My First Taste of Myanmar Cuisine!
It’s fair enough to say that Myanmar cuisine deserves as much limelight as other cuisine. After all Myanmar is the largest country in mainland South East Asia. It also share borders with many popular countries like Thailand, Laos, China and India. Myanmar borders the coastline of Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. Despite its earlier façade, Myanmar has begun to open its doors to many tourists now and is even celebrated as the Land of the Golden Pagodas.
I for one, never had Myamnar cuisine before. My closest interpretation of Myanmar cuisine was that it should resemble Laotian cuisine. However, I was thoroughly wrong. As Myanmar is so rich with all its borders and oceans, its cuisine is thoroughly influenced by all its countries nearby. After a recent invitation by award winning cookbook author Mohana Gill, did I know that Myanmar cuisine is a combination of Chinese and Indian cuisine with a little Thai influence. Myanmar cuisine does feature lots of meat and seafood from its rich borders but it also incorporates lot of ingredients such as dried prawns, dried prawn paste, fish sauce, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, herbs, chilies and coconut milk. And yet, its cuisine is very unique in flavors.
I have already known Mohana Gill way before I met her this round. Being an ardent fan of cookbooks, I have read her cookbooks when these were available on bookstores. Her cookbooks reflect her personality, truly unique, detailed oriented and very intriguing with beauty as well. Our invite couldn’t be more warm and gracious as we were invited to Mohana’s home to have a taste of Myanmar cuisine from her repertoire of recipes.
Her humble abode has lots of welcoming touches. From the walls and the tables, photos of her family are reflected proudly through the years. She has touches of handcrafted furnitures to a lush garden filled with beautiful greens. Her pets roamed freely and everyone happily paid some attention to them.
We were also introduced to Thanakha, a tree bark that when ground and mixed with water can help keeps the skin cool and offers protection from the sun. This is used everywhere in Myanmar.
All Mohana’s cookbooks were on displayed, from the award winning Fruitastic to Vegemania and children’s cookbook named after her granddaughter Hayley’s Fruitastic Garden and Hayley’s Vegemania Garden.
Her latest cookbook, Myanmar Cuisine, Culture and Customs recently was awarded Best in the World Asian Cookbook by Gourmand Work Cookbook Award 2014. I took one look and was sold. We got a copy and had Mohana autographed it for us proudly. The book is priceless… filled with more than just recipes. It really gives you an insight of Myanmar, its people, its history and culture and its cuisine.
Mohana even had a Myanmar photographer captured all the gorgeous photos in the book to keep the book as authentic as possible. The fact that she took so much effort and showed so much love in compiling this book is already a distinction itself. Do make sure to check out her cookbooks available at all major bookstores like MPH and Borders or if you need a copy, you may even want to email her to purchase a copy directly. Her contact details are at the end of this post.
We had the honors of sampling her recipes from her Myanmar cookbook that evening. A glance at the menu showed comfort dishes. Accordingly to Mohana, Myanmar cuisine is meant to be shared communally and savored with rice. One will definitely have a soup as Myanmar people do not drink during their dinner but prefer to have a soup instead. Dishes feature minimal ingredients as possible while most of their vegetables are lightly cooked or served raw with various relishes and condiments. These relishes and condiments often stole the limelight as they are made with robust flavors that one can even enjoy them with just rice.
Myanmar family savors their meals on a low and round table. There are usually no chairs so everyone has reed mats for seats. The elders still eat with their fingers while the younger generation may now prefer cutlery over the recent years.
Before I go on and on forever about how much I found out about Myanmar cuisine over one evening, I should probably move on to the delicious meal I had. We had a vibrant and refreshing Roselle Punch to start the evening meal. The recipe is available at her Fruitastic cookbook but I forgot to take a photo of it. It was so good, I had another glass…
We had a snack to start the meal in the form of Fried Gourd Fritter (Boothee Kyaw) and Onion Fritter (Kyethun Kyaw). These snacks are popular street food and are seen available all over Myanmar. Though there are many varieties, we tried these two that night.
