- Bryan Santos
4.6.2021 Dinner in Yangon
Mohinga is the soup most people have never heard of. Every corner of the kite-shaped country has their own special mohinga recipe, but at its core, it’s a light lemongrass and pepper stock made hearty by local fish varieties, thickened with rice or chickpea flour, and served over noodles for breakfast. While there’s no definitive history of mohinga, conceptually the noodle soup probably traces its lineage back to Chinese and Yunnanese fare. What we do know is that mohinga used to be categorized as a working class meal during colonization through the Japanese invasion in WWII, before becoming the beloved staple it is today. So much so that during the military junta in 1962, mohinga vendors were some of the only entrepreneurs allowed to operate. In the cool mornings, mohinga hawkers bring their entire stock and begin cooking over wood charcoal, a smell that to this day permeates Burmese mornings.
Catfish mohinga is widely considered to be the “classic” style given the abundance of catfish found in the Irrawaddy river that runs down the country like a vein. Although we’re not serving this for breakfast, we do think it’ll make an excellent starter for this Burmese feast. We start by making a rich fish broth before mixing in catfish, lemongrass, garlic, and ginger. Make sure to add all the toppings, as the crunch of the crackers and acidity of the lime really bring it all together. Contains fish, eggs; gluten free.
Pork Curry with Green Mango Pickle
“Of all the fruit, mango is the best; of all the meats, pork is the best; of all the leaves, laphet is the best.” We found this popular adage repeatedly when researching food from Yangon. This dish has two of the three. According to Desmond Tan, owner of the acclaimed Burmese Superstar restaurant in San Francisco, Burmese food is “a mix between familiar-feeling cultural mashups and regional dishes rarely seen outside the country.” Burmese cuisine may feel a bit familiar because of its unique geopolitical position linking India to China, one side of the continent to the other. To use the broadest of strokes, the curries are a bit like that of India without the intense spiciness; the salads are reminiscent of the crisp Thai variety; and the noodles are decidedly Chinese.
Historically, Burmese curries are made with an abundant amount of oil - with scarce refrigeration the layer of oil on top of the pot acts as a sealant against the oxygenated outside world, preventing bacterial growth and spoilage. We didn’t use quite as much, but still focused on creating a rich, turmeric and paprika pork curry built on a base of caramelized onions and ginger. Before finishing the curry, we add pickled green mangoes. The tartness of the pickles balance all the flavors into a unique Yangonese staple. Contains fish; gluten free.
Tea Leaf Salad
The final part of the Burmese trifecta, laphet, or fermented tea leaves, is a staple so highly regarded that it was considered a symbolic peace offering among warring kingdoms in ancient Myanmar and was used in the civil courts during colonial times indicating acceptance of a verdict. According to folklore, laphet was introduced at the turn of the first millenia during the Pagan Kingdom (Pagan is the name of the kingdom, not an indication of religion). As Burmese kingdoms shifted towards more austere forms of Theravada Buddhism, fermented tea leaves began replacing alcohol in ceremonies. Tea goes so far back that the Burmese language is one of only a handful in the world where the word “tea” isn’t etymologically linked to the Chinese word “te” or “cha.”
Tea shops in Yangon pour gallons of the stuff everyday, yet half the tea in Myanmar is eaten, not drunk. The Assam tea leaves are primarily grown by the Palaung ethnic tribe in Myanmar’s northeast Shan state, but the primary hub for the tea trade is in Mandalay. In the mountainous northeast, tea bushes grow on steep slopes and produce low yields, producing a deeper, more concentrated flavor than that grown in India or Sri Lanka. After being picked, the tea is tightly packed in burlap sacks, placed in a cement container, pressed down with rocks and left to ferment for anywhere from four months to two years.
Until recently, buying true lamphet in the US was almost unheard of, but slowly it is being imported by Burmese immigrants in California and Massachusetts. We sourced ours from the Yoma Restaurant in Boston. This slightly bitter but deeply savory leaf is mixed with garlic and chili to create the dressing for the salad. In true Burmese fashion, the salad is all about texture, so we’ve included the traditional crunchy toppings of garlic chips, fried yellow peas, peanuts, sunflower seeds, and sesame seeds. Contains fish, peanuts; gluten free.
The number of Burmese “salads” are literally endless. But forget about lettuce and dressing. Desmond Tan describes Burmese salads as “foods mixed together and served at room temperature” since truly anything goes. Historically, salads were used to minimize waste, combining leftover greens, meats, noodles, and seasoned oils to make the most of every ingredient. Honestly, it's probably one of the most exciting aspects of Burmese cuisine. At any tea house, you can have a full meal of just “salads” - from pennywort salad, to ginger salad, to samosa salad, to… eggplant salad! Here we’ve roasted eggplants and combined them with onions, green chilies, cilantro and balachaung oil for a spicy and umami filled sidekick. Contains fish, shellfish; gluten free.
