To understand why Burmese food is my favorite cuisine in the world, all you have to do is look at a map.
Burma, which is now known as Myanmar, is nestled cozily between Thailand, China and India. Think of what this means for Burmese food. Though it has a culinary tradition all its own, Burmese food tastes kind of like a combination of the foods of those countries.
The ingredients are largely the same, and the cultures have influenced one another. Laos and Bangladesh, which also share smaller portions of their borders with Myanmar, are an additional part of the mix.
The food that comes out of Burmese kitchens and street stands is, in some respects, the best of all these worlds.
Myanmar is extraordinarily diverse, according to Daniel Murphree, a former pastor at New City Fellowship in St. Louis. The country, which is about the size of Texas, is home to 50 million people representing a mind-boggling 135 different tribes or ethnic groups, each with its own language and traditions, he said.
“You have an intense variety of different language groups that is essentially the result of the difficult terrain to traverse,” said Murphree, who, while in St. Louis, worked with refugees from Myanmar and served as the co-manager of the Burmese food booth at the International Institute’s Festival of Nations.
“The north is mountainous and dry, while the south is the home of the Burmese python. It is dense jungle,” he said.
In southern Myanmar, you will find the use of a lot of fish sauce, chiles, cilantro and Burmese curry, which is dryer than Thai curries. In the northern part of the country, especially the northwest, the food is “extremely bland,” he said, with a lot of steamed vegetables and rice; there, they eat soup for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“The country is extremely poor. As is the case in many poor countries, meat is rare. It is eaten for celebratory occasions and at funerals,” he said, adding that a lot of their protein comes from eggs.
(After serving the Burmese refugee population in St. Louis for several years, Murphree and his wife became full-time missionaries. In February 2018 they moved to Myanmar to work alongside Burmese national leaders, pastors and educators who are caring for orphans, developing leaders, planting churches and cultivating educational reform.)
Making Burmese dishes yourself will almost certainly require a trip to an international or Asian food store, but the results, as I hope you will agree, are well worth it. And they require an investment of another sort, too.
Murphree said, “All Burmese dishes, I have found, are laborious to make. They are time-consuming.”
But you can’t argue with the result.
I was ambitious — did I mention that though I’ve never been there, Burmese food is my favorite cuisine in the world? — so I decided to make five dishes.
The first, of course, had to be mohinga, which is widely considered the national dish of Myanmar. It is a hearty soup with fish and noodles and is generally eaten at breakfast, though I had it for lunch. Then, because there were leftovers, I had it again for dinner.
As is the case with many Burmese dishes, mohinga has two parts. One is the dish itself, a complex miasma of fish and spices, and the other is the garnishes. Put hard-boiled egg wedges in the soup and fresh cilantro, sprinkle it all with lime juice, fish sauce and red pepper flakes, and a multifaceted dish becomes that much more intriguing.
I next made the other universally popular Burmese soup, coconut chicken noodles. This is a soup that is also served over noodles with wedges of egg (though these are not-quite hard boiled), but the similarities end there. This one is most distinguished by its warmth from paprika and hot pepper that has been tempered by coconut milk.
Perhaps the best part of coconut chicken noodles is that you get to garnish it with crispy rice noodles. Rice noodles, also known as rice sticks, are noodles made from rice, and when you drop them in hot oil they almost instantaneously puff up and become crisp. For many Americans, their first introduction to this phenomenon was a scene in the 1981 Alan Alda movie “The Four Seasons.” It is just about the most fun you can have while cooking.
The idea of an egg curry captivated me, so I made a Burmese version. This one is made very hot, just the way I like it, with the inclusion of 1 teaspoon of Indian chile powder or cayenne pepper, though you can certainly use less of it than that. A tablespoon of paprika creates a warm undertone and a bright red color, but the star of this dish, to my mind, is just a bit of sweet-sour tamarind that runs through it like an underground stream.
Served over rice, it is a perfect curry for those semi-hard-boiled eggs. But I also tried it without eggs, and it was great on its own as well.
A much easier dish was Burmese butter and lentil rice, which was also much less complex but no less delicious. It is the Burmese version of rice and beans known to most cultures around the world, but in this case the beans are chana dal or dried split baby chickpeas. These are cooked in clarified butter with spices of the region: cardamom, cloves and saffron or turmeric.