The Fried Gourd Fritter is light and sweet while the Onion Fritter had a stronger flavor from the sweet onions. The batter is very thinly coated and rendered a light crispy note. Served with a side of fiery red chili sauce, we couldn’t help but to raved about the chili. Such a contrasting flavor to the fritters, the chili sauce was fiery in heat and bursting with a moreish flavor. I loved it so much, I asked for more as I wanted to savor this with my rice. The chili reminds me of my heritage’s Sambal Belachan where the more you eat, the more you are hook to it.
A little goes a long way and yes, I was also hooked on it…
Thanks to Mohana again we found out that soups are categorized to four styles of sweet soups, sour soups, bitter soups and bean soups in Myanmar cuisine. We had a sweet soup of Clear Drumstick Leaf Soup (Dunt Salun Ywet). I never knew what a Drumstick plant is but the fruit is used in soups or curries while the leaves are cooked in soups. The leaves are also known as Moringa and it is believed that the leaves are packed with so much nutrients.
Using only five ingredients of drumstick leaves, onions, garlic, ginger and water, the soup is really delicately light and only a hint of sweetness. I can see why it is easy to consume as it tasted almost like sweet water with hints of garlic and onions. The lightness balanced out the heavier dishes to come.
We had all the following dishes together with rice. First up, Crunchy Cabbage Salad (Gorbe Douk Thoke) has a colorful attraction and only has eight ingredients. Mohana used finely shredded white and purple cabbage, dried shrimp powder, onion, chili, lime juice, garlic infused oil and crispy fried shallots. Its crunchy and lightly tangy. The sweetness of the onions brightened up the salad while the fried shallots added more robust flavors.
I was indeed curious about Lab Lab Beans. These beans are also known as Hyacinth or Egyptian beans as per Mohana’s cookbook. Here, the Simmered Lab Lab Beans (Pae Gyi Hnut) is cooked in turmeric and cooked till just tender. Fried shallots provided the aroma to the dish. The beans are nutty and a little creamy with a firm texture, something similar to edamame beans.
The Fish Balls in Curry Gravy (Nga Soke Yay Cho) was our only fish main course of the night. I do admit, this curry is good enough to hold the fort with its lovely rich savory flavors. It has a nice balance of spices and is not overly creamy or tangy. It’s not too spicy either. Mohana uses Tenggiri fish paste and cooked it directly in the curry so the fish balls have a softer texture unlike other bouncy fish balls. I like the curry flavors and so I flooded my rice with this curry. I like how the curry is not heavy and how wonderfully light it is yet the flavors are so robust.
Here comes my favorite part of the meal, the relishes and condiments. These little small bowls packed quitea big punch of flavors. I did what Mohana recommended, try them separately and then mix them up as well. To me, these relishes stole the show that night.
My favorite has to be the Crisp Fried Dried Prawns (Balachong). It also just happens to be the most sought after condiment in Myanmar. Mohana lovingly called it her lifesaver as she always has a bottle stashed at home. She jokes about never ever going hungry as long as there is a bottle of Balachong and a bowl of rice. This condiment can be eaten as it is or added to many dishes to enhance the flavors.
Balachong reminds me of my mom’s Dried Sambal Hae Bee and yet somehow there is a difference of taste. It is crispier in this version. The dried prawn flavors are more pungent and shine better with a tinge of sourness. It is very aromatic from the dried prawns and the shrimp paste with lots of fried shallots and garlic. I love how the spiciness makes me want to eat even more.
I finally understood why Mohana lovingly named this her lifesaver… she is right… a bowl of rice with Balachong is enough to save anyone’s life, including mine…
The Grilled Tomato Relish (Kha Yan Chin Thee Pan Htway Hpyaw) is pretty much as delicious as the Balachong. Though it looks pale and light, I assured you the flavors are not. The smokiness of the grilled tomatoes is unctuously beautiful. It resembles salsa but has more of an Asian note. The local flavors in the relish are fish sauce and a little dried prawn powder. Sweet, spicy and fresh summed up the flavors of this yummy relish.
