Burmese daze: the national specialities with international appeal

Two experts recommend dishes to tickle British taste buds.

31 January 2018
image credit: Sandra Seaton

New cuisines are a tricky business. They often have to be introduced slowly, carefully, so as not to scare off the jittery consumer. People want the novel edge, but not if the flavours and textures are too alien.

Burmese food offers the benefit of combining some fairly familiar influences – Chinese, Thai, Indian – into fresh dishes. In fact, it’s been steadily working its way into not just the UK’s foodie scene, but foodie scenes worldwide.

Overall, the progress has been more of a slow burn than a raging fire. While Mandalay in London has been peddling its wares for 20 years, it was only joined in the capital last year by restaurants Lahpet (previously a market stall) and The Shan State. For the curious, much of the slack has been picked up by supper clubs like The Rangoon Sisters and Muma Maymyo.

Over in the States, San Francisco’s Burma Superstar is arguably the most long-standing (and well-known) place offering Myanmar morsels, though the cuisine has spread in dribs and drabs throughout the nation. New York, naturally, has a couple spots – although both Together and Rangoon Spoon only opened their doors in 2017. More surprisingly, Atlanta and Indianapolis have also welcomed small outposts dedicated to Burmese delicacies.

So what’s the best way to capture the essence of this Southeast Asian cuisine without scaring off the punters? To answer that, we turned to two experts to find out what has proved popular with the British palate.

Sophie Alexander, founder of the Muma Maymyo supper club

Moh hin gha: fish soup served with vermicelli noodles. It is traditionally served as breakfast; however, I think it makes a perfect starter or even meal! Fry off onions, garlic and ginger, then add chilli powder and turmeric, followed by nagpi paste (fish paste). Add the catfish (or a similar alternative) to the pan, along with a generous amount of fish or vegetable stock. Add fresh tomatoes and banana bark or thick-cut onion rings as an alternative, then thicken with gram flour. Serve with a small helping of vermicelli noodles, and garnish with lemon, chopped coriander, spring onions, chili, fish sauce and a sliced hard-boiled egg.

Moh hin gha is often served with a side of akyaw: fried fritters made from finely sliced vegetables, red onion, mixed leaves, shredded potato and spinach, with spices added.

image credit: Sandra Seaton

Pazoon lethoke: prawn noodle salad, served cold. A traditional Burmese salad, ‘lethoke’ means mix with hands, as they do in the street-food markets where they serve it fresh. Toss together prawns, vermicelli noodles, chopped fresh tomatoes (optional), chopped spring onions, chopped coriander, lime, fresh chili, fish sauce, dried shredded prawns and fried, finely chopped onion and garlic.

This is a great dish that can be served to suit an individual’s taste, adding little or more of any ingredient.

image credit: Sandra Seaton

Sanwin makin: a sweet semolina and coconut cake, garnished with toasted sesame seeds and almonds. The Burmese are not big on desserts, often opting for fresh fruit. However, growing up my grandma would often make this.

image credit: Sandra Seaton

Emily and Amy Chung, founders of The Rangoon Sisters supper club

Ohn no khao swe: coconut chicken noodles. This is a dish we grew up having for celebrations such as birthdays and New Years. It consists of a gently spiced broth made of slowly fried onions, garlic and ginger, coconut milk and chilli, turmeric and paprika, plus chicken. Served on a bed of wheat noodles and topped with a variety of condiments – boiled egg, coriander leaves, chilli flakes, raw shallot and crispy fried noodles – it’s a mix of textures and a perfect comfort food that we have introduced most of our friends to over the years. And they always love it!

Lahpet thoke: a salad of fermented tea leaves, a food unique to Myanmar and another of our favourites. It was quite difficult to get hold of here until recently, and hence those unfamiliar with Burmese food wouldn't have encountered it. Also, its appearance may be somewhat unappealing to some – damp, dark green, mulchy! However, when mixed in a salad it truly comes alive: a mix of crunchy fried beans, peanuts, cashews, garlic, sesame, squeeze of lime, fresh green chilli, fish sauce and some shredded cabbage and sliced tomatoes. It is fresh, zingy, an explosion of textures and hit of umami. Either eaten just like that or with a bowl of rice, it just has to be tried!

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