This dish is a great accompaniment to any meat curry, but it also stands alone as a side dish. I couldn’t stop eating it.
Finally, I made a relatively simple vegetable dish. Fried Green Beans are green beans that are stir-fried in a wok or skillet, then flavored with a mixture of chili-garlic sauce, oyster sauce and fish sauce. They are then flavored — or more precisely, scented — with a very light drizzle of sesame oil and then topped with a sprinkling of sesame seeds.
It is easily made and easily understood by the American palate. If you are a newcomer to Burmese food and are looking for something that will not scare you away, these green beans are a great place to start.
Soon, Burmese food may become your favorite cuisine, too.
Burmese Coconut Chicken Noodles (Ohn No Khao Swè)
- 3 medium white onions
- Vegetable oil (not olive)
- 1/2-inch piece of ginger, skinned
- 4 cloves garlic
- 2 green onions
- 4 skinless, boneless chicken thighs
- 3 tablespoons crushed red pepper
- 3 tablespoons paprika, divided
- Pinch of salt
- 2 tablespoons gram flour
- Fish sauce
- 2 cups vegetable stock
- 1 small handful rice noodles (also called rice sticks)
- 10 ounces egg or wheat noodles
- 2 shallots or 1 small red onion
- 2 eggs
- 7 ounces coconut milk
- 1 lime, sliced into 4 wedges
Dice the onions finely. Add 1 tablespoon oil to a large saucepan over medium-low heat and stir in onions. Sweat the onions (cook until soft without allowing them to change color, about 5 minutes).
Put a tablespoon of the cooked onions in a food processor or blender. Add ginger, garlic and green onions and process until it forms a rough paste.
Slice the chicken thighs into thin strips. In a heatproof cup, mix together the crushed red pepper, 1 tablespoon of the paprika and a pinch of salt. Set aside.
Whisk together the gram flour and 1/3 cup cold water; add to the pan of sweated onions. Add 4 dashes of fish sauce. Bring to a simmer and add vegetable stock. Bring back to a simmer.
Pour vegetable oil into a small skillet or wok to a depth of 2 inches. Set over high heat. When the oil is so hot you feel a wave of heat coming off the top, drizzle a few spoonfuls over the crushed red pepper mixture so it sizzles and becomes fragrant. Set aside.
Snap the dried rice noodles straight into the hot oil so they puff up. Use a slotted spoon to remove the noodles to paper towels. Turn off the heat and pour away most of the oil from the wok or skillet, keeping 1 tablespoon in the pan.
Boil the egg noodles or wheat noodles as directed on the package, and drain. Set aside. Thinly slice the shallots or red onion and reserve in cold water.
Place the eggs in a saucepan and cover by an inch or 2 of water. Bring to a boil, lower the temperature to a hard simmer, and cook 4 minutes. Run the eggs under cold water to stop the cooking. Peel and slice into wedges; the yolks should be creamy, somewhere between hard-boiled and soft-boiled.
Reheat the skillet or wok that has the 1 tablespoon oil. Add the minced paste made from the onions, garlic, ginger and green onions. Add the chicken and 1 tablespoon of paprika, and stir-fry until brown.
Add coconut milk and the remaining tablespoon of paprika to the broth. Stir in the stir-fried chicken and bring to a simmer.
To serve, put the egg or wheat noodles in the bottom of each bowl. Ladle the chicken broth over them. Top with the sliced shallots, the eggs and the crispy rice noodle garnish. Add another dash of fish sauce to each bowl and serve with the toasted crushed peppers for sprinkling and a wedge of lime for squeezing.
Makes 4 servings.
Nutrition information per serving: 720 calories; 22g fat; 6g saturated fat; 430mg cholesterol; 47g protein; 83g carbohydrate; 9g sugar; 7g fiber; 690g sodium; 90mg calcium.
