This easy homemade Burmese curry powder recipe makes an essential ingredient in Burmese curries. It’s a particularly peppery spice blend, which is a typical Burmese curry powder mix for meat and fish curries, according to cookbook author Mi Mi Khaing in her delightful cookbook dating to 1978 called Cook and Entertain the Burmese Way.
When we first made Mi Mi Khaing’s wonderful Burmese Indian-style chicken curry from her charming cookbook Cook and Entertain the Burmese Way, which we’d bought from a dusty dimly-lit bookshop in Yangon in Myanmar some years ago, we mistakenly used a typical Southeast Asian curry powder.
It was probably a curry powder from Vietnam or Thailand, such as Waugh’s Curry Powder, which would have resulted in a curry that was very different to that which Mi Mi Khaing might have made had she used her own homemade spice blend, and that which she’d hoped her readers would make.
However, I hadn’t yet read Mi Mi Khaing’s book from cover to cover and appreciated that Burmese curry powders are distinct from other Southeast Asian curry powders. Although all Southeast Asian cuisines are influenced to some extent by the cuisines of India and China, Burmese cuisine is much more influenced by the cuisines of India and the Sub-continent, which explains its more widespread use of dried spices and spice blends.
I’ll tell you more about Burmese curries and Mi Mi Khaing’s Burmese curry powder recipe in a moment, but first I want to explain the purpose of this Myanmar recipe series. While it’s not unusual for us as long-time residents of Southeast Asia to share recipes from countries in the region that we’ve lived in, travelled and love, this series of recipes from Myanmar is aimed at drawing attention to the tragic situation there.
Since the military coup d’état in February 2021 ousted Myanmar’s democratically elected government, there’s been a nationwide civil disobedience movement, to which the military junta responded to with ferocious brutality, tremendous violence against peaceful protestors, terrifying raids on the homes of activists and their families, resulting in abductions, massacres in the streets, and airstrikes on villages, resulting in thousands of deaths of innocent civilians, including frontline Covid workers.
Of course, you would be forgiven if you weren’t aware of the ongoing tragedy unfolding, because Myanmar has largely disappeared from mainstream news coverage despite a recent escalation of violence and that’s my motivation for this Myanmar recipe series: to draw your attention to the heartbreaking situation. I’ll soon be publishing a dedicated guide to how to help the people of Myanmar and I’ll keep sharing recipes for our favourite dishes from Myanmar with links to that guide.
Until I can post that guide, I’m going to continue to highlight various organisations that desperately need support such as the independent news and current affairs magazine Frontier Myanmar. The military regime is targeting journalists and media organisations need funds to continue their important reporting work. You can subscribe, make a donation or become a member on that link.
So far in the Myanmar series we’ve published recipes for Burmese street food-style fried chicken, Burmese coconut rice, Burmese raw cabbage salad, a Shan vermicelli noodle salad and a Shan tomato salad recipe. Older recipes include a Burmese egg curry and ohn no khao swe, one of our favourite soups from Myanmar. Now let me tell you about this Burmese curry powder recipe.
Burmese Curry Powder Recipe for an Easy Homemade Spice Blend for Burmese Curries
“The most common form of the main accompaniment to rice we shall call curries. The distinguishing characteristic of Burmese curries is the good amount of oil (peanut or sesame) used,” Mi Mi Khaing writes in her introduction to the ‘Main Curries’ chapter of her Burmese cookbook Cook and Entertain the Burmese Way .
“In this oil, ingredients which are freshly pounded (eg onion, garlic, chilli, and ginger root) are fried to a point which will give most aroma, flavour and thickening,” she continues. “Other flavourings or aromatic agents may be added according to the recipe… lemongrass or other spice leaves, dried mango, tamarind or tomato, fish or shrimp paste or sauces, soy products, and dried curry spices.”
Burmese curry powders, Mi Mi Khaing goes on to explain, are usually comprised of aromatic seeds – “their goodness does not keep too long unless air tight, and many brands on sale contain a greater proportion of less aromatic seeds” – which is why Burmese cooks prepare their own spice blends.
“For this reason, a Burmese housewife without a reliable source of ready-made powder makes her own, roasting, pounding, and sieving the seeds and mixing them in different proportions to suit different needs. Seeds include cardamom, cumin, fenugreek, clove, pepper, coriander, mustard, nutmeg, bay leaf, cinnamon bark, and a few others,” she tells us before sharing the Burmese curry powder recipe below.