During colonial times, Myanmar was known as the rice-basket of Asia - prior to WWII the fertile Irrawaddy Delta was the largest rice producer in the world. After independence, rice production plummeted due to mass urbanization and an increasingly isolationist regime that allowed Thailand to become the primary rice exporter in Southeast Asia. That said, rice is still the backbone of all Burmese meals, and coconut rice especially is considered to be a special occasion dish that goes perfectly with the pork curry. Vegan, gluten free.
Ngapi Kyaw, often also referred to as balachaung, is to Burmese cuisine what ketchup is to American food. Ngapi is a pungent paste of fermented sun dried and salted fish or shrimp. Since at least the first century BC, ngapi had been used as a form of currency and trade - with southern Burmese often trading it for rubies and musk from northern Burmese. It was also commonly used as a tributary gift for pre-colonial kingdoms. Of course all of Southeast Asia and China cooks with some form of fermented fish paste / sauce, but the condiment known as Burmese Balachaung generally has ground shrimp or anchovies (ours has both) dry fried with caramelized onions, crispy garlic, and chili flakes for a relish that turns the umami dial up to 10.
Coconut Agar Jelly
Desserts aren’t really very common in Burmese cooking, but most restaurants will typically serve a small plate of coconut jelly at the end of the meal. These jellies are made with agar agar, a plant-based gelatin derived from red algae. Unlike creamy or giggly gelatin, agar agar sets firm and is almost crunchy / crumbly in texture. After a hearty garlic and chili infused meal, a simple bite of coconut is the perfect way to cool off and cleanse the palate. Vegan, gluten free.
Available at most liquor stores
Beer is simply the best pairing for all the savory, salty, and umami packed dishes in this menu. In 1886, the British Raj converted an old cannon factory in Mandalay into Myanmar’s first brewery. Nowadays, nearly all the beer production in the country is dominated by Myanmar Brewing Ltd, which is owned by the military and is therefore being boycotted. Your best bet would be an Asian lager such as Tsingtao, Sapporo, Asahi, etc.
“For most Americans Burma is either an exotic place full of gold pagodas and smiling Buddhist monks - or a country that puts activists in jail.” - Desmond Tan, 2017
In early January 2021 Forrest and I sat down to make a list of menus we wanted to create for The White Pine Kitchen in Q1. Dinner in Yangon was one of the first that came to mind - we have a mutual Burmese friend from Yangon who Forrest and I visited in 2017 and 2019, respectively. We were so excited to serve food from the region, the logical gradient between Indian and Thai food, with a healthy dose of Chinese flair. We were going to talk about the glimmering Shwedagon Pagoda, the golden stupa in the heart of Yangon that sparkles like glitter at night. We wanted to mention the abandoned ruins of Old Bagan, misty boat rides along the Irrawaddy River, Shan noodles on the train ride over the Goteik Viaduct, hot chai on the streets of Mandalay. Yet, in light of the recent coup by the military junta on February 1, this all seems trite, a tourist’s romanticized narrative that is in no way relevant anymore.
The nation of Burma, the largest in Southeast Asia, is smack in the middle of India and China, rich in natural resources and arable land (prior to WWII, the Irrawaddy Delta was the most prolific rice producing area in the world), and is home to over 135 distinct ethnic groups. With so much at stake, it’s no surprise the Burmese have had more than their fair share of conflict, from 3 Anglo-Burmese Wars with the UK, a Japanese Invasion in WWII, a military coup in 1962 that crippled the country, pro-democratic riots in 1988, and countless ethnic Civil Wars dispersed throughout the outskirts of the country (including most recently the Rohingya genocide).
In 2011, things started to change. The military seceded some control, Burmese people finally got on the grid, and the country changed course on its isolationist past allowing foreign investment to begin pouring in. The 1991 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi and her pro-democracy party liberalized the country (ironically enough, her father, Aung San, is widely considered to be the founding father of independent Myanmar and is also credited with founding the Burmese army). Tourists like Forrest and myself were encouraged to visit, despite certain regions still being off limits. But most importantly, young Burmese of our generation finally felt like they had a future to look forward to. In 2001, a SIM card cost the equivalent of $3,000… now it cost about $1. In Yangon, I remember meeting Burmese repatriates starting trendy businesses in downtown Yangon - people were coming back, Yangon was littered with new construction, and there was a definitive sense of optimism.
