Things I knew about Burma before I started writing this post? Two. The first was a general idea of where the nation resides on the globe. The second was that there is some level of controversy regarding the country’s name. Is it Burma? Is it Myanmar? Does anyone outside of Burma and/or Myanmar even know?
So, with my ignorance of the country I’ll refer to as Burma noted and in tow, I set forth to figure out a thing or two about what you’re no doubt expecting – Burmese cuisine.
Let’s get some things straight right from the outset. First, it’s not Indian food. It’s not Chinese food. And it’s not Thai food, either. This is an important thing to note and a fact that is often overlooked due to the similarity in ingredients. Like a lot of Southeast Asian nations, proximity and cultural ties lead to significant culinary overlap. In Burma, you’ll find fresh salads full of papaya and mango, extensive use of lemongrass, curries on every table and on and on.
But that doesn’t mean it’s all that close to anything you’ve had before. If you’re expecting the heat of Indian food, you’re in the wrong place. Coconut milk? Sorry. Instead, you’re in for pickled tea (lahpet) and extensive exposure to regionally varying fish-based sauces and pastes (ngapi). The latter is found in virtually everything – main dishes, salads, soups; it even turns up as a condiment. The former is a key component in one of the best dishes Burmese cuisine offers, a salad consisting of those tea leaves and various crunchy things: peas, nuts, sesame seeds and dried shrimp. All of that is topped with lime juice and the aforementioned fish sauce.
The “national dish” of Burma is Mohinga, a soupy, vermicelli rice noodle dish with garlic, onions, ginger, banana-stem, lemongrass, boiled egg and fried fish cake. If that list of ingredients doesn’t convince you that it’s both similar and different from the rest of Southeast Asian cuisine, then I don’t know what will. But you know what, I’ll keep trying.
Like Indian food, condiments come with any and everything. Paratha, chapati and samosas are common, but they’re served alongside consommés, western fruits like strawberries and stir-fry dishes drenched in soy sauce. And there are unique dishes too – sanwinmakin, which is a cake made from semolina, sugar, butter and coconut. Or Jar-zun thohk: a pile of noodles with boiled prawn, potatoes and duck eggs.
Things I know about Burma after writing this post? Three. The first two are the same (though I’m a little more confused on the whole “official name” thing). The third? That the food there, by appearance, is an amalgamation of Asia’s finest. But by taste, it’s significantly more than the sum of its parts. And unless you try it, you sort of don’t know what you’re missing.
And if you’re in San Francisco, you can try it tonight from these two fine establishments.
Burma Tea Leaf
731 Clement Street, San Francisco , CA
Pagan Burmese & Thai Restaurant
3199 Clement Street San Francisco ,CA