Burmese food has been one of our favorites ever since we were exposed to it while living in San Francisco, land of relatively plentiful Burmese restaurants, including Bay Area darling Burma Superstar. To me, the flavors of Burmese food are a perfect marriage of the smoky flavors of Indian food, the breadth and style of Chinese food, and the freshness and zing you find in Southeast Asian cuisine, like Vietnamese and Thai. Yet it still remains very distinct, with classic Burmese soups like Mohinga and Oh Noh Kauswer a perfect example. As far as I know, however, there’s only one Burmese restaurant in all of Manhattan, and even foodie friends don’t seem to know about this wonderful cuisine.
So we’re out to understand Burmese food better, share it with you all, and perhaps learn how to make a dish or two ourselves. For that, we’ve solicited the help of Tin Cho Chaw to help us introduce us to Burmese food. Cho is the UK-based culinary force behind “hsa*ba”, a Burmese cookbook roughly translated as “please eat” and the companion website, hsa*ba.com.
In fact, we're so excited about learning about Burmese food, we're giving away a copy of Cho's Burmese cookbook, hsa*ba, to ONE of our AsianSupper email subscribers. Simply sign up here to get AsianSupper newsletters before 11:59pm on 9/15/2011 and you'll be entered to win! Already subscribe to the newsletter? You're already entered -- no need to subscribe again. (Complete giveaway rules here)
AsianSupper (AS): Why do you think Burmese food is not as well known or popular as the cuisines from similarly situated countries?
Tin Cho Chaw (Cho): Burma is still a closed country and it is rarely on the tourist radar though I think this is beginning to change. Another factor is there are very few Burmese restaurants in the West so there is little awareness of Burmese food but I hope that will also change too.
AS: We love to discover food by traveling. If one was traveling to Burma, what are some dishes that one should make a point to eat or to try?
Cho: Give the hotel breakfast a miss and head out to where the locals are eating. Definitely try mohingar, fish noodle soup with chunks of banana stem and crispy condiments or if you’re in Mandalay look for myi-shay, noodles with fried pork, spring onions, crispy tofu, pickled mustard greens in a garlicky, salty fermented bean curd sauce. If you prefer something sweet for breakfast, try pe pyote which is a sweet bean paste eaten with fried layered flatbreads similar to paratha.
We don’t have desserts as such so here are some snacks to satisfy a sweet-tooth: sanewi makin, a rich dense cake made with semolina and coconut milk; shew yin aye, chunks of coconut agar jelly, pandan flavoured cendol and sago pearls in cold coconut milk sometimes with a slice of sweet bread on top; and faluda which is an Indian-influenced sundae with egg pudding, sago pearls, cendol and agar jelly in rose-flavoured milk and topped with ice cream. Another must-try is laphet, pickled tea leaves, which has a unique and gentle bitter taste. It’s eaten with an assortment of crispy titbits; fried garlic, sesame seeds, roasted peanuts, dried shrimps, fried butter beans and chana dal.
AS: Are there regional differences within Burmese cuisine?
Cho: Each region has their own speciality and influences. During my last visit I was particularly keen to go up north to the Shan State and learn more about their cooking. It was interesting to find such a contrast to the food I grew up with. The noodle soups were clear, light and delicate yet the accompaniments were bold, spicy and sour. The use of pickled mustard greens, fermented soybean cakes and buffalo crisps all made me realise there is so much more to Burmese food I have yet to discover.
AS: You moved to the UK from Rangoon when you were eight. How did you learn how to make Burmese food and from whom? Was it a gradual process as you were growing up, or did you make a concerted effort to learn?
Cho: The life and soul of our house was always in the kitchen and most of my childhood was spent there. I’ve always been passionate about food, though it was only when I left home to go to University did I really start cooking. I constantly called my mother to ask her how to make a certain dish and then wonder why it never tasted quite the same. She never measured ingredients or timed her cooking so it was impossible to get a precise recipe over the phone. When I was back home during the holidays I watched her closely and took notes.
AS: What dish encapsulates Burmese food the most for you -- whether because of memories, flavors, or any other reason -- and why?
Cho: It has to be let thote, hand-mixed salad. It’s a versatile one-dish meal that’s a favourite at home so I have many fond memories of eating this. What I love about let thote is that it can be quite basic with essential ingredients of rice, noodles, shredded cabbage and potatoes; or extravagant and include: green papaya, cellophane noodles, Shan tofu and cooked meat or seafood. It’s served with all the ingredients and the dressing laid out on the table and each person makes their salad to their own personal taste. It’s always best made and eaten with your hands.
AS: How do we know a dish is Burmese? What are the key flavors that mark a Burmese dish, or that you often taste in classic Burmese cooking?
Cho: For me the classic Burmese flavours are based on the food that I ate during my childhood in Rangoon and I still get a hankering for something that is ‘chin chin, ngan ngan, sut sut’ which translates as sour, salty and spicy.
AS: On dishes: what kind of dishes are there, and how are meals typically structured?
Cho: Meals at home typically consist of several small dishes eaten with plenty of plain boiled rice. There is always a main curry of meat or fish, salad dressed with a fragrant garlic or onion oil with a good balance of salty and sour, stir-fried or simply cooked vegetables, clear soup to cleanse or refresh the palate, raw or steamed vegetables as dippers for a spicy shrimp paste relish.
AS: Are there techniques and preparations that are used time and time again in Burmese cooking?
Cho: Curries tend to start with pounding onions, garlic and chillies in a pestle and mortar. It takes a little more time but I think it does make a difference to the end result. Most curry recipes use a good amount of peanut oil and it’s important not to skimp on this as enough oil is needed to ensure the onion mixture does not burn. The mixture then needs to cook slowly until caramelised. Another thing to note is to reduce any liquid until the oil has separated from the gravy. It’s referred to as sipyan which translate as oil returns.
AS: Now, to get started. What are essential items in a Burmese pantry -- ingredients, equipment, and so on?
Cho: You don’t need any specific equipment to make any of my Burmese recipes but it’s worth having a large solid stone pestle and mortar for pounding ingredients. I always have in my cupboards: peanut oil, basmati rice, fish sauce, shrimp paste, tamarind, gram flour, ground rice powder, dried chillies and dried shrimp. As for spices: ground turmeric, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, bay leaves are the essentials, and I always have a good supply of onions, garlic, ginger, fresh coriander and lemons or limes in the fridge.
AS: Are those ingredients easy to get in the UK? What advice would you give someone who perhaps can’t easily find these ingredients?
Cho: Now-a-days it’s reasonably easy to find these ingredients in a supermarket. If you live in a rural area then perhaps go online and look for Chinese or Asian supermarkets that deliver to your door. For specific Burmese ingredients like laphet, pickled tea leaves, you will need to find a Burmese food supplier like Mum’s House based in London.
AS: If a beginner like me wanted to get started cooking Burmese food, which dish would you suggest attempting first, and why?
Cho: Start with a simple chicken curry which requires little in the way of ingredients so it is less daunting for a beginner. Then move onto salads which are easy to rustle up once you have the dressing ingredients pre-prepared. One-dish meals like mohingar takes a little more preparation and time but it’s still uncomplicated cooking.
AS: Is there a golden rule for successful Burmese cooking? If so, what is it?
Cho: For me it’s about sourcing quality ingredients. For instance the basic chicken curry is incredibly simple. The recipe consists of just onions, garlic, dried chillies, chicken, turmeric and fish sauce so the taste relies wholly on a good quality chicken. Equally the chillies need to be right too, it’s not about the heat but the deep smokey flavour they impart to the dish.
Ready to get started? Try one of Cho's recipes below.