We can’t go into details on the causes and state of the current political environment in Myanmar, so we encourage you to read more about it in our Additional Resources section. While Aung San Suu Kyi is not without controversy, she won the 2020 democratic election, a result General Min Aung Hlaing “could not accept” before overturning the government, arresting top officials and locking the country back down. There have been countless protests throughout the country since, primarily led by the younger generation. The 3 Finger Salute, a reference to Hunger Games, has become a symbol of resistance throughout the country. Across the country, citizens join together at night to bang pots and pans in protest. Countless civilians and protesters have been brutally killed in the wake of the coup and many more have gone missing. Government offices, banks, hospitals, and businesses have started striking in civil disobedience.
And that’s where Mutual Aid Myanmar comes in. Based in the US, they are one of the most effective charities in Myanmar right now since most local branches have ceased operations because of the increased risks. According to their website, “Students, civil servants, nurses, and others are putting their lives on the line to resist tyranny. In order to sustain the movement, they need lost-income support for food, healthcare and housing.” To that end, we will be donating $20 of every order to Mutual Aid Myanmar so they can continue to work with Civil Disobedience Movement organizers and support people who have lost their income as part of the protests. Again, we encourage you to check out their website and Instagram to learn more.
While write-ups like this are not fun, we feel it’s very important to recognize the people behind the food we serve. Burmese cuisine has stood the test of time - its savory, salty, and sour curries; its crunchy, refreshing salads; its hearty soups; they have all been shaped by the country's tumultuous history and will be present regardless of who’s in charge. But what is cuisine without people?
Featured Recipe: Pork Curry with Green Mango Pickle
Serving 4-6 people
Adapted from Burma Superstar
2.5 lbs of boneless pork shoulder, well trimmed of fat
2 tbsp paprika
2 tsp turmeric
2 tsp salt
⅓ cup canola oil
1 oz piece of ginger, peeled and thickly sliced lengthwise into slabs
3 cups (420g) finely diced yellow onion
⅓ cup (60g) minced garlic
2 bay leaves
2 small dried Thai bird’s eye chili (or dried arbol)
2 tbsp fish sauce
1 quart water
1 tsp Madras curry powder (available at an Indian Grocer)
½ tsp Garam Masala (available at an Indian Grocer)
½ cup coarsely chopped Green Mango Pickle, core removed (we use Shan pickles available at an Indian Grocer)
1 cup cilantro sprig, for garnish
Cut the pork into 1 inch cubes, trimming sinew and most of the fat. Transfer to a bowl and use your hands to mix with the paprika, turmeric, and salt. Let the pork marinate at least 2 hrs or overnight
Heat the oil over medium heat. Add the ginger and cook until the edges become lightly browned, 2 minutes. Add the onions and cook, stirring often to prevent scorching until the onions have softened, about 4 minutes. Stir in the garlic, bay leaves, and chiles, decrease the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring often, until most of the water from the onions has been cooked out and a glossy layer of oil has risen to the surface, about 10 minutes. To check if the oil has separated, push the onions into a little pile, if the oil escapes from the edges, it's ready
Add the pork and fish sauce, stir to coat. Pour in the water. Bring to a boil then lower to a gentle simmer. Cook stirring occasionally until the meat is tender when pierced with a knife, about 1.5 hours
Stir in the curry powder, garam masala, and mango pickle. Pour more water if the curry looks very thick. Cook over medium heat to combine the flavors, 10-15 minutes
Let sit for 20 minutes, then taste, adding more fish sauce if desired. Garnish with cilantro
Recipes Inspired By:
Desmon Tan and Kate Leahy’s amazing and thoroughly researched Burma Superstar cookbook is the backbone for this menu
About as old-school as it gets, our friend sent us Cooking and Entertaining the Burmese Way by Mi Mi Khaing
Charmaine Solomon’s masterful encyclopedia of Asian cuisine. Her grandmother was Burmese and she has an amazing section of the book devoted to the country’s cuisine
Although Chef Pailin is Thai, her blog is one of the best resources for understanding and cooking with agar agar
A detailed study on Burmese laphet
It wouldn’t be a WPK write up if we didn't consult Bourdain
A great overview of the variety of Burmese food by Mark Weins
Just reading about Burmese history on Wikipedia provides great context for the current state of affairs
A few really good videos on the history of Myanmar and what caused the current coup
A detailed background on Aung San Suu Kyi by Now This World
Some informative articles by the NYT
Democracy Hero? Military Foil? Myanmar’s Leader Ends Up as Neither
We Can Bring Down the Regime’: Myanmar’s Protesting Workers Are Unbowed
Military Crackdown in Myanmar Escalates With Killing of Protesters
‘I Will Die Protecting My Country’: In Myanmar, a New Resistance Rises