Because Myanmar has diverse geographical features, favourable seasonal conditions and is naturally endowed with fertile soil and water resources, it boasts an abundant supply of food in a great variety all year around.
Myanmar people enjoy rice as their main food and it comprises about 75% of the diet. Rice is served with meat or fish, soup, salad and vegetables all cooked in their own ways, and some relishes to complement the meal.
During meals, all the dishes are laid out on the dining table and served together so that diners can make their own choices and combinations. Although the dishes are prepared in a variety of ways, the most common method is to cook meat or fish in oil, seasoned with pounded onion, garlic, ginger, turmeric, chili and spices, and simmer until all or most of the water evaporates. The essential and most popular condiment is a kind of relish made from preserved fish or prawn, served with chili powder.
Most traditional snacks, which are rich in variety and taste, are generally made with rice or glutinous rice.
Mohinga , or rice noodle served with fish soup, is the favourite Myanmar dish mostly enjoyed at breakfast or on special occasions.
Laphet or pickled tea leaves with a dash of oil and served with sesame seeds, fried garlic and roasted peanuts, is another popular snack typical of Myanmar.
Background History of Myanmar Food
Myanmar people have a long tradition of preparing food in their own way and the history of traditional food may be as old as the culture and arts of its people. Myanmar is an agrarian country with rice as the principal crop. Myanmar used to be the world’s biggest rice exporter.
Myanmar lies between two great and very different cultures which have influenced not only religion, culture and arts, but also the preparation of food. During the colonial period, the influx of Chinese and Indians also had an impact on Myanmar traditional food, introducing new items. With the advent of globalization and trade liberalization, most famous foods from around the world are available in the cities, yet the majority of Myanmar people still cherish their own food, ensuring that its essence and uniqueness remains unchanged.
The most commonly used tables in Myanmar are round and low and the diners have to sit on the floor or perhaps mat during meals. Even when the table is of the international shape and height mostly used among urban families and in restaurants, it should be small enough for the diners to reach all the dishes on the table. All dishes including rice are served simultaneously rather than course by course. There are no appetizers or hors d’oeuvre, and no wine or spirits served at the meal. All you can expect is drinking water, a juice or a cup of green tea.
When everything is served, people can start eating, taking small portions of dishes they like. Normally, Myanmar people eat with their fingers, but dishes are provided with serving spoons to be handles with the clean left hand. Soup is usually served in a single bowl for all the diners and is shared.
Forks and spoons, but not knives, are permitted and have become popular. The elderly and the guests are given priority by letting them take the curry first. Hosts can initiate meals by serving a spoonful of curry on guest’s plates after confirming if they would like the dish.
Diners intending on having another helping of rice, should leave some unfinished rice as a signal more is wanted. Rice and curry are to be eaten together rather than separately and soup can be taken at intervals. At the conclusion of the meal, deserts such as laphet, fruit or jaggery may be served along with water, green tea or juice.
Soups and Salads
Most Myanmar people regard soup as an indispensable component of a meal, possibly because Myanmar people do not normally drink wine, or even a glass of water at meals, to allow the smooth swallowing of solid food. Good spicy soups not only facilitate the dining process but also stimulate the appetite of diners. Sometimes, when soup is not available at the meal and the dishes are too dry, a hot cup of green tea is served instead.
There are many different styles of soup. There are sweet broths that are clear and bland and contain meat or fish and certain vegetables. There are bitter soups that are also clear but peppery and spicy, usually to go with salads as a fast food combination. Some soups are rather sour and made so with the aid of tamarind pulp or tomato. They mostly contain vegetables to lessen the richness of a meal. Finally, there are bean soups of various kinds that are thick and tasty and usually splashed over rice as a dampener.
Salads in Myanmar traditional food are different to western counterparts. Myanmar salads are a combination of raw, boiled or preserved vegetables, cooked meat or fish, slices of onion, tamarind juice, chili powder, fish sauce, fried shredded garlic in cooked oil, and pounded dried prawn, all mixed thoroughly by hand. Because of the variety of ingredients, the taste is wonderful and salads can either make an appetizing dish at meals or can be served singly as fast food complemented by a bowl of hot, spicy soup.
Most Myanmar snacks are made of rice or glutinous rice, milk or grated shreds of coconut, and sugar or jaggery as sweeteners. Myanmar people are very fond of snacks either breakfast items, as fast food or as at tea-times. Although there are a number of traditional snacks, the most popular is Mohinga or rice noodle served with fish gravy.
The other famous item is Ohnnoh Khauk Swe or noodle served with rich coconut soup flavoured with chicken. Kyarsan Chet or vermicelli in spicy chicken soup is another favourite snack.
Also popular are Khauk Swe Thoke or noodle salad, Ah Kyaw or assorted fries, Bein Mont or rice pancake, Mont Sein Paung or steamed rice cake, Mont Lone Gyi or rice dumpling with coconut filling, Kauk Nyin Paung or steamed glutinous rice, and Shwe Yin Aye or coconut cream sherbet.
Main dishes in a typical Myanmar meal can be classified as meat or fish, vegetables or salads, and some kind of soup. In the meat or fish category, dishes such as chicken, duck, pork, mutton, fish and prawns, and eggs cooked in water, oil and other spices.
But beef is usually not served. Vegetables are cut and cooked in various ways, usually with a small amount of oil and dried prawn to enhance the taste. Salads are mostly made of raw, cooked or preserved vegetables, or sometimes meat, fish or prawn, added with a number of ingredients to enrich the flavour. There are four main types of soups: sweet broth, hot and spicy, sour, and bean soup.
Myanmar people do not always have dessert during normal meals at home, but it is customary when entertaining a guest or giving a charity feast. Apart from fruits of various kinds, the most common desert is laphet or pickled tea leaves salad served with roasted sesame seeds and peanuts, fried beans and garlic, and a small amount of dried prawn. Shwe Kyi or rich semolina, is another popular dessert served at feasts and on special occasions.
Kyauk Kyaw or seaweed jelly, mostly with a coconut milk layer on top, is also a common desert. Thagu or Thagu Byin , which may have acquired its name from the Malay origin, is sago or tapioca pudding sweetened with jaggery and enriched with coconut. Finally, the humblest of Myanmar traditional desserts is jaggery, a complimentary dessert provided in Myanmar meal shops and the only dessert popular with rural families especially in Upper Myanmar.
A Traditional Serving
In a traditional serving, there are no appetizers or wines. A typical Myanmar meal includes a plate filled with rice, dishes filled with different curries, soup in a main bowl, and green or boiled vegetables with fish sauce. A bowl of extra rice for second helpings is also provided at the table. Dishes are served simultaneously rather than course by course as in western dinners. A folded napkin is for wiping the lips and fingers after the meal but not for protecting clothing. A fork and spoon may be provided or available on request.
Diners serve curry and rice onto their plates. They can ask for a second helping or they can self serve if there no attendants. After the meal is finished, dessert including fresh fruits and snacks is served.