At first glance it seems to be clear what Burmese cuisine is, it is that what Burmese people are cooking. But taking a closer look reveals that things are not quite as clear as they seem to be because there is both inside and outside Burma a far spread ignorance as to the proper meaning of words.
Burma is in many aspects a land of great diversity. There are many different ethnic groups such as the Mon, Shan, Kachin, Chin, Karen, Rakhine, Bamar, etc. The total number of officially recognised ethnic groups is 135 but there are much more because many are not recognised. And as diverse as the country’s ethnicity is its cuisine. In other words, ‘Burmese (Myanmar)’ cuisine is just a catch-all term. What is called ‘Burmese’ cuisine is actually the sum total of the many different local cuisines and the cuisines of the bordering countries Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand for cuisines do not know clear cut by humans more or less arbitrary drawn borders.
Depending on what kinds of agricultural produce are available, as well as what local and regional flora and fauna have to offer many dishes is not only different but depending on the respective region also different in taste although they have the same name. Is it a coastal region, is the natural environment mountainous or flat, are there rivers, is it dry and arid or marshy and wet, is it hot, is it temperate, is it cold, is the ground sandy or rocky, what is the quality of the soil, how much water for irrigation is available? These and other things are determining factors for what the respective local cuisine has to offer and how it tastes.
As said previously, there are dishes that go by the same name and are available and liked across the country. But again, they taste different depending on whether you eat them in Yangon, Mon State, Mandalay, Shan State or Rakhine State. A good example for this is the ‘unofficial Burmese national breakfast dish’ Mohinga. Mohinga, a hearty fish soup comprising mainly fish broth made of (preferably) catfish, fish and shrimp paste, banana palm stem or blossom, onion, ginger, garlic, lemongrass and chilly, thickened with chickpea flower and served with rice noodles, hard boiled eggs and lemon or lime wedges, is originated from Mon state and loved in the greater part of Burma but not very popular in the tribal areas along the border between Burma and Thailand. Other examples are coconut noodles (O Nu Kaukswe), pickled tea leaf salad (Lahpet) and vermicelli in fish or chicken broth (Mont Di).
To be sure, the Burmese cuisine is a very tasty one and comprises many delicious dishes, which I love to cook as learned from my wife and, of course, to eat and share with family and friends. But where do these recipes have their origins? Over and over again locals are talking and writing proudly about a ‘traditional Burmese cuisine’ and a ‘pure Burmese and not hybrid cuisine’. Pure Burmese? Traditional Burmese? Not hybrid? What does traditional or original or pure Burmese cuisine actually mean? Does it mean originated in the country that was named Burma by the British or does it mean originated from the Bamar (Burmans) who make up the majority of Burma’s population and are not getting tired of speaking of ‘their cuisine’? And how original or pure ‘Burmese’ is the Burmese cuisine anyway? I am living since 25 years in Burma and know a lot about Burmese cuisine but have nevertheless done some research focused on these questions in order to get it right. Although I had initially thought it would be a cake walk to find the answers to these questions it turned with respect to the cuisine of the Bamar out to be quite a difficult task.
It was with some surprise that I soon encountered real problems because concerning the cuisine of the Bamar (this is obviously what the Bamar mean with ‘Pure Burmese’ cuisine) I found that I was trying to find something nothing is actually known about. In other words, no historical records about what the Bamar have eaten exist for which reason it cannot be said what and to what extent the Bamar have actually contributed to what is nowadays called ‘Burmese’ cuisine.
The Bamar (comprising 9 different ethnic groups) were the last ethnic group to arrive in areas that were long before their appearance already inhabited by Pyu (Arakanese), Mon, Kachin, Kayah, Shan, Chin and (with the exception of the Mon) their many subgroups. What these ethnic groups have contributed to what is called ‘Burmese’ cuisine is evident for their traditional cuisines exist and it can be assumed that they have remained basically the same to this day. But what and where is the Bamar cuisine? In other words, while it is proven beyond any reasonable doubt that the Pyu, Mon, Shan, etc. have made major contributions to the ‘Burmese’ cuisine it is completely unclear what the Bamars’/Burmans’ (note, not Burmese) contribution is. To me it seems the Bamar have adopted the cuisines that already existed and made it their own by simply ‘burmanising’ the original names and calling the whole thing ‘Burmese’ cuisine. Surely, the Bamar must have eaten something and, subsequently, there must have been some traditional Bamar (note, not Burmese!) recipes/dishes they have brought with them from where they came from. However, since there isn’t any document such as recipes written for personal use or published in form of a cook book that gives any information on what original or traditional Bamar cuisine is the answer to this question is left to speculation. Please note that what I am writing about the Bamar cuisine is the conclusion I have personally come to after extensive and thorough research. Other peoples’ research may lead to different results depending on what sources are available. I have read and heard about a royal palace book with the title ‘Sâ-do-Hce’-Cân’ that was – so it is said – written on palm leaves in 1866 during king Mindon Min’s reign (1853 to 1878) and allegedly contains recipes. I have seriously tried to get a copy of this transcribed and in 1965 by the Hanthawaddy Press published book but did not succeed in finding one. It is said that this book contains 89 recipes but nothing is said about the kind and origins of these recipes. I do however doubt that all (if any) of these recipes are recipes of pure Bamar origin.
