Since there is now a new restaurant (again) in Boston, I thought I might write a short essay on the subject - to provide an introduction to a completely different Asian cuisine in an easy to understand manner.
I have read a few critiques of the various Burmese restaurants around the country, and noticed that, invariably, Burmese food is compared to Thai or Chinese or Indian or some other nation's cuisine. And I hope that this essay will help place Burmese food into its own context - and its enjoyment assured! My almost hidden intention is to allow the harshest critics of this food a basic understanding of the subject - since here in the USA, we tend to change other peoples cuisines (if not their cultures) to meet our expectations rather than to critique it in its original context. As a Burmese-American foodie, then, here is my contribution to enjoyment of Burmese food.
The main thing to keep in mind though is that each dish may have a "classic" Burmese (or Shan, or Kachin, or Kayah, or Mon, or other indigenous) rendition and a plethora of individualized interpretations – just as pizza, tomato pie, cheese pie, etc., have their renditions throughout the USA. To further this point, the classic Burmese "Indian" dish of "sour cooked pork" ("wet-thar achin chet") uses pork and very sour mangoes. The home cook then adjusts to the meat at hand (pork or beef or chicken) and the sour ingredients at hand (ranging from the traditional sour mango to canned indian lime or mango pickles). The Burmese restaurant in Washington DC uses beef.
Burmese food is not some variation of Chinese and Indian. Burmese cuisine is based on a large number and variety of dishes which obtain their various flavors from the thousand cultures that is Burma (the original name of the country was "pyi htaung zu bama naingan daw" - or "one thousand countries united into a royal Burma"). As in appreciating good wine, the aroma and flavor of Burmese cooking is nuanced and may be appreciated by an understanding of its components. In general, there may be one or more aromas (and I will here use the wine analogy) of “forest earth”, “sea”, “sour olives”, “musk”, etc. The tastes may consist of bitter, sour, spicy, salty, sweet, unctuous, bland, peppery, and so on.
Although come critics would insist that there is little in the way of complexity, I would suggest that complexity will be found in ample abundance in each dish – one has only to be aware of it and appreciate it for what it is. The complexity in Burmese food is found more by focusing on each mouthful rather than expecting it to immediately overwhelm the tastebuds. This is in keeping with the culture which encourages contemplation and meditation. To demonstrate this point at its best, I would say that the taste of tea leaf salad (lephet thoke) reveals its complexity only when each mouthful is carefully chewed for a longer time than normal. No fast food gulping here! In fact, Burmese food would probably fit well into a culture of slow cooking AND “slow eating”. (As an aside try this Burmese technique the next time you have some fabulous chocolate: let the chocolate take its time to melt in your mouth rather than rushing through it by chewing. You will have experienced an aspect of “slow eating”). Some foods are best masticated well, while others are best left to reveal their flavors in their own time.
As an example of the wide variety of dishes (but sadly usually unavailable outside of Burmese home cooking), "royal" pork with shimmering black bean paste ("wet thar pone yay gyi") or "night market" noodles with duck meat and duck fat ("kyar zahn jet"), or "southern" pork with sour bamboo shoots ("wet thar hmyit chin"), or "national" chicken soup noodles ("jet thaar khauk swear") and the ever present fish noodle soup ("moe hinghar"). In short, flavors of Burmese cuisine are subdued and nuanced with the flavors that are salty, sour, bitter, spicy, or even sweet.
This cuisine, like the people, is very individualized. Most dishes are made so that they exhibit a "basic flavor" which can be customized for individual preferences. When served in the traditional style, there may be anywhere from two to a dozen or even more condiments on the table - combinations which allow each person to adjust the final flavor to their own taste! The normal accompaniments would be "ngapi" (a shrimp paste based sauce - not something for the western palate, although several respectable food magazines are trying to introduce it in the western world), "balachaung" (a crispy combination of shrimp, garlic, onions, etc) and several cut fresh raw vegetables including lettuce, cabbage, cucumbers, tomatoes, mini-eggplants, etc. Various pickled vegetables may be present. Every Burmese restaurant should have these condiments at the table for a nominal price (or even free of charge)!
When eating at home or in a restaurant, the traditional way is to eat en-familie or “family style” – each dish is passed around following the bowl of rice – and each person serves themselves to whatever dishes they want. Then follows a round of everyone helping themselves to the appropriate accompaniments/condiments. The rice is invariably mixed with one or more of the items on the plate and eaten with the fingers. Each mouthful can then be adjusted to be different – or the same – depending on the mood and wishes of the individual. In a restaurant, a dessert spoon sized spoon and fork may be provided – the food is eaten with the spoon with the fork used to push the food onto the spoon.
Burmese tea or other drinks such as lemonade or beer are often served with a meal. Dessert in the form of sweets, salads (the tea leaf salad or ginger salad is considered dessert), or beetle leaf ends the meal.
For more celebratory occasions, desserts such as mo(u)nt lone yay baw (“round cakes floating on water”); mo(u)nt see jaw (oil fried chewy pancake); khauk mo(u)nt (folded cake), or others would be served to close (or rather prolong) the meal and allow enjoyment of friends and company.
I hope that this short essay will help you select the restaurant AND the meal the next time you see a Burmese restaurant. Please let me know if you want to get more information on any dish.
Kyammar bar zay (May you be healthy)
ps – The recently opened “Yoma” restaurant in Boston (Allston) has a wonderful array of classically cooked dishes which are authentic representations of their respective indigenous origins (often Shan – one of the States of Burma). Not many other chefs would take the risk of introducing these dishes in their authentic, unaltered form, and I encourage you to patronize this remarkable effort. As with every new endeavor, this little gem has its birthing pains (apparently in some slow service at peak times). But the quality of the food is wonderful and I would encourage you to nurture it to its full potential. Boston will then have another ethnic restaurant that it can be most proud of!
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