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Burmese cuisine includes dishes from various regions of the Southeast Asian country of Burma (now officially known as Myanmar). The diversity of Myanmar's cuisine has also been contributed to by the myriad of local ethnic minorities. The Bamars are the most dominant group, but other groups including the Chin people also have distinct cuisines.
Burmese cuisine is characterized by extensive use of fish products like fish sauce and ngapi (fermented seafood). Owing to the geographic location of Myanmar, Burmese cuisine has been influenced by Chinese cuisine, Indian cuisine and Thai cuisine.
Mohinga is the traditional breakfast dish and is considered by many to be Burma's national dish. Seafood is a common ingredient in coastal cities such as Sittwe, Kyaukpyu, Mawlamyaing (formerly Moulmein), Mergui (Myeik) and Dawei, while meat and poultry are more commonly used in landlocked cities like Mandalay. Freshwater fish and shrimp have been incorporated into inland cooking as a primary source of protein and are used in a variety of ways, fresh, salted whole or filleted, salted and dried, made into a salty paste, or fermented sour and pressed.
Burmese cuisine also includes a variety of salads (a thoke), centered on one major ingredient, ranging from starches like rice, wheat and rice noodles, glass noodles and vermicelli, to potato, ginger, tomato, kaffir lime, long bean, lahpet (pickled tea leaves), and ngapi (fish paste). These salads have always been popular as fast foods in Burmese cities.
A popular Burmese rhyme sums up the traditional favourites: "A thee ma, thayet; a thar ma, wet; a ywet ma, lahpet" (အသီးမှသရက်၊ အသားမှဝက်၊ အရွက်မှလက်ဖက်။), translated as "Of all the fruit, the mango's the best; of all the meat, the pork's the best; and of all the leaves, lahpet's the best".
Traditionally, Burmese eat their meals from dishes on a low table, while sitting on a bamboo mat. Dishes are served simultaneously. A typical meal includes steamed rice as the main dish and accompanying dishes called hin, including a curried freshwater fish or dried/salted fish dish, a curried meat or poultry dish instead, a light soup called hin gyo (ဟင်းချို), called chinyay hin (ချဉ်ရည်ဟင်း) if sour, and fresh or boiled vegetables to go with a salty dish, almost invariably a curried sauce of pickled fish (ngapi yayjo) in Lower Burma. Fritters such as gourd or onions in batter as well as fish or dried tofu crackers are extra.
Out of respect, the eldest diners are always served first before the rest join in; even when the elders are absent, the first morsel of rice from the pot is scooped and put aside as an act of respect to one's parents, a custom known as u cha (ဦးချ, lit. first serve).
The Burmese eat with their right hand, forming the rice into a small ball with only the fingertips and mixing this with various morsels before popping it into their mouths. Chopsticks and Chinese-style spoons are used for noodle dishes, although noodle salads are more likely to be eaten with just a spoon. Knives and forks are used rarely in homes but will always be provided for guests and are available in restaurants and hotels. Drinks are not often served with the meal and, instead, the usual liquid accompaniment is in the form of a light broth or consomme served from a communal bowl. Outside of the meal, the Burmese beverage of choice is light green tea, yay nway gyan (ရေနွေးကြမ်း).
Chin cuisine is focused around rice, millet, and maize. A Christian ethnic group from western Burma's hills, the Chin were oppressed by the government in the 1960s, including a rice blocade, and many fled the country. Chin dishes are often boiled rather than fried in oil.
In traditional Burmese medicine, foods are divided into two classes: heating (အပူစာ, apu za) or cooling (အအေးစာ, a-aye za), based on their effects on one's body system, similar to the Chinese classification of food.
Examples of heating and cooling foods include:
The Burmese also hold several taboos and superstitions regarding consumption during various occasions in one's life, especially pregnancy. For instance, pregnant women are not supposed to eat chili (for the belief that it causes children to have sparse scalp hairs).
The country's diverse religious makeup influences its cuisine, as Buddhists avoid beef and Muslims pork. Beef is considered taboo by devout Buddhists because the cow is highly regarded as a beast of burden. Vegetarian dishes are only common during the Buddhist Lent (Wa-dwin), a three-month Rains Retreat, as well as Uposatha sabbath days. During this time, only two meals (i.e. breakfast and lunch) are consumed before midday to observe the fasting rules (u bohk saunk) and abstinence from meat (thek that lut, literally 'free of killing') is observed by devout Buddhists. Throughout the rest of the year, many foods can be prepared vegetarian on request, but the bulk of Burmese food is prepared with fish or meat broth bases. Also, many of the several ethnic groups prepare at least one inherently vegetarian dish (notably cuisine from the Shan people).
