A Taste of Myanmar from my Childhood

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Taste of Myanmar Burmese cuisine
Burmese cuisine is characterised by its condiments

I was born in Burma. My hometown is a very picturesque tiny hill station that has a bazaar, a main road, local Burmese schools and a convent Missionary school and a few expensive English schools for the elite section of the town in the line of St.Paul’s in Darjeeling. I grew up in a family of doctors and educationists and was fortunate enough to study in one of those elite schools called Kambawza college.

When as a teenager I left Burma I did not even in my wildest imagination think that I would one day open a  restaurant catering only Burmese cuisine! We were in Burma for three generations, living in a quaint hill station called Taunggyi (meaning Tall mountain). It’s like Darjeeling and Shillong— cold, misty and simple. The neighborhood always smelt of burning and smoking dried bamboo leaves, dried-fish being smoked, fresh bamboo shoots getting preserved in brine, ruby red chilies being freshly pounded in huge wooden mortar and pestle by the local tribals, household aunties frying the chilies in oil with a fistful of prawn powder thrown in,  the entire little town became a cauldron of aroma of a variety of food being cooked, such is the power of Burmese food!

Traditional Burmese meal
A traditional Burmese meal

Thousands of Bengali families went to Myanmar during colonial times, starting from the end of the 19th century, and settled there for two or three generations. Cooking Bengali food was easy. The mighty Irrawaddy river and its tributaries were teeming with their favourite fish—hilsa, carp and catfish. And like Bengal, Myanmar is also largely a rice-eating country. That was where the two perhaps connected.

But gradually, the distinctive cooking styles of their surroundings started nudging their way into Bengali homes. Street food vendors, pavement food stalls with cheap local simple dishes were available in plenty, attracting everybody with their tantalizingly aromatic fares. Japanese Occupation in the early 1940s and, later, imposition of military rule in the early 1960s compelled most Bengali immigrants to relocate back to Calcutta. These families carried with them memories of homes built and lives imprinted with the flavours and textures of the local food— a culinary identity evolved over generations. The boys and girls, aunts and uncles became familiar with the basics of the Myanmar pantry after they got the tastes of these local fares— shallot oil and fried shallots, dried red chillies, fried garlic and onion, turmeric, roasted chickpea flour, powdered dried shrimp, fermented shrimp paste (Ngapi), fish sauce and chopped roasted peanuts. They appreciated how vegetables used in chorchori and ghonto could be turned into spectacular Athokes (salads) with a light mixing of those pantry staples, lemon juice and herbs. They learnt the secrets of slow cooking hilsa so that the bones would melt away but the fish remained firm; succumbed to the pleasures of several noodle (Khow suey) preparations and developed a taste for umami-laden balachaung, a spicy shrimp condiment.

Also read: Flavours of Thailand

Burmese dishes soon started creating a space for themselves.They learnt preparations like the iconic breakfast food Mohinga, a delicate catfish broth, fragrant with a complex symphony of spices, redolent with ngapi, the outer leaves of the banana stalk adding crunchy healthfulness and eaten with rice noodles and toppings like bottle-gourd fritters, deep-fried fish cake and condiments, became a regular affair. As did the Lahpet thoke, a salad of fermented tea leaves, dried seeds and beans, chilli, fried garlic and onion, crushed peanuts, tomato wedges and shrimp powder, and the soupy noodle broth, Ong no khow suey.

Street food vendors were available in plenty

When the Bengali immigrants relocated to Kolkata in 1966, they did not lose this culinary heritage and kept those flavours alive in their own households.I have come to understand that when generations of a family have lived in a certain geography, the landscape becomes part of their DNA, getting passed down to those who may never have visited that region.

The humble salad Is brightened up with the infusion of crunch and tartness from roasted chickpea powder, crushed peanuts, a sprinkling of sheem (broad beans) seeds, fistfuls of cilantro, mint and garden lime.

There are jars of pickles, typical to a Bengali home. But here, the array includes precious treats of balachaung, ngapi and a bottle of red tomato and garlic condiment shot through with pounded dried shrimp.

Burmese food has undoubtedly carved its own niche on Kolkata’s table but being confined to private residences, this remarkable cuisine and its strong ties to the city remained largely unknown. When they moved to Kolkata, Burmese dishes continued to be part of their regular fare, and the girls carried over this tradition to their own household after marriage. Like them my family and friends love Burmese  food, encouraging me to organise  my own pop-ups.

Myanmar food culture is known for being a mix of different influences. When you visit Myanmar you can sample Chinese, Indian and local Mon dishes and rice is a staple food all over the country. As a general rule, the local Burmese cuisine is known for having quite a strong flavour but if you are used to Indian and Chinese food then you will find a huge amount to enjoy here.

Burmese regional dishes and different states have their own signature flavours such as Shan or Mon curries. As Myanmar is a coastal country, you will encounter a wide variety of seafood served in areas close to the sea. Due to the hot temperatures across Myanmar, preserved meat is usually served in the centre of the country.