Recipe adapted from: meemalee.com
Burmese Egg Curry (Jet-u Jhet)
- 1 small bunch cilantro
- 3 medium onions
- 1 tablespoon peanut oil or other vegetable oil
- 1 (14-1/2-ounce) can chopped tomatoes
- 1 teaspoon tamarind paste, 1-inch cube of tamarind block or 1 teaspoon lemon juice (see note)
- 6 curry leaves, optional
- 1 tablespoon paprika
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 1 teaspoon Indian chile powder or cayenne (see note)
- 1 teaspoon fish sauce, optional
- 8 large eggs
- Cucumber, sliced, for garnish
- Radishes, for garnish
Note: If using a tamarind block, soak the cube overnight in 1/2 cup boiling water until it breaks down into a thick paste; remove the stones and fibrous bits. Indian chile powder, which is always spelled “chilli,” can be found in international stores; do not use Mexican chili powder, which is not the same thing. Both Indian chile powder and the suggested substitution of cayenne are very hot; use less, or even much less, if desired.
Cut off the stems of the cilantro and mince them, reserving the leaves for later. Dice the onions finely.
Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat and add the minced cilantro stems and finely diced onions. Sauté until the onions become tender, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes, tamarind paste, optional curry leaves, paprika, turmeric, chile powder and fish sauce.
Simmer lightly for 2 hours, until the mixture reduces. Use a hand blender or potato masher to get rid of any lumps.
While the curry simmers, place the eggs in a saucepan and cover by an inch or 2 of water. Bring to a boil, lower the temperature to a hard simmer, and cook 4 minutes. Run the eggs under cold water to stop the cooking. Peel and slice in half; the yolks should be creamy, somewhere between hard-boiled and soft-boiled.
Add the egg halves to the simmering sauce and stir until coated. Serve immediately over hot rice. Sprinkle some of the reserved cilantro leaves on top and serve cucumbers and radishes as a garnish.
Makes 4 servings.
Nutrition information per serving: 235 calories; 13g fat; 4g saturated fat; 370mg cholesterol; 14g protein; 14g carbohydrate; 7g sugar; 2.5g fiber; 370g sodium; 95mg calcium.
Recipe from: meemalee.com
Burmese Butter and Lentil Rice (Pe Htaw Bhut Htamin)
- 1-1/2 cups chana dal
- 1 pinch saffron or 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 4 tablespoons ghee (clarified butter)
- 4 cardamom pods
- 2 cloves
- 3 bay leaves
- 2 large onions, sliced thin
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 2-1/2 cups raw rice
- 1 cup frozen peas
Note: This recipe makes a massive amount. It can easily be cut in half.
Wash the chana dal (they are dried young chickpeas) and soak for 8 hours to shorten the cooking time.
Boil the chana dal in 6 cups water until halfway done, about 5 to 10 minutes if you have soaked them, about 20 minutes if you have not.
If using saffron, dissolve in 2 tablespoons of hot water and add to the 4-1/2 cups of water you will use to cook the rice (below).
In a very large pot over medium-high heat, melt ghee. Add cardamom pods, cloves and bay leaves and heat until fragrant, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Add half the sliced onion and cook until it starts to turn brown, about 10 minutes. Add turmeric, if using, chana dal and salt. Stir well.
Add rice, mix well, and add 4-1/2 cups water. Cover and cook over high heat until it boils, shaking pot once or twice before it comes to a boil. Turn heat to low and cook until all water is absorbed and rice is dry and fluffy, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat and let sit, covered, 10 minutes. Add peas (the rice should still be hot enough to heat them) and fluff with a fork before serving.
Makes 12 cups.
Nutrition information per serving: 295 calories; 7g fat; 3.5g saturated fat; 15mg cholesterol; 9g protein; 49g carbohydrate; 5g sugar; 8g fiber; 605g sodium; 45mg calcium.
