Of all the Asian cuisines that have spread over the globe, Burmese food hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. There’s a more than understandable explanation for this, given that the country was isolated for almost 50 years due to a repressive military dictatorship. According to filmmaker Robert Liebermanhe who filmed a documentary in Myanmar in 2012, the country endured gross human rights violations that the world is still discovering. With Obama’s visit to Yangon in 2012 and tourism opening up across the country, the world is watching Myanmar. One thing they’ll surely be watching with increasing attention is the food, especially those classic Myanmar dishes that can be made at home.
Burmese food, like most national cuisines, is the sum of many regional parts. Myanmar is a country made up of many ethnicities, and each one has its own special dishes and styles of cooking. A few unifying factors that span this diverse country are the overwhelmingly sour and savory flavors that dominate the food, as well as the tendency for dishes to be served with a ton of accompaniments — be they soups, boiled vegetables, herbs or dipping sauces and pastes. The emphasis is on strong, pungent flavors, not sweet or spicy flavors like you might find in neighboring countries like Thailand or India. As is the case in many Asian countries, rice is the cornerstone of many people’s diets in Myanmar. Rice comes white and fluffy on its own or with curries, it’s made into noodles or formed into glutinous rice cakes that are eaten as a snack or dessert on the street. Another common thread in Burmese cuisine is the ubiquitous use of salads, which are made with anything under the sun. Whether it’s noodles, rice or vegetables, anything can be turned into a Burmese salad, which are crunchy, spicy and sour. Finally, the pervasive influence of international cuisines, namely Chinese and Indian, can be found all over Myanmar.
As you are not able to freely travel around the world this year, why not bring the world to you. Without further ado, here are some iconic yet classic Myanmar dishes for you to try and make at home:
1. Classic Mohinga
- 3 tablespoons peanut or canola oil, divided
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 12 small shallots, thinly sliced lengthwise (about 2 1/2 cups)
- 6 garlic cloves, peeled and divided
- 4 lemongrass stalks, trimmed and divided
- 4 3/4 cups water, divided
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground turmeric, divided
- 1 1/2 teaspoons anchovy paste
- 4 (1/2-inch) slices peeled fresh ginger, divided
- 2 pounds farm-raised catfish fillets
- 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
- 10 small shallots, halved and divided
- 1/4 cup garbanzo bean flour
- 1 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 1 teaspoon Hungarian sweet paprika
- 5 ounces uncooked rice noodles
- 6 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
- 4 green onion tops, chopped
- 1 lime, cut into 6 wedges
Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons oil; swirl to coat. Sprinkle sugar over oil; cook 1 minute or until sugar melts. Add thinly sliced shallots, stirring to coat. Cook 15 minutes or until golden brown, stirring frequently. Set caramelized shallots aside.
Crush 3 garlic cloves. Cut 2 lemongrass stalks in half lengthwise. Combine crushed garlic, halved lemongrass stalks, 4 cups water, 1 teaspoon turmeric, anchovy paste, and 2 ginger slices in a large Dutch oven. Add fish; bring to boil over high heat. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 10 minutes or until fish flakes when tested with a fork. Remove fish from the pan. Strain broth through a sieve into a large bowl, reserving 4 cups stock, discarding solids.
Coarsely chop white portion of the remaining 2 lemongrass stalks; reserve the green portion for another use. Place chopped lemongrass, remaining 3 garlic cloves, remaining 2 ginger slices, crushed red pepper, and 7 shallots in a food processor; process until a coarse paste forms.
Place garbanzo bean flour in skillet; cook over medium heat 2 minutes or until fragrant and slightly darker in color, stirring constantly with a whisk. Pour flour into a small bowl; set aside.
Add 1 tablespoon oil to Dutch oven; swirl to coat. Add shallot paste, and cook 2 minutes or until fragrant, stirring occasionally. Return fish to pan; cook 3 minutes, stirring gently to coat with paste. Remove fish mixture from pan; set aside.
Add remaining 1/2 teaspoon turmeric, reserved fish stock, fish sauce, and paprika to pan; bring to a boil. Gradually add remaining 3/4 cup water to garbanzo bean flour, stirring with a whisk until smooth. Gradually add flour mixture to boiling stock mixture, stirring constantly with a whisk. Return to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer for 12 minutes or until slightly thick, stirring occasionally. Add remaining 3 halved shallots; simmer for 10 minutes or until shallots are tender. Add fish mixture; simmer just until hot.
Cook noodles in boiling water for 2 minutes or until tender; drain. Spoon 1/2 cup noodles into each of 6 bowls. Ladle 1 1/3 cups soup into each bowl, ensuring each serving gets a shallot half. Top each serving with 2 tablespoons caramelized shallots, 1 tablespoon cilantro, and about 1 tablespoon green onions. Serve with lime wedges.
2. Burmese Breakfast stew
- ½ cup uncooked jasmine rice
- 3 quarts water
- 1½ teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
- 1½ teaspoons freshly ground white pepper
- 5 dry bay leaves
- 3 stalks lemongrass—peeled, bruised with the back of a knife and cut into 3-inch pieces
- 4-inch piece ginger, thickly sliced crosswise
- Kosher salt, to taste
- 6 (2½ pounds) catfish fillets, skinned and pin bones removed
- ⅓ cup vegetable oil
- 1 stalk lemongrass, finely minced
- 3 tablespoons ginger, minced
- 1 tablespoon paprika
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 2 red onions, peeled and diced into ½-inch pieces
- ¼ cup fish sauce
- 10 ounces fine round rice noodles
- ½ cup chopped cilantro, divided
- ½ cup chopped cilantro, divided
- 2 limes, cut into quarters
- ½ medium (6 ounces) red onion, thinly sliced
Preheat the oven to 350º. Lay out the uncooked rice evenly on a sheet pan and toast in the oven until the rice is golden brown, 30 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes. Allow the toasted rice to cool to room temperature then grind to a powder in a spice grinder. Set aside.
Meanwhile, make the broth: In a 4-quart stockpot, add the water, black and white peppercorns, bay leaves, lemongrass and ginger, and season lightly with salt. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes.
Carefully lower the fish fillets into the pot. The fish may not be covered completely with water, but that’s OK. Bring the mixture to a simmer and cook the fish gently for 15 minutes. Using tongs and a slotted spoon, carefully lift the fish out of the broth and reserve for later.
Strain the broth, rinse the pot and pour the broth back into the pot. Heat over medium heat and bring to a simmer. In a small bowl, whisk together the powdered rice and a ladleful of broth until no lumps remain. Stir the mixture into the broth and bring to a simmer until it barely thickens.
Meanwhile, make the soup: In a wok or large skillet, heat the oil over high heat. Add the lemongrass, garlic and ginger, and stir-fry for 1 minute. Add the cooked fish, paprika and turmeric, and mash into a paste using the back of a spoon, 2 to 3 minutes. Pour the contents into the broth and bring to a simmer. Add the red onions and fish sauce, and cook for 10 minutes. Season with salt and keep hot until ready to serve.
Meanwhile, cook the noodles: Bring a separate pot of water to a boil. Add the noodles and cook until tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Drain the noodles in a colander and rinse under cool water. Shake off any excess water and divide the noodles among 4 bowls. Ladle the soup over the noodles and top each bowl with cilantro, a hard-boiled egg, lime wedges and thinly sliced red onion. Then serve.
We hope you enjoy making and eating these 2 delicious classic Myanmar dishes at home!