Tea leaf is one of the most pungent dishes served in Myanmar and Lahpet Thoke is a kind of salad which is made from tea leaves which have been fermented and mixed with nuts. It is usually mixed with slices of lettuce and is served with rice. This is a popular food in Myanmar but it originates from Shan State.

Myanmar food culture is known for being a mix of different influences. When you visit Myanmar you can sample Chinese, Indian and local Mon dishes and rice is a staple food all over the country. As a general rule, the local Burmese cuisine is known for having quite a strong flavour but if you are used to Indian and Chinese food then you will find a lot to like.

Curry is ubiquitous across Myanmar although it differs from curries found in other parts of Southeast Asia. Most Burmese curries do not use coconut milk, which makes them different from many other Southeast Asian curries and often use copious amounts of onion, garlic and fermented shrimp.

The complexity In Burmese food is found more by focusing on each mouthful rather than expecting it to immediately overwhelm the tastebuds.In short, flavours of Burmese cuisine are subdued and nuanced with the flavours that are salty, sour, bitter, spicy, or even sweet.

Now, I know  how I picked up this strange love for creating these nostalgic aromas with our own local products! My dad always said if we can create and cook Chinese food or French, Italian or even Mughlai cuisine one jolly well can try and cook anything, no matter how far one is from that country! The idea appealed to me then but somehow it got lost in the mazes of college, job, marriage, kids and the mundane family life, until the craving of childhood comfort food, that typical smell came back, to try them out myself! Encouraged by my husband and son and my mom and sister I gave it a shot by calling over friends and acquaintances to attend my pop-ups,and they proved to be highly successful. After my retirement from school as a teacher  my dad’s idea was implemented– Chanda’s Khaukswey was born, but sadly he could not see his little girl turning his idea into action. As a tribute to dad I decided to keep his favourite Burmese dish Wet-Thar SIbiyan or Red and Gold Pork curry. He also taught me a very simple dish which he along with his siblings enjoyed as youngsters in Burma during the Japanese war. The Japanese soldiers gifted the Bengali boys tins and tins of sardines in tomato, saying that Netaji Subhas Bose was a Bengali and their friend! Dad was very fond of Canned sardines cooked with fresh tomato, onion and garlic with red chili flakes and chopped spring onion, eaten with hot steamed rice. That’s my favorite too! 

Chicken Khaukswey or Khowsuey

Cook boneless chicken pieces with onion slices, onion paste, garlic paste, ginger paste, turmeric and chilli powder. Add salt, then add water, after it comes to boil, add besan and rice powder 3 tablespoons each, mix with water, now add coconut milk extracted from 2 fresh coconuts  and let all come to boil. Gravy should be silky and smooth, not too thin and not too thick. Add a teaspoon of sugar to taste, add chilli oil to give a nice colour.

Now boil some noodles, chop cabbages thinly, chop spring onions, sliced boiled eggs, chopped coriander, lemon wedges and keep in a tray.

While serving, put noodles into the soup bowl, add chicken gravy, add the condiments as you please and eat piping hot.

Burmese cuisine
Khawkswey is perhaps the most popular Burmese dish in India

Rainbow salad or mixed salad (let thoke)

Ingredients: Raw vegetable, shredded  boiled chicken or boiled prawn or boneless fish, 2 or 3 types of boiled noodles, leftover cooked rice, onion sliced and fried, dry chilli fried, garlic slices fried, lemon juice, shredded cabbage, boiled potato slices 

Mix everything with garlic oil,  roasted sesame seeds, add sugar to taste, drizzle tamarind juice, roasted chilli flakes, mix and toss all together. Serve cold.

Rainbow salad Burmese cuisine
Rainbow salad or mixed salad

Notes:

Chorchori- A typical Bengali curry prepared with vegetables and/or fish or shrimp.

Ghonto– Bengali mixed vegetable curry 

Ngapi– Fermented fish or shrimp paste

Balachaung– A Burmese condiment

Thoke/athoke/athouk- Burmese salad

Images courtesy: Chanda Dutt & Wikimedia Commons

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4 Responses

  1. Beautifully written and very mouth watering description of the cuisine . Remembering these name’s growing up . Thanks and a wonderful write up congratulations!!😊😊🙏🏻🙏🏻🙏🏻

  2. Very well written, with lots of information. It took me back to Taunggyi ( Burma/Myanmar) where I was also born . Chanda it Tatu family were our neighbour and know them very well . It is a well written subject ( Burmese Cuisine) and l love Burmese food . Once you try I guarantee you will get hooked . All the best and for promoting Burmese cuisines!

  3. Dear Chanda
    Your description of Burmese food took me for a walk down Burmese cuisine lane. I was born in Rangoon in 1952. Grew up on Burmese food. We still make owhn-noeh khaukswe, mot-hingar, htamin letthoke, ameytha sibiyan, ngayot-thee gyaw, boothi-gyaw, owhn-noeh chauk-chaw, etc, etc pretty much regularly. Unforgettable and indelible memories of golden days of our life in Burma. Hope you and many like us have memories of Burma to cherish!!!! I am at: salimmuallim@yahoo.com

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