Thai food has undergone a renaissance in recent years – will Burmese food, amid heightened interest in Myanmar, enjoy a similarly meteoric rise?
It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when Thai food didn’t cast such a long shadow internationally. Before the tourism boom of the 1980s, Thailand was not the great tourism hotspot it is today and nor was its cuisine so widely celebrated. Now, Thai food has been exported to every corner of the globe – it has allowed native chefs to carve their own niche at home and, just as surely, fascinates non-Thai chefs from abroad.
For all the contentious arguments about authenticity and Thai flavours being diluted for a foreign palate, there is an undoubted net benefit for Thailand to have so many
people besotted by its cuisine. If that’s a problem, it’s a good one to have.
As Thai food bathes in this glow of attention, one of its neighbours may be taking the first steps down the path embarked upon by Thailand 30-odd years ago. As Myanmar opens its doors, albeit slowly at first, so will its kitchens attract a stampede of curious foodies, eager to find the next culinary craze.
This cuisine, sealed away for so long, could just as well be served on a petri dish. Will Burmese food, as a result of greater exposure, follow the same trajectory as Thai cuisine? One man well-equipped to answer this question is Robert Carmack, co-author of The Burma Cookbook: Recipes from the Land of a Million Pagodas.
Carmack is a life-long foodie who is based in Australia. He travels back and forth to Asia several times a year to eat, travel and combine these two pursuits in a series of food tours (check globetrottinggourmet.com for more details).
“I fell into writing Thai cookbooks and it probably took me a while to really appreciate the strong flavours of Thai food – maybe that’s because of my French training,” he
explains. “But I came to learn that Thai food is all about marrying different dishes, that’s when it really comes alive. And the way I researched Thai food was all about finding the best food in different areas, coming to grips with regional food and working with locals to develop what I was writing.
I learned that wherever you go, people go through the same experiences when it comes to new cuisines – you start as a tourist, eating at hotels or other ‘safe’ places; then you decide to start roughing it and taking your chances with the street food; then, once you’ve started to understand the cuisine, you really know the best places to go to get certain things.”
Eventually, Robert, along with his partner and coauthor Morrison Polkinghorne, were persuaded to take this experience and turn it into a tourism business – essentially taking people to exotic locations to teach them about the tastiest food on offer.
“I suppose the first tour I did was planned like I was researching a book,” Carmack says. “I didn’t want to explore generic Thai – Asian food is so unique that we went down the road of trying to teach technique and understanding flavours. I did a Vietnamese book in there as well, went to Laos and spent a lot of time exploring Isaan food. And although we’d been going to Myanmar, or Burma as it was called, since 1996, we didn’t start doing tours until much later. And really, it’s just by luck that our cookbook came out as the country is beginning to open up.”
The book in question is a treasure trove of information, beautifully designed a laid out in a way that pairs recipes with historical vignettes. It’s a travelogue, history book and recipe guide all in one.
“We didn’t want it to be an esoteric Burmese cookbook – it had to appeal and be a bit more expressionist, particularly with the country coming into a moment of great interest and attention,” Carmack explains. “At the same time, there needed to be an understanding of the history – the subcontinental influence, for example. That overview is essential if you want to understand a country through its food.”
As a thumbnail sketch, Burmese cuisine employs many of the same ingredients as other Southeast Asian cuisines but its approach bears greater signs of subcontinental influence.
“In terms of the components, there are some similarities to Thai food but the flavor profiles are very different,” Carmack says. “One big way it deviates is through the use of jageree sugar instead of palm sugar. You get that effect in the fermented tea leaf salads, which are very unique to Burma. And then it’s really about the subtlety of flavours and, I suppose, the absence of dry spice. Thai curries, for example, are really assertive, whereas Burmese curries are more like humble Western stews.”
And just as it took Thailand a little while to export the message that it had much more to offer above and beyond pad thai and green curries, Burmese food may need to cultivate an image abroad. It will need advocates to promote it, explain it and, to some extent, protect it.
THREE BURMESE STAPLES
Rakhine chicken curry – rakhine kyet thar hin
Rub 1kg of chicken on the bone with soy sauce and turmeric. Marinate for 15 minutes. Fry four small onions, ginger and garlic before adding the chicken. Add water or stock and saffron, then add curry leaves and shrimp paste. Simmer covered for 45 minutes before serving with a drizzle of coconut cream and rice.
Dried fish salad – nga thoke
Slice 100g of hot-smoked cod into thin pieces. Then, in a wok, fry one tablespoon of shallots in a little oil until soft and set aside. Fry the fish in the same oil, add one small chopped tomato, before stirring in a chopped chilli, the cooked shallot, one freshly squeezed lime and one sprig of fresh coriander.
Tomato mixed salad – kha yan chin thee thoke
Soak half a cup of shallots in lime juice and salt and slice four small tomatoes, four leaves of white cabbage and a quarter cup of onion. Bring it all together in a serving bowl and drizzle with fish sauce and the leftover lime, then mix with chilli, fresh coriander, peanuts and dried shrimp. Lastly, fry your shallots and add them to the mix.