ThaiDay: Eating with the neighbors

Eating with the neighbors (ThaiDay, 30/03/06)
Explore the largley unknown landscape of Burmese cuisine.

Although the two countries share a long border, a similar religion, and a great deal of history, the relationship between Thailand and Myanmar (Burma) would not be described as amicable. Much of the two countries’ mutual history is one of conflict rather than cooperation, and though some elements of Burmese culture have entered Thailand, the country’s culinary traditions are not one of them. Ask an average Thai what a Burmese eats and you will undoubtedly get a blank stare. Actually, ask just about anybody outside of Myanmar what the Burmese eat, and you will probably get a blank stare. Myanmar’s cuisine, like many other aspects of this secluded country, is largely a mystery to the outside world.

Myanmar cooking, like Thai and the majority of cuisines in the region, is a rice-based cuisine. Rice is seen as the centerpiece of a meal, and other dishes, most commonly curries and soups, are regarded as accompaniments to the rice. Due to the country’s location between Thailand and Bangladesh, Myanmar cuisine is a mixture of South and Southeast Asian cooking styles and ingredients, integrating the dried spices and lentil soups of the subcontinent, and the fish-and-fresh-herbs cuisines of its neighbors to the east. In theory this would seem to imply a vibrant, exotic cuisine, but factors such as poverty, international isolation, and conflict have not allowed the Myanmar food to progress, as has been the case in India or Thailand. Nowadays, food in Myanmar is often more about subsistence than indulgence.

A coconut milk-based noodle dish similar to the thai dish 'khao soi'.

This doesn’t mean that Burmese food is bad though. At its best Myanmar cooking is hearty, savory and comforting, the same attributes one would attribute to say, Portuguese cuisine. At the opposite extreme, the food can be salty, heavy, and most of all, extraordinarily oily. Curries, a staple of Myanmar cooking, are often served with a thick layer of bright red oil, and this oiliness is usually the first thing that visitors to Myanmar notice about the food. In general however, sour and salty flavors predominate Myanmar cuisine, and the food is significantly more mild that that of Thailand or even India.

If all of this isn’t too off-putting, and you’re willing to try something new, there is a corner of Bangkok where one can sample authentic Burmese cooking. Soi ABAC, off of Ramkhamhaeng Soi 24, is a virtual mini-Yangon, and is home to many Burmese immigrants as well as four restaurants serving a variety of authentic Burmese dishes.

Daw Nwe, a respected Burmese chef, cooking at her restaurant in the Ramkhamhaeng area.

I visit Soi ABAC on a Saturday with my former Myanmar language teacher, Daw Than Than Myint, and Burmese student and Myanmar food aficionado, John Parker. We begin our meal at Daw Nwe’s (as is the case in Myanmar, the shops generally don’t have names per se, and are typically named after the owner/cook), according to Daw Than Than Myint, the best Burmese restaurant in the area. When we arrive Daw Nwe had actually closed shop, and was in the process of single handedly preparing a meal for several hundred people for a funeral the next day, but was kind enough to prepare a few bowls of ohn no hkauk hswe for us. This coconut milk-based noodle dish is thought to be the basis for the northern Thai dish, khao soi, and is served every Saturday at Daw Nwe’s restaurant. Served with condiments of sliced limes, sliced shallots, boiled egg, and crispy deep-fried vegetables known as a kyaw, ohn no hkauk hswe is savory but not heavy, and like most Burmese food is mild rather than spicy.

With Daw Than Than Myint acting as a translator, I ask Daw Nwe about Myanmar food, in particular, why Myanmar curries tend to be so oily. “We feel that if we invite a guest or donate food, and the curry isn’t oily, you’ll look stingy,” she explains. I ask her if the Burmese feel that the liberal use of oil contributes to the taste. “When you compare bland food with oily food, the oily food tastes better,” she says. “The oil helps the flavors to mix and taste rich.” For those willing to try more Burmese specialties, on Wednesday and Saturday Daw Nwe makes mohinga, a noodle dish often regarded as Myanmar’s national dish, and on Thursday is dan bauk, the Burmese version of khao mok or briyani.

Across from Daw Nwe’s is Ma Hlaing’s , a good example of the kind of rice and curry shop that one can find all over Myanmar. Inside, a glass case displays a selection of meat and fish-based curries, soups and thoke, Burmese-style “salads” similar to Thai yam. I choose the ma kyi ywet thoke, a salad of tender tamarind leaves. The dish is pleasantly tart from the tamarind leaves but savory from the garlic-infused peanut oil used to bind almost all thoke. I also order a bowl of nga phe lon hin, fish ball curry, a dish I have enjoyed many times in Myanmar. Unlike Thai fish balls, which often have a manufactured taste and texture, Myanmar nga phe lon are made by hand using fresh fish, and are soft and generously flavored with garlic, ginger and other fresh herbs. The fish balls are fried and are served in a oily curry that should be eaten with rice. Ma Hlaing also serves ngapi ye, a potent Myanmar-style “dip” served with rice and fresh vegetables, a dish provided free of charge by virtually all curry shops in Myanmar.

From Ma Hlaing’s we head further down the soi to Ma Che Ma Cho Sain (“Mrs Love and Mrs Sweet’s Shop”). This is another typical rice and curry shop, this time serving a few Myanmar regional dishes. Daw Than Than Myint urges me to try wetha ne ponyegyi, pork sautéed in a paste made from soybeans, a specialty of the Pagan area. The dark appearance of the dish is off-putting, however, the earthy, concentrated taste of the bean paste is not entirely unpleasant. I follow this dish with chin baung ne hmit chin ye, a sour broth of bamboo shoots and roselle leaves. This dish is another favorite of Myanmar curry shops, and features prominent sour and salty flavors and well-cooked vegetables. As we eat, Myanmar music videos play in the background, providing an appropriate soundtrack for our culinary expedition.

A fragrant curry of homemade fish balls at Ma Hlaing's Burmese restaurant.

Our last stop is at the restaurant run by Ko Tayo (“Mr China”), a Myanmar of Indian descent. Ko Tayo serves Indian and Nepalese-influenced Myanmar dishes, and like many of the restaurants in the area, has a small selection of Myanmar food products, cosmetics, and herbal medicines for sale. Having already eaten at three restaurants, my companions are only interested in shopping at this point, and I take the opportunity to order a cup of lephet ye, Burmese tea. The sweet taste of the tea, the bubbly sound of Burmese conversation and the smells of Myanmar food make me feel like I’m back in Yangon—until I remember that I was never very far away to begin with.

To reach the restaurants, go down Soi ABAC past the entrance of the university until you reach a residential area and the first four-way intersection; the restaurants are all located within a short distance of this intersection and are easily recognizable by their Burmese-language signs out front.