The answers to all the questions I will answer in this preface lie in the following. Not only but also with respect to the ‘Burmese’ cuisine it is a fatal (but, alas, quite often made) mistake to assume that Burmese and Bamar (Burman) is the same for it is definitely not. Burma is the country and the Bamar are one of the ethnic groups inhabiting Burma. Since the Bamar – also called Burman – constitute the largest ethnic group of this country the British named it after them Burma; and Burma’s citizens are Burmese. But not every Burmese is a Bamar. Only members of the Bamar, which is one of Burma’s ethnic groups, are Bamar. Subsequently, we have to differentiate between the country Burma, its citizens the Burmese and members of one of the ethnic groups of Burma, the Bamar. This means that there is a Burmese cuisine (the country’s cuisine) and a Bamar cuisine (the ethnic group’s cuisine) but these two cuisines are not the same. The problem with the original or traditional Bamar cuisine is that no one knows what dishes it comprises. The root problem with this is that no one knows where exactly the Bamar are coming from. If that would be known beyond any reasonable doubt we would also know what their cuisine is.
The next question I had to find an answer to was to what extent the ‘Burmese’ cuisine is influenced by the cuisines of neighbouring countries. This was particularly important to me because many Burmese and particularly Bamar are not getting tired of earnestly claiming that ‘their cuisine?’ remains traditional and unique. However, the result of my research says otherwise. It is clear beyond doubt that the ‘Burmese’ cuisine is to a large extent influenced by mainly the Indian and Chinese cuisine; and this not only in the border regions but across the entire country and not only marginally but substantially. For instance, the by Burmese as delicacy regarded ‘Danbauk Htamin’ (rice with chicken or mutton) is actually an Indian dish with the original name Biryani. As a matter of fact some Indian dishes and foods such as the in Burma very popular breakfast dish Htamin kyaw (fried rice) or Chin Tha Ye Thee (mango pickle) or Halawa (sticky rice with butter and coconut milk) are assimilated into ‘Burmese’ cuisine to such an extent that many Burmese do not even know that these are of Indian origin and instead believe they are original Burmese, which of course is wrong. It is, however, not only complete dishes that the Indian cuisine has introduced in to the Burmese cuisine. It has also given the traditional Burmese cooking style an Indian touch by having Burmese women and cooks use Indian condiments such as Masala (curry powder) what is traditionally not used in Burma. And here the story does not end, the introduction of milk, butter and dairy products such a cheese, yoghurt and sour milk as well as the drinking of black tea with milk and sugar (surprised?) are additional ways in which Indians have influenced the Burmese cuisine.
The Chinese have ensured their presence in the Burmese cuisine in two ways. One way was to introduce Chinese-style cooking into Burmese households and restaurants by using previously not known, lesser used or differently combined vegetables such as celery and Chinese cabbage, fungus such as Chinese mushrooms, sauces such as oyster sauce and other things such as bean curd (tofu). The other way in which the Chinese have carved out their place in the Burmese cuisine is Chinese dishes such as Peking-baigin (Peking duck), Kawpyan-kyaw (Spring Rolls) and Pausi (Chinese dumpling). Chinese cooking style, Chinese vegetables, etc. and dishes have become integral part of the Burmese cuisine.
I believe that from my writing it has become clear that ‘Burmese’ cuisine does not mean ‘Bamar’ cuisine and that about the latter nothing conclusive is known. And even if the Bamar have contributed (which I believe they have) with a few recipes to what is called ‘Burmese’ cuisine they have no part in all the other ethnic foods and dishes that already existed for a very long time (actually for many centuries) when they came into what is nowadays Burma (Myanmar).
In a traditional Burmese dish boiled (not steamed!) rice (htamin) always takes centre place. The rice is accompanied by a large array of curries (hin) made of fish (nga) or shrimps (pazun seik) or prawn (pazun a-htoke) or pork (wet-tha) or beef (ame-tha) or chicken (kyet), clear broth (hincho)and/or clear soups (hinga), vegetables such as cauliflower (kaw-phi-ban), cabbage (kaw-phi-htoke) or egg plant (kha-yan-thee), salads (athoke) made of e.g. tomato (kha-yan-chin-thee) or cucumber (tha-kwa-thee) with onion (kyet-tun-ni), seasonal fruits such as apple (pan-thee), banana (nga-pyaw-thee), mango (tha-yet-thee), and /or pineapple (nar-nat-thee), etc. and/or desserts such as semolina cake (sa-nwin-ma-kin). Contrary to non-Asian countries where meals are traditionally served in courses (appetizers, soup, main course and desert) in Burma all is served at once so that the diners can chose by themselves what to eat first and what last.
Life in Burmese households is traditionally taking place on the floor. Chairs and beds are known and exist in households but are mostly used by old people only what goes especially for Burma’s vast rural population.
Since eating is integral part of life it does, subsequently, also take place on the floor with the food being placed on a very low usually round table while the diners are sitting on the floor. Burmese do usually eat with their fingers. Only soup is eaten with short Chinese spoons and in case of noodle soup the noodles are eaten with chopsticks. Bowls with water and lemon pieces to wash hands and fingers as well as small towels are provided on the table.
I hope you found my article on the Burmese cuisine and related matters interesting and instructive.