Thursday, September 20, 2012

A taste of transition: Burmese eats

Phnom Penh Advisor, Sept 20, 2012

Now that Myanmar is opening up to tourism after decades of seclusion, more and more of Cambodia's expats are heading over to see what all the buzz is about. Once they arrive, one of their first questions is always: what should I eat?

Burmese food has a reputation for being heavy or boring, but it's actually a fascinating cuisine that draws on the influences of some of its neighboring countries: China, India and Thailand. "As with any country of any size, in Burma there are many culinary cultures, not just a single 'Burmese' cuisine," said Naomi Duguid, author of the upcoming book Burma: Rivers of Flavour. "The large populations of non-Bamar people have their own distinctive culinary cultures, people such as the Shan and the Kachin. And then of course there are fascinating regional variations and specialties in the central Burmese dishes, too."

It's true that a traditional Burmese meal can seem overwhelming--it's not uncommon for a lunch to have between ten and twenty dishes, including a large portion of rice and many, many bowls of rich, oily curries, vegetable salads, fresh vegetables, dried fish, a soup and balachaung, a pungent relish made of dried shrimp. "It's always a feast, and the best way to get an idea of the variety and diversity of the Burmese kitchen," Duguid explains. "It's even better of course if you share a rice meal with friends, for then you can order more dishes."

If you're travelling in Myanmar on your own, eating at tea shops and noodle houses and snacking on street food might be your best bet. Burmese tea shops offer a lighter and cheaper alternative to the traditional sit-down meal, serving up a range of tasty snacks, from perfect noodle salads and Indian fritters to custardy desserts. And of course there’s Burmese tea, made with condensed milk and served strong and sweet in tiny teacups.

For breakfast, try ohn no khao swè, a dish of chicken and noodles in a curried coconut broth that's garnished with fresh shallots, a squeeze of lime juice and crisp fried chickpea fritters. Another popular breakfast, mohinga, is often referred to as the country's national dish and it's sold at small roadstand stalls and by street hawkers. The Burmese answer to Cambodia's nom banh chok, mohinga is a fish soup made with rice vermicelli and garnished with pieces of fresh green beans, chopped banana stem and a squeeze of lime juice.

Don't miss the Indian-inspired dishes that can be found all over the streets of Yangon. Samusa thohk, a salad made from deep-fried samosas stuffed with curried potatoes in a gravy made from chickpeas, served with cabbage, spicy green chilies, fresh red tomato and mint. In the country's capital you'll also find many dishes from the Shan ethnic minority centered in Myanmar's Shan State. Tangy Shan noodles, served with a sweet and sour sauce and a side of broth, cost around $1 and make a filling lunch.

To preview Burmese cuisine while still in Phnom Penh, check out Irrawaddy Restaurant in BKK1. Their menu, from the curries to the salads, are tasty and very similar to what you'd find in the country itself. But for the full authentic experience, head straight to Myanmar.

Irrawaddy Restaurant, 24 Street 344, Phnom Penh