Of all the cuisines of Indochina, Myanmar’s has been most influenced by its neighbour to the west, India. It has also been influenced by China on its north-eastern border and by Thailand to the southeast. At the same time, it has its own distinct indigenous dishes.
Along Myanmar’s long coastal area, seafood predominates. Inland, meat and poultry are more prevalent, although here too river fish and freshwater shrimp are widely used. Those who are Buddhist do not eat beef and Myanmar’s Muslim community shun pork as do followers of Myanmar’s ‘nat’ worshipping religion. As in most of Indochina a salted or fermented fish sauce is the most common seasoning – the Myanmar version being a fish paste known as ‘ngapi’. Salads are also very popular and are often sold as street food from snack stalls.
For most people, the day begins with a bowl of ‘mohinga’ – Myanmar’s national dish. This is essentially a rich fish soup served with thin rice noodles. The soup is flavoured with garlic, onions, lemongrass, banana tree stem, ginger, fish paste and fish sauce. The dish is then completed by adding garnishes such as fish sauce, a squeeze of lime, crisp fried onions, coriander, spring onions and crushed dried chilli. The extra hungry may also accompany their ‘mohinga’ with a boiled egg or a fried fish cake. ‘Mohinga’ is served all day, but is most usually eaten for breakfast. An alternative breakfast is fried rice.
Meals are traditionally eaten sitting at low tables and usually consist of steamed rice served with a curried fish or curried meat or poultry. A thin soup is commonly served, too. Vegetables may be simply steamed or fried and fritters made from various gourds or onions in batter are popular. Durian, guava and other fruits are commonly served as dessert.
The custom in Myanmar is that the elderly are always served first – even if they are absent. In that case, a little rice is scooped from the serving bowl and put to one side to show respect. Food is usually consumed by hand. The right hand takes a little rice which is pressed into a ball with the fingertips. This is then mixed with the other ingredients and eaten. Noodle dishes are eaten using chopsticks and spoons. Restaurants and hotels will supply forks and knives.
The Indian influence on Myanmar’s cuisine can be seen in the extensive use of curries, but also in breads like chapattis, naan and paratha and in samosas and biryanis. The Chinese influence brings ingredients such as bean curd and soya sauce, noodles and stir-frying techniques. Thailand brings fried insects eaten as snacks.
Myanmar is one of the few countries in which tea is seen as a foodstuff as well as a drink and a very popular ingredient is ‘lahpet’ which is fermented tea. A very popular salad is made from lahpet mixed with crisp fried garlic, peas and peanuts, toasted sesame, crushed dried shrimp, preserved shredded ginger and accompanied by fresh tomatoes, garlic and green chilli and shredded cabbage, dressed with fish sauce, sesame or peanut oil, and a squeeze of lime. No important celebration goes past without eating ‘lahpet’ in some form or other.
Wherever you travel in Myanmar, you will be able to taste the wonderful cuisine which deserves to be much better known.
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