This dark looking dipping sauce has flavors that will knock your senses at first try. Sour Dipping Sauce (Achin Yei) has an intense sourness from the tamarind liquid which is balanced out with palm sugar, ginger and garlic. It is then punched up with lots of chili. Since I love spicy and sour flavor, this dip is perfect for me. A little goes a long way…
Mango Pickle (Thayet Thee Thanak) is another yummy pickle that we like. Apparently it’s a recipe from Mohana’s friend and this condiment also packs quite a punch. It is sour and sweet with hints of spices and garlic. Eating this alone is quite intense but with rice and other dishes, it seems to pull one’s taste bud to keep eating on.
We also had a plate of Raw Vegetables (To Sa Yar) to enjoy with all the dips and relishes.
Our meal was so yummy… I ll admit, I had two helpings of rice. Myanmar cuisine is not only flavorful and fresh, the colors are just so pretty. Don’t you think so? My plate is like a palette of colors…
Dinner was really satisfying. Just when I thought I know what Myanmar cuisine is all about… I got another surprise. Mohana has been mentioning about another Myanmar dish that is truly unique and only available in Myanmar. Though tea is consumed in many parts of the world and some countries are using them in some dishes, here in Myanmar, it is pickled. According to Mohana, Pickled Tea Leaf is a national delicacy that plays a significant role in society and no special occasion or ceremony is considered complete without this dish.
Pickled Tea Leaf Salad (Lephet Thoke) can be categorized as a salad or an after main meal course in the cuisine. Now that got me worked up. I have never heard of Pickled Tea Leaf much less in a salad. It sounds unique. All of us got our interest peaked up when we saw this whole platter of ingredients. Though there are many variations, Mohana uses a traditional recipe consisting of 8 ingredients.
Clockwise: Lemon or Lime, Fresh Garlic, Roasted Yellow Lentils, Dried Prawns, Roasted Lab Lab Beans, Roasted Sesame Seed, Bird Eye Chili and Pickled Tea Leaf (middle)
The Pickled Tea Leaf is often sold in packages like this. Mohana mentioned it’s quite difficult to find this here but it could be available in places where there is a lot of Myanmar community in KL. Usually a platter like this is served and guest helps themselves to which the amount of ingredients they like. Simply mixed them all up and season with salt.
I was a bit hesitant simply because I am not a fan of raw garlic. And the ingredients are really one-of-its kind. I only took a small bite because the aroma is so pungent of raw garlic. It’s really not bad for a first taste. I tasted strong raw garlic, spicy chili, and a sharp vinegary tea flavor. There is also a piquant dried prawn flavor while the beans provided a lovely crunch factor. After that little bite, I had a few more bites… it kind of grows on me… before I knew it, I was enjoying this. What a pretty looking dish too!
We were told that hot tea is usually served with the Pickled Tea Leaf Salad to help cleanse the palate and its strong flavors.
Myanmar people don’t often have desserts. And so, dessert dishes are few and mostly served when there are special occasions or when there are guests. Mohana prepared a Myanmar Pancake (Bien Mont) with Ice Cream and Fresh Watermelon for us. Usually the pancake is served as is but Mohana thought it would taste nicer with ice cream.
The Myanmar Pancake has a batter of flour and is filled with grated coconut, crushed peanuts and sesame seeds. It has a light chewiness in the pancake but is so aromatic from the filling. I was reminded of my favorite local Ban Chang Kueh when I ate this. The ice cream is lovely with the pancake. I should now add a scoop of Ice Cream when I enjoy my Ban Chang Kueh… hehehe.
The meal is such an eye opener. Yes, the long post seems to have me rumbled on but the fact is I have so much to share on my first experience of Myanmar cuisine. The cuisine itself is very humble, a reflection of the nature of Myanmar and its people. Simple ingredients are kept to minimal in each dish and I like how they make them stay fresh and vibrant in flavors. The cuisine is also very colorful and healthy with most dishes using very minimal oil. It was indeed an unforgettable night.
Thank you Mohana for your warm and beautiful hospitality and the lovely dinner as well. Congrats on the recent award for the Myanmar cookbook… it is indeed a gorgeous cookbook!
*For those who are interested in having a taste of Myanmar cuisine, I heard that Mohana will be working with Plate Culture on a Myanmar dining experience. You can also email Mohana to enquire at firstname.lastname@example.org
**More photos available on my Facebook: Chasing Food Dreams