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Burmese Cuisine And What It Really Is Or Not Is
What is Burmese cuisine is obvious at first glance, what Burmese people cook. But a closer look reveals that things are not as clear cut as they seem as there is a lot of ignorance about the correct meaning of the term both inside and outside Burma.
Burma is a country rich in diversity in many aspects. Mon, Shan, Kachin, Chin, Keran, Rakhine, Bamar, etc. There are many different ethnic groups. The total number of officially recognized ethnic groups is 135 but there are many more as many are unrecognized. And the cuisine is as diverse as the country’s ethnicity. In other words, ‘Burmese (Myanmar) cuisine is just a catch-all term. What is called ‘Burmese’ cuisine is actually an amalgamation of various local cuisines, and the cuisines of the bordering countries of Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand do not clearly know the more or less arbitrary borders by humans.
Depending on the type of agricultural products available, as well as the local and regional flora and fauna providing many nutrients, they also vary in taste depending on the region concerned, even though they share the same name. Is it a coastal region, is the natural environment mountainous or flat, are there rivers, is it dry and arid or wet and wet, is it hot, temperate, cold, is the land sandy or rocky why Soil quality, how much water is available for irrigation? These and other factors are factors that determine what the respective local cuisine has to offer and how it tastes.
As mentioned earlier, there are dishes that go by the same name and are available and loved across the country. But again, they taste different depending on whether you’re eating in Yangon, Mon State, Mandalay, Shan State or Rakhine State. A good example of this is Mohinga, the ‘unofficial Burmese national breakfast dish’. Mohinga, a hearty fish soup consisting mainly of fish broth (preferably) catfish, fish and shrimp paste, banana palm stem or blossom, onion, ginger, garlic, lemongrass and chili, thickened with chickpea flower and served with rice noodles, hard boiled. Egg and lemon or lime wedges, it originates from the Mon state and is popular in large parts of Burma but less popular in the tribal areas bordering Burma and Thailand. Other examples are coconut noodles (o nou couxve), pickled tea leaf salad (lahpet) and vermicelli in fish or chicken broth (mont de).
Certainly, Burmese cuisine is very tasty and has many delicacies, which I love to cook as I learned from my wife and of course to eat and share with family and friends. But where do these recipes originate? Locals are proudly talking and writing about ‘traditional Burmese cuisine’ and ‘pure Burmese cuisine, not hybrids’. Pure Burmese? Traditional Burmese? Not a hybrid? What is traditional or original or pure Burmese cuisine? Does this mean it originated from the country that the British named Burma or from the Bamars (Burmans) who make up the majority of Burma’s population and never tire of talking about ‘their cuisine’? And yet how original or purely ‘Burmese’ is Burmese cuisine? I have lived in Burma for 25 years and know a lot about Burmese cuisine but I have done some research focused on these questions to get it right. Although I initially thought it would be a cake walk to find the answers to these questions, it turned out to be a daunting task in terms of Bummer’s recipe.
To my surprise I soon ran into real problems because with Bamar’s recipes (this is clearly Bamar’s meaning of ‘pure Burmese’ cuisine) I found myself trying to discover something I knew nothing about. In other words, no historical records exist of what the Bamars ate, which makes it impossible to say what and to what extent the Bamars really contributed to what is now called ‘Burmese’ cuisine.
The Bamar (consisting of 9 different ethnic groups) were the last ethnic group to arrive in the area which was inhabited by Pyu (Arakanese), Mon, Kachin, Kaya, Shan, Chin and (with the exception of Son). Their many subgroups. What these ethnic groups have contributed to what is called ‘Burmese’ cuisine is evident from the existence of their traditional recipes, and it can be assumed that they have remained essentially the same to this day. But what and where is Bamar cuisine? In other words, while it is proven beyond any reasonable doubt that Pyu, Som, Shan etc have contributed greatly to ‘Burmese’ cuisine, it is completely unclear what the Bamar’/Burmans’ (note, not Burmese) contribution is. I think the Bamars have taken pre-existing recipes and made them their own by simply changing the original names to ‘Burmanese’ and calling the whole thing ‘Burmese’ cuisine. Of course, the Bamars must have eaten something and then, some traditional Bamar (note, not Burmese!) recipes/dishes they brought with them from where they came from. However, since there are no documents written for personal use or published as cookbooks, the answer to this question is open to speculation as to what constitutes the original or traditional Bamar cuisine. Please note that what I am writing about Bamar cuisine is my personal conclusion after extensive and thorough research. Other people’s research may yield different results depending on what sources are available. I have read and heard a royal palace book entitled ‘Sâ-do-Hce’-Cân’ – so it is said – written on palm leaves in 1866 during the reign of King Mindon Min (1853 to 1878) and purportedly containing recipes transcribed and I tried earnestly to get a copy of the book published by Hanthavaddi Press in 1965, but could not find it. It is said that there are 89 recipes in this book but nothing is said about the types and origin of these recipes. I however doubt that all these recipes (if any) are of pure Bamar origin.
