Burmese cuisine, as most writers tend to label the cuisine of the country formerly known as Burma, now formally known as Myanmar, is complex. Burmese cuisine is also bloody delicious and reason alone to get to Myanmar now.
One of the real delights of travelling around Myanmar is the opportunity a trip affords to sample the array of cuisines that are cooked right across the ethnically diverse country, from Burmese cuisine to the cuisines of the Shan, Chin, Kachin, and Rakhine states to name a few.
Burmese cuisine is not simply a mix of Chinese, Indian and Thai, as we read one Australian chef recently claim. As with most cuisines, it’s impossible to describe it in a nutshell, and a more nuanced description is necessary to do it justice.
Burmese Cuisine and the Culinary Complexities of Countries
While perusing a counterfeit copy of Lonely Planet Burma when we were recently in Yangon, its authors (five white guys; mind boggling from a company that was staunchly feminist in its early incarnation) wrote that the Burmese cuisine in Myanmar “suffers from a bad rap”.
We’ve actually never heard anything bad about the food in Myanmar. In fact, we’ve always heard Burmese cuisine described as fascinating, delicious and complex, which we found to be true when we recently spent a month there.
We have heard of backpackers getting sick there, but we ate everything that looked safe and never reached for the Imodium once.
Annoying as generalisations about the cuisine are, what gets under my skin more is the use of the artificial construct that are national borders to pigeonhole the cuisines of a jigsaw puzzle of ethnic groups.
More accurate is this description in the locally produced Saffron Guide to Myanmar: “Like everything in Myanmar, the food is a result of centuries of shifting influences from bordering nations, but although shaped by these neighbours, the food does still manage to maintain a unique identity.”
It would be even more accurate if it said “identities”, because there is no single identity in Myanmar – not national, cultural, ethnic, or otherwise.
The term ‘Burmese’ can refer to both the people of the country formerly known as Burma, as well as to the dominant ethnic group, the Bamar. The people in Myanmar who prefer to name the country ‘Burma’ are usually Bamar people, for obvious reasons.
Many Westerners with an interest in the country will deliberately use the name ‘Burma’ because the ‘Union of Myanmar’ was declared the official name during military rule and the change of name was not decided upon by a vote by the people.
However, spend any amount of time with members of ethnic groups other than the Bamar, as we did, and they will tell you that they prefer to use ‘Myanmar’ (despite it being thrust upon them), as they feel marginalised by the use of the terms ‘Burma’ and ‘Burmese’ to describe the whole nation.
But how is this connected to the cuisines and culinary anthropology of the nation? Well, given that Myanmar was isolated and difficult to visit for Westerners for many years, that even after it opened up much of the country was still off-limit to tourists, and that civil conflicts still continue and ethnic tensions remain in a number of states, describing the cuisine of Burma as bits of this and bits of that is reductionist.
Doing so also places the cuisines of neighbouring countries China, Thailand and India a cut above the cuisines of Myanmar. Why is it that the cuisines of China, India and Thailand are considered to be fully formed, canonised cuisines, and Myanmar’s is made to appear to be the culinary brigand?
Why could it not be that the direction of influence of some of the dishes of those countries emanated from the place we knew as Burma? A history of empires, conquests and trade between these places would suggest that produce, ingredients and dishes, and the people who cooked and ate them, travelled in all sorts of directions.
From the 11th through the 13th centuries, the Pagan empire, based in what we now know as Bagan in Myanmar, was one of the region’s two greatest empires. The other of course was the Khmer Empire, which from the 9th until the 13th centuries ruled over what is now Cambodia and, at its peak, most of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. The empire that covers much of the area we now know as Thailand, established in Sukhothai and the first kingdom of Siam, didn’t form until the mid 13th century, for instance.
It’s therefore much more likely that at the time, in the case of Thailand (formerly known as Siam), for example, that if influence came from any direction it was from the more powerful and more sophisticated Pagan and Khmer empires. The reality is that due to trade, migration and inter-marriage, dishes travelled both ways, and back and forth. Some of these Myanmar specialties, for instance, most probably travelled along an old trade route that ran from Yunnan in Southern China via Chiang Mai to Myanmar.
Which leads to another question. Does anyone who writes seriously about food still use the generic descriptions of ‘Thai’, ‘Chinese’ and ‘Indian’, without a nod to the geographic and ethnic definitions that provide a more nuanced picture?
I’m reminded of being in Italy many years ago and testing out a new hotel in Rome. I asked the staff to recommend a good local restaurant. The woman disappointingly suggested a generic tourist restaurant, which I guess is all she assumed their guests wanted. “What kind of food do they serve?” I asked. “What region is the cuisine from?” “You know, pizza and pasta. Italian food,” was her dismissive reply.
These days, if we’re in a medium-sized metropolis in the age of the enlightened foodie, we might head out to dine on Sicilian, Tuscan, Roman, or, more broadly, Northern Italian cuisine, when we want food that warms the soul.
Indeed, the chef I mentioned above comes from a nation where the people don’t just decide on ‘Chinese’ food for dinner, they’re deciding between Cantonese and Sichuan, and many food-lovers apparently know the difference if the contestants on MasterChef are anything to go by.
Back in Siem Reap, where we recently hosted a culinary travel writing and photography tour that involved a great deal of local eating, the general perception of visitors to Cambodia is that “Cambodian food is just like Thai food, except milder.” So, who is buying all those red and green birds-eye chilies at every market in the country then? And which region of Thailand does this misconception allude to?
Just as calling Myanmar ‘Burma’ probably means you think you’re sticking it to the former military regime and showing solidarity with the people, and calling the country ‘Myanmar’ might suggest that you’re kowtowing to the generals, things are much more complex than that might seem. It’s the same when talking about cuisine. Particularly Burmese cuisine.
More to come on the many wonderful cuisines of Myanmar — after we finish the update to the guidebook that took us to that magic country for a month.