While most curries in Southeast Asian countries such as Cambodia, Thailand and Laos are made with fresh herbs, roots and spices that are pounded in a mortar and pestle into a curry paste, or perhaps more correctly a herb and spice paste, as the pastes are used in more than just curries, there’s a genre of Southeast Asian curries, such as this Vietnamese curry, that are made with curry powders blended from roasted and ground dried spices.
You’ll also find these gently-spiced curry powder-based curries in China, Hong Kong and East Asian countries too, such as Japan, Korea and Taiwan, and while all of these curry powders often have ingredients in common, such as turmeric, cumin, cardamom, coriander, fenugreek, and ginger, each curry powder is adapted to their country’s culinary culture and palate.
This heady Burmese curry powder recipe by Mi Mi Khaing for use in her Burmese curries is no exception, and in fact it’s distinct from other Southeast Asian curries in its composition of spices and their measures. Southeast Asian curry powders typically include spices such as turmeric, fenugreek, chilli, and galangal, which, if used in Burmese curry powders, would result in quite a different taste.
Mi Mi Khaing’s curry powder recipe doesn’t include any of those, but instead calls for ingredients to be used in her Burmese curry powder recipe such as peppercorns (and quite a lot, too), poppy seeds and bay leaves, which are uncommon in Southeast Asian curry powders. She doesn’t include dried turmeric, ground ginger or chilli powder in her homemade spice mix, but rather includes them as an additional ingredient in recipes for particular dishes, such as her Burmese egg curry.
Sure, you could use a store-bought curry powder for your Burmese curries. But for a more authentic Burmese curry of the kind Mi Mi Khaing hoped we would attempt when she wrote her book, we recommend giving her homemade curry powder a go. A heads-up: it is quite peppery, so you may wish to make a smaller batch than the recipe makes the first time, and subtly tweak it to your taste. I’m sure Mi Mi Khaing would approve.
Tips to Making This Burmese Curry Powder Recipe
Just a couple of tips to making this Burmese curry powder recipe, adapted from Mi Mi Khaing’s delightful Burmese cookbook Cook and Entertain the Burmese Way for use in her Burmese curries.
As mentioned above, the composition of ingredients of Mi Mi Khaing’s Burmese curry powder is distinct from other Southeast Asian curry powders, which you are probably more familiar with, so you may wish to make a smaller batch than the recipe suggests, as it’s very peppery.
Burmese curries are distinguished by their dried spices and seeds, which should first be pan-roasted in a dry non-stick pan or cast-iron pan for a few minutes or so to release their aromatic oils. Do take care not to toast them too much as you don’t want to burn them.
You can combine the freshly ground spices and pre-ground spices in the mortar or put the freshly ground spices through a fine mesh sieve or dedicated spice strainer and transfer them to a large clean bowl to combine.
Note that Mi Mi Khaing’s Burmese curry powder recipe is in ounces, but I’ve converted it to grams and rounded up measures, eg. 1 oz = 28.35 g, which I’ve rounded to 30 g. This makes 250 g of curry powder, so perhaps halve or quarter the measures the first time you make this spice blend.
Burmese Curry Powder Recipe
- 40 g peppercorns*
- 30 g poppy seeds
- 45 g cumin seeds
- 90 g coriander seeds
- 15 g bay leaf crushed
- 15 g cardamom ground**
- 15 g cinnamon ground
- In a dry non-stick or cast-iron pan, lightly pan-roast the peppercorns and seeds over a low flame for a few minutes or so to release their aromatic oils, taking care not to toast them too much (i.e don’t burn them).
- Use a spice grinder, coffee grinder or mortar and pestle to grind the seeds to a powder.
- If you have a large mortar, add the pre-ground spices and combine, but if not, put the freshly ground spices through a fine mesh sieve or spice strainer and transfer to a large clean bowl with the pre-ground spices then combine.
- Put your spices through a stainless steel spice funnel to transfer your curry powder into an air-tight jar or container for storage in a dark place in your pantry.
** If you have cardamom pods, dry roast the whole pods then smash the pods open in the mortar with the pestle, discard the pods, and grind the seeds.
Please do let us know in the comments below if you make this Burmese curry powder and if you use it in the Burmese Indian-style chicken curry recipe that we’ve linked to above, as we’d love to know how they turn out for you.