All the questions I will answer in this introduction are answered below. Not only this, but it is a fatal (but, alas, often made) mistake to assume that Burmese and Bamar (Burman) are the same in the context of ‘Burmese’ cuisine, because they most certainly are not. Burma is a country and Bamar is one of the ethnic groups living in Burma. The British named them Burma as the Bamars – also called Burmans – were the largest ethnic group in the country; And citizens of Burma are Burmese. But not every Burmese is a Bamar. Only members of the Bamar, one of Burma’s ethnic groups, are Bamars. Then, we have to distinguish between the country of Burma, its citizens the Burmese, and members of one of Burma’s ethnic groups, the Bamars. This means that there is a Burmese cuisine (country cuisine) and a Bamar cuisine (ethnic group cuisine) but these two cuisines are not the same. The problem with the original or traditional bamar recipe is that no one knows what ingredients are in it. The basic problem with this is that no one knows exactly where Bamar is coming from. If it is known beyond any reasonable doubt, we will also know what their recipe is.
I wanted to find out the extent to which ‘Burmese’ cuisine has influenced the cuisines of neighboring countries. This was particularly important to me because many Burmese, and particularly the Bamar, ‘their cuisine?’ Remains traditional and unique. However, the result of my research says otherwise. It is clear that ‘Burmese’ cuisine is mainly influenced by Indian and Chinese cuisines; And this is not only in the border areas, but in the whole country and not only on a small scale, but on a large scale. For example, ‘danbok hatamin’ (rice with chicken or mutton), known as a delicacy by the Burmese, is an Indian dish with the original name biryani. In fact some Indian foods and dishes such as the very popular breakfast dish in Burma Hatamin Kyaw (fried rice) or Chin Tha Ye The (mango pickles) or Halwa (glutinous rice with butter and coconut milk) are mixed with ‘Burmese’. ‘ cuisine to such an extent that many Burmese people do not even know that they are of Indian origin and instead believe that they are originally Burmese, which of course is wrong. However, Indian cuisine has not only introduced whole foods to Burmese cuisine. Burmese women and cooks have also given an Indian touch to the traditional Burmese cooking style by using Indian spices such as masala (curry powder) not traditionally used in Burma. And the story doesn’t end there, milk, butter and dairy products like cheese, yogurt and sour milk as well as drinking black tea with milk and sugar (surprise?) are additional ways that it has influenced Indians. Burmese cuisine.
The Chinese have ensured their presence in Burmese cuisine in two ways. Introducing Chinese-style cooking into Burmese homes and restaurants was to include previously unknown, underused, or differently combined vegetables such as celery and Chinese cabbage, fungi such as Chinese mushrooms, sauces such as oyster sauce, and others such as beans. Yogurt (tofu). Chinese dishes such as Peking-baigin (Peking duck), Kawpyan-kyaw (spring rolls) and Pawsi (Chinese dumplings) have made their place in Burmese cuisine. Chinese cooking style, Chinese vegetables etc. And the dishes have become an integral part of Burmese cuisine.
I believe it is clear from my writing that ‘Burmese’ cuisine does not necessarily mean ‘Bamar’ cuisine and there is no conclusive information about the latter. And even though the Bamars may have contributed some recipes to what is known as ‘Burmese’ cuisine (which I believe they have) they have no part in all the other ethnic foods and dishes that existed long ago (centuries for many in fact) when they arrived in present day Burma (Myanmar).
Boiled (not steamed!) rice (hatamin) is always at the center of traditional Burmese dishes. A wide variety of curries (hin) made of fish (nga) or shrimp (pazun sek) or shrimp (pazun a-hatoke) or pork (ole-tha) or beef (ame-tha) or chicken (amey-tha) with rice. There is kyet), clear broth (hincho) and/or clear soup (hinga), vegetables such as cauliflower (kaw-fi-ban), cabbage (kaw-fi-hatoke) or egg plant (kha-yan-thi), salad (athoke) seasonal fruits such as tomato (kha-yan-chin-thi) or cucumber (tha-kwa-thi) onion (kyat-tun-ni), apple (pan-thi), banana (nga-pyaw-thi) , mango (tha-tari-ti), and/or pineapple (nar-nat-thi), etc. and/or sweets such as semolina cake (sa-nawin-ma-kin). In contrast to non-Asian countries, where Burma traditionally serves a meal of courses (appetizer, soup, main course and desert) all served at the same time so that diners can choose what to eat first and what to eat last.
Burmese family life has traditionally taken place on the land. Chairs and couches are known and exist in homes but are mostly used by the elderly which is especially true for Burma’s vast rural population.
Since eating is an integral part of life, then, food is placed on a round table much less commonly when diners are seated on the floor. Burmese people usually eat with their fingers. Only the soup is eaten with a small Chinese spoon, and in the case of noodle soup, the noodles are eaten with chopsticks. A bowl with water and lemon slices for washing hands and fingers as well as small towels are provided on the table.
I hope you found my article on Burmese cuisine and related matters interesting and informative.
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