The countries that border Myanmar, especially India, China and Thailand, have influenced Burmese cuisine. Indian influences are found in Burmese versions of dishes such as samosas and biryani, and Indian curries, spices and breads such as naan and paratha. Chitti kala (ချစ်တီးကုလား) or Chettiar (Southern Indian) cuisine is also popular in cities. Chinese influences in Burmese cuisine are shown in the use of ingredients like bean curd and soya sauce, various noodles as well as in stir frying techniques. As in neighbouring Thailand and Laos, fried insects are eaten as snacks.
Southern Myanmar, particularly the area around Mawlamyaing is known for its cuisine, as the Burmese proverb goes: "Mandalay for eloquence, Mawlamyaing for food, Yangon for boasting" (မန္တလေးစကား မော်လမြိုင်အစား ရန်ကုန်အကြွား).
Burmese dishes are not cooked with precise recipes. The use and portion of ingredients used may vary, but the precision of timing is of utmost importance. One of the few remaining pre-colonial cookbooks is the Sadawset Kyan (စားတော်ဆက်ကျမ်း, lit. Treatise on Royal Foods), written on palm leaves in 1866 during the Konbaung dynasty.
Depending on the dish at hand, it may be roasted, stewed, boiled, fried, steamed, baked or grilled, or any combination of the said techniques. Burmese curries use only a handful of spices (in comparison to Indian ones) and use more garlic and ginger. Dishes are prepared with plenty of oil in the case of curries and soups, and the level of spices and herbs varies depending on the region; Kachin and Shan curries will often use more fresh herbs.
Ingredients used in Burmese dishes are often fresh. Many fruits are used in conjunction with vegetables in many dishes. The Burmese eat a great variety of vegetables and fruits, and all kinds of meat. A very popular vegetable is the danyin thi, which is usually boiled or roasted and dipped in salt, oil and sometimes, cooked coconut fat.
The most common starch (staple food) in Myanmar is white rice or htamin (ထမင်း), which is served with accompanying meat dishes called hin (ဟင်း). Paw hsan hmwe (ပေါ်ဆန်မွှေး), fragrant aroma rice is the most popular rice used in Burma and is rated as high as the Thai fragrant rice or Basmati rice. Today, Myanmar is the world's sixth largest producer of rice, though in recent times less is exported and even domestic supplies cannot be guaranteed.
Glutinous rice, called kauk hnyin (ကောက်ညှင်း, from Shan kao niew ၶဝ်ႈၼဵဝ်) is also very popular. A purple variety known as nga cheik (ငချိတ်), is commonly a breakfast dish. Various noodle types are also used in salads and soups. Typically, vermicelli noodles and rice noodles are often used in soups, while thick rice and wheat noodles are used in salads. Palata (ပလာတာ), a flaky fried flatbread related to Indian paratha, is often eaten with curried meats while nan bya (နံပြား), a baked flatbread is eaten with any Indian dishes. Another favourite is aloo poori (အာလူးပူရီ), puffed-up fried breads eaten with potato curry.
Ngapi (ငပိ), a paste made from salted, fermented fish or shrimp, is considered the cornerstone of any Burmese meal. It is used in a versatile manner in that it is used in soup base, in salads, in main dishes and also in condiments. Popular varieties depend on the region.
The ngapi of Rakhine State contains no or little salt, and uses marine fish. It is used as a soup base for the Rakhine 'national' cuisine, mont di (မုန့်တီ). It is also used widely in cooking vegetables, fish and even meat.
In the coastal Ayeyarwady and Tanintharyi divisions, the majority of ngapi is instead based on freshwater fish, with a lot of salt. Ngapi is also used as a condiment such as ngapi yay (ငပိရည်), an essential part of Karen cuisine, which includes runny ngapi, spices and boiled fresh vegetables. In Shan State, ngapi is made instead from fermented beans, and is used as both a flavoring and also condiment in Shan cuisine.
Burmese cuisine is full of condiments, from sweet, sour to savory. The most popular are pickled mango, balachaung (shrimp and ngapi floss) and ngapi gyaw (fried ngapi) and preserved vegetables in rice wine (from Shan State). Ngapi plays a major part in condiments, as a dip for fresh vegetables.
Fermented beans, called pè ngapi, from the Shan State plays a major role in Shan cuisine. Dried bean ngapi chips are used as condiments for various Shan dishes.
Another bean based condiment popular amongst the Bamar and the central dry region is Pone Yay Gyi - a thick salty black paste made from fermented soy beans. It is used in cooking, especially pork, and as a salad, with ground nut oil, chopped onions and red chili. Bagan is an important producer of Pone Yay Gyi.
Myanmar has a wide range of fruits, and most are of tropical origin. However, some notable Western fruits such as strawberries are also popular. Durian, guava, and other fruits are commonly served as desserts. Other fruits include mango, banana, jackfruit, plum, lychee, papaya, pomelo, water melon, pomegranate, mangosteen, sugar-apple and rambutan.
Because a standardised system of romanisation for spoken Burmese does not exist, pronunciations of the following dishes in modern standard Burmese approximated using IPA are provided (see IPA for Burmese for details).
Cha-om omelette - a popular dish with ladies
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