course over a dessert. As such, I found much to like about Burmese food. The Burmese employ a myriad of ingredients — bean flour, fish sauce, fried shallots, oil — to accentuate savoury flavours, and sugar rarely features in savoury dishes. Even the traditional Burmese post-meal dessert isn’t really sweet at all, but rather consists of sour/salty pickled tea leaves and nuts, sometimes supplemented with a knob of palm sugar.

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Sweets, at least as we perceive them in the west, are called moun (sometimes written mont), but in Myanmar are largely regarded as snacks, typically taken with tea in the morning or afternoon.

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These dishes aren’t overwhelmingly sweet, instead relying on the naturally sweet flavours inherent in their main ingredients, not heaps of supplemented sugar.

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These ingredients include grated coconut, coconut milk, rice flour (from white rice or sticky rice), cooked sticky rice:

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tapioca and various fruits. Quite a few Burmese sweets have been influenced by Indian cooking and include somewhat exotic ingredients such as semolina and poppy seeds:

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My favourite Burmese sweet is hsa nwin ma kin, which translates as ‘turmeric unavoidable’ — an odd name, as it does not, in fact, contain any turmeric. Instead, the dish is made with semolina flour, which is supplemented with coconut milk, ghee and raisins (a recipe for the dish can be found here). It can be identified by its topping of coarse semolina flour (shown below at 5 o’clock), and like many moun, resembles a tiny cake and is served as an attractive diamond-shaped slice:

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Another favourite is bein moun and moun pyit thalet, Burmese-style pancakes, served sweet or savoury, that have a damp, holey consistency not unlike a good crumpet or a Portuguese tigelada.

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In Yangon, a huge variety of moun can be purchased from the vendors who set up every day in front of the FMI Centre.

Burmese sweets vendors
In front of FMI Centre, Bogyoke Aung San Rd, Yangon
Daytime


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Watermelons

Posted at 7am on 12/24/12 | read on
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In flipping through my images from Myanmar, it quickly became clear that I had more than a few pics of… watermelons. Perhaps I was drawn to the bright colours, or perhaps it’s something about the geometry of the the way the fruit is sliced (and indeed, sold) in Myanmar, but it appears that I found something visually interesting in this subject. So, as my last post in this mini-series on food in Myanmar, here’s a random grab-bag of Burmese watermelon images.

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