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Discovering Burmese Food

Here is a recap from my recent trip to Myanmar, also known as Burma. If you're inspired to learn more about Burmese cuisine and culture, please do take a look at my photos from the trip. I will also be teaching a Burmese cooking evening class 31 May 2016.

I'm just back from a two-week holiday in Myanmar! Eating in Myanmar is an exciting adventure with food and tastes that I hadn’t experienced before. The country is sandwiched between better known culinary neighbours China, India and Thailand. You can find influences from them in Burmese cuisine: samosas and pakoras from India, stir-fried rice and noodles from China, and green mango salads from Thailand. But Myanmar is made up of many different ethnic groups who all have their own distinctive dishes and ways of cooking. During my visit I soaked up as much as I could for an introduction to Burmese cooking.

Markets

Whenever I travel abroad the first stop is always the local markets. In Burma they are called 5 day markets as they move round the villages on a 5 day cycle. Our local guide Mo from Bhagan said, "We are poor but not hungry." Most can afford the daily trip to the market to buy fresh ingredients. 

The markets we went to were full of fresh vegetables and flowers. The flower stalls are for the home shrines. Every day fresh flowers are placed in vases on the home shrine or given as offering at the pagodas.

Food Culture

The majority of Burmese are Buddhist, but there are Muslims, Christians and animists too. Full moon days are the day when Buddhists abstain from meat and fish. There is no dairy, making it easy for vegans. There is very little wheat, as rice is the staple grain. As with Thailand, fish sauce and shrimp paste are commonly used as the salty flavour enhancer, but I found that soya sauce was readily available and made a good alternative to fish sauce.

The staple meal is rice and curry. Additions depend on what you can afford. Vegetables, lentils and beans are most common. Sometimes the dishes are topped with dried fish, fresh fish, or more rarely chicken, pork, lamb and beef. The latter two are very rare and expensive. A typical vegetarian rice meal would consist of dishes such as fried tofu matchsticks with red chilli, snow peas in chilli sauce, sliced white daikon radish, bitter aubergine curry, Chinese long beans in chilli sauce, ladies fingers and tomato curry all served on small flowery Chinese plates.

  • Breakfast: Often the rice noodle soup 'Mohinga', fish noodle soup flavoured with fresh ginger, lemon grass, turmeric, garlic and chillies and then topped with fried garlic, coriander and a squeeze of lime.
  • Lunch: The main meal of the day is known as the rice meal and is often eaten before midday, as it’s the Buddhist tradition for monks not to eat after midday.
  • Snacks: Snacks are served all day with green tea, from deep fried samosas, pakoras to Burmese doughnuts or deep fried crisp ‘tofu’. They call it Shan tofu, but it’s actually made with gram flour similar to socca and then deep-fried with a crisp outside and soft melting inside.

  • Sides: Served with every meal are the crudités of raw cabbage, green beans, cauliflower, carrots, baby aubergines all to dip in fish sauce. We avoided this! Every meal also has fermented preserved vegetables, rather like kimchi. We tried banana flowers, coriander and oyster mushrooms.
  • Teahouses: Large vats of food are freshly made and you go and point at the curries, vegetable dishes and salads you fancy. These get delivered to your table with a bowl of vegetable soup, piles of white rice, crudités and condiments.
  • Alcohol: In the evening as it cooled down from 39C, a cold very large bottle of Myanmar beer was most welcome!

Pickled Tea

Tea is not just drunk as green tea, which is provided free wherever you go. You can even knock on a stranger's door and you will be given a small cup or glass of hot green tea! But tea is eaten too. Pickled tea leaves are a national delicacy served as part of a salad. This is often served as a snack in the afternoon to ward off tiredness with a caffeine hit!

Pickled tea leaves are the centre piece in the Pickled Tea Leaf Salad 'Lephet Thoke', served in a lacquer display tray served with roasted peanuts, sesame seeds, roasted garlic, fresh grated ginger, roasted lab lab beans from the water hyacinth, and small green chilies. Everyone is given a small plate and takes what they want and mixes it up together.

I would love to share these experiences with you, so again - please feel free to browse through more trip photos and sign up for my Burmese cooking class in May 2016! Hope to see you there. 

Comments

Monica at Demuths on 7th Mar 2016 said:

Loved reading this and I’m so intrigued by the pickled tea leaves! Looking forward to the cooking class in May!

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Mark on 19th Apr 2016 said:

Simply want to say your article is as astonishing. The clarity on your post is just great and that i could suppose you’re an expert in this subject. Thanks 1,000,000 and please continue the enjoyable work.

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Nate on 23rd Jun 2017 said:

Interesting post. I was so curious where what pickled tea was after staying at the hostel by that name in Yangon a few months ago while backpacking Myanmar. I really love the food in Myanmar - especially the random corn and sweets I ate while on the Yangon Circle Line!

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SommaiPhuket on 9th Jul 2017 said:

The food in Burma looks quite similar to Thai food I think. Would like to go there some day.

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