Recipe adapted by ramblingspoon.com from: “Cook and Entertain the Burmese Way” by Mi Mi Khaing
- 10 ounces catfish, trout or firm white-fleshed fish
- 2 quarts water, divided
- 3 stalks lemongrass, divided
- 3/4 teaspoon turmeric, divided
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1/2-inch piece ginger
- 3 whole dried chiles, soaked in hot water
- 6 tablespoons peanut oil
- 1 teaspoon shrimp paste
- 1/2 teaspoon paprika
- 3 ounces raw rice
- 4 ounces young banana stem, sliced, or 12 small shallots, peeled and sliced thin
- 3 tablespoons fish sauce
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 pound vermicelli rice noodles or wheat noodles, cooked
- 3 limes, halved
- 5 hard boiled eggs, peeled and quartered
- 2 handfuls fresh cilantro, chopped
- Red pepper flakes
For the soup paste: Place the fish in a large pan, add 2 cups of the water (or enough to cover the fish). Cut off the stem and leaf ends of 1 stalk of the lemongrass and remove a couple of the tougher outer layers. Use a heavy knife or side of a skillet to mash the stalk; add it to the pot along with 1/4 teaspoon of the turmeric.
Bring to a boil and simmer 6 to 10 minutes, until the fish is just cooked. Remove the fish from the pan and when cool enough to handle, peel the skin and flake the flesh, discarding any bones. Drain the fish stock through a sieve and reserve for the soup.
Cut off the stem and leaf ends of the remaining 2 stalks of the lemongrass and remove a couple of the tougher outer layers. Take the lemongrass, along with the onion, garlic, ginger and chiles, and process it to a paste in a food processor, pound it to a paste with a mortar and pestle, or chop it all as finely as you can.
Heat the oil in a small pan over medium heat and add the onion paste. Cook 15 to 20 minutes until the paste is soft and caramelized. Add the shrimp paste and mash it with a wooden spoon until it is incorporated, then mix in the paprika and remaining 1/2 teaspoon of turmeric. Cook for 1 minute until fragrant, then add the flaked fish. Cover and cook 10 to 15 minutes, allowing all the flavors from the onion paste to infuse the fish.
(Note: This soup paste can be made in advance and frozen for up to 1 month.)
Put the raw rice in a small skillet over medium heat and cook until golden brown, stirring and tossing frequently to keep from burning. Grind the rice into a powder in a spice grinder, food processor or mortar and pestle.
Place the rice powder, along with the soup paste (defrosted if you have frozen it), 2 cups of the reserved fish stock and 6 cups of water in a large pot. Use 8 cups of water if you don’t have the reserved fish stock. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly to make sure the rice powder does not clump.
Add the banana stem or shallots and simmer 20 to 30 minutes until they are tender. The soup should thicken; if not, increase the simmer to a mild boil. Add the fish sauce and black pepper and taste for seasoning.
To serve, place a handful of noodles in a bowl and ladle over the soup. Let the guests garnish as they like with limes, eggs, chopped cilantro, more fish sauce and crushed red pepper.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Nutrition information per serving: 595 calories; 19g fat; 3g saturated fat; 26mg cholesterol; 21g protein; 88g carbohydrate; 6g sugar; 6g fiber; 770g sodium; 40mg calcium.
Recipe from: hsaba.com
Fried Green Beans (Pey Kyaw)
- 3/4 pound (12 ounces) green beans
- 1/2 teaspoon sesame seeds
- 1/2 tablespoon oil (not olive oil)
- 2 teaspoons chili-garlic sauce
- 2 teaspoons oyster sauce
- 1 teaspoon fish sauce
- 1/4 teaspoon sesame oil
Rinse and trim green beans. Place paper towels on a plate and set aside.
Put a small skillet over medium heat. Add sesame seeds and toast until golden brown, stirring and tossing seeds frequently to keep them from burning. Set aside.
In a small bowl, mix together chili-garlic sauce, oyster sauce and fish sauce. Set aside.
Heat oil in a wok or large skillet over medium-high heat. Add green beans and sauté 5 minutes until done. Remove beans to prepared plate to drain on paper towels.
Return beans to wok or skillet on medium-high heat. Add chili-garlic sauce mixture, and stir or toss to coat well. Add sesame oil for fragrance and immediately remove to serving platter. Sprinkle liberally with toasted sesame seeds.
Makes 4 servings.
Nutrition information per serving: 55 calories; 2.5g fat; 0.5g saturated fat; no cholesterol; 2g protein; 8g carbohydrate; 2g sugar; 3g fiber; 280g sodium; 40mg calcium.
Recipe adapted from: Daniel Murphree, former pastor at New City Fellowship, St. Louis
Daniel Neman is a food writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Email him at email@example.com