Rice Balls

Culture Tuesday is a monthly column in which Best of Vegan Editor Samantha Onyemenam explores the cuisines of different cultures across the globe through a plant-based and vegan lens. This article delves into the history and characteristics of Burmese Cuisine. 

Vegan Burmese Cuisine

The History and Evolution of Burmese Cuisine

Burmese cuisine is the cuisine of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), and it is heavily influenced by the neighboring countries of China, India, and Thailand. Burmese cuisine is a unique blend of flavours, textures, and cooking techniques influenced by the diverse cultures and traditions that have shaped Myanmar’s history. The history of Burmese cuisine can be traced back over 2,000 years and is intertwined with the country’s political, social, and cultural developments.

Early Influences: Pyu City-States and Buddhism

One of the earliest recorded accounts of Burmese cuisine dates back to the Pyu city-states, which existed in central Myanmar between the 2nd century BCE and the 9th century CE. The Pyu people were known for their agriculture and frequently used rice and vegetables in their cuisine. The influence of Buddhism, which was introduced to Myanmar during the Pyu period, also played a role in shaping Burmese food traditions, such as the use of vegetarian ingredients in certain dishes.

The Columbian Exchange and Thai-Inspired Dishes

The 15th to 16th century Columbian exchange led to the introduction and adoption of some rather notable ingredients into Burmese cuisine. These ingredients include peanuts, chillies, and potatoes. The subsequent Burmese–Siamese wars which occurred between the 16th to 19th centuries also led to the introduction of new ingredients and cooking techniques which can be seen in the Thai-inspired dishes that make up parts of the Burmese cuisine.

British Colonization and Fusion Dishes

In the 19th century, Myanmar was colonised by the British, and this period saw the introduction of new ingredients and cooking methods, such as baking, roasting, and stir-frying. The British influenced Burmese cuisine by establishing Indian and Sino-Burmese (Chinese Burmese) communities in Myanmar which brought about more of the fusion dishes that have become an integral part of Burmese cuisine.

Today, Burmese cuisine is a fusion of traditional and modern flavours and techniques. The cuisine features a range of dishes, including curries, soups, salads, and stir-fries, and is known for its use of spices and herbs such as lemongrass, ginger, garlic, and chili. Some popular Burmese dishes include thayet chin thoke (sour mango salad), laphet thoke (tea leaf salad), and ohn htamin (coconut rice).

Essential Ingredients in Burmese Cuisine

Rice: A Staple in Burmese Cuisine

Rice is a staple ingredient in Burmese cuisine and plays an essential role in every Burmese meal. It is typically served with a variety of dishes, including curries, soups, stews, and salads.

Htamin Gyaw: Burmese Fried Rice

One of the most popular Burmese rice dishes is called “htamin gyaw,” which is fried rice mixed with various ingredients such as eggs, vegetables, and meat, but which plant eaters make with just an array of vegetables or a mixture of vegetables and suitable vegan meat substitutes.

Kauk Hnyin Baung: Turmeric Rice

Htamin gyaw, Burmese fried rice, is made by stir-frying leftover cooked paw hsan hmwe, a fragrant Burmese short-grain rice, with ingredients such as onions, garlic, carrots, cabbage, peas, and soy sauce.

Burmese fried rice
Burmese fried rice by @dongpay_thelazyvegan, click on the image to view this post on instagram.

Mont Lone Gyi Kyaw: Burmese Fried Glutinous Rice Balls

Another popular rice dish is “kauk hnyin baung,” which is steamed rice mixed with turmeric and topped with fried onions and garlic.

Ah-Boh: Burmese Crepes

In addition to these dishes, Burmese cuisine also features a variety of rice-based snacks, including mont lone gyi kyaw, which are fried sweet rice balls made with coconut and jaggery, and ah-boh, Burmese crepes with a coconut filling.

Mont Lone Gyi Kyaw: Burmese Fried Glutinous Rice Balls

Burmese fried glutinous rice balls, Mont Lone Gyi Kyaw, are a popular snack and street food in Myanmar. They are made from glutinous rice flour, mixed with water to form a dough that is then shaped into balls. The dough is often flavoured with a filling or garnish of shredded coconut, jaggery and sesame seeds. The balls are then deep-fried until golden brown and crispy on the outside.

Burmese fried glutinous rice balls are usually served with a sweet syrup made from jaggery (a type of unrefined sugar) and water. The syrup is drizzled over the hot, crispy balls, and often topped with a sprinkle of sesame seeds or shredded coconut.

Rice balls by @BurmeseVegan.
Rice balls by @BurmeseVegan. Click on the image to view this post on Instagram.

These delicious and sweet treats can be found in many places throughout Myanmar, including street markets, roadside vendors, and even restaurants. They are enjoyed as a snack or dessert, and are a beloved part of Burmese cuisine.

Ah-Boh is another beloved Burmese dish made in a curved cast iron pan. It consists of a crepe made from a thin rice flour batter which is swirled in a hot cast iron pan to give it a bowl shape and crispy texture. When the crepe is almost fully cooked through, a sweet batter made of coconut milk/cream and rice flour is ladled onto the centre of it. The pan is covered to let the filling set quickly and, once set, the crepe is either folded in half or with opposite sides of it folded over to encase the filling. The final dish is a vegan, gluten-free, delicious dish with a play of textures and flavours.

Lan Thayae Mont: Burmese Crepes with Vegetables

Lan Thayae Mont, or Lan Tah Yeh Mont, is a Burmese crepe that is also made from rice flour. However, often, the batter is made by blending raw soaked rice, cooked rice, and chickpeas (garbanzo beans), and semolina until smooth. The mixture is made thinner using water to get its consistency similar to that of a pourable yoghurt.

To cook the lan thayae mont, the blended mixture is ladled onto a hot plate or pan and the mixture is spread out into a wide circle using the back of the ladle. As the crepe cooks, freshly shredded or julienned vegetables (usually carrots, cabbage, bell peppers, and chillies) are sprinkled over the crepe along with cooked chickpeas, herbs and spices (masala is often used). The crepe is left to fully cook on one side while the side with the vegetables is just left to set as the crepe is cooked through from the heat below then the crepe is folded over twice (to give it somewhat of a wrap shape) and served.

Lan Thayae Mont Burmese crepe
Lan Thayae Mont Burmese crepe by @BurmeseVegan. Click on the image to view this post on Instagram.

Mote Thine Chone: Burmese Crepes with Caramelized Coconut Filling

Mote Thine Chone, is yet another Burmese crepe which is most often found at traditional/religious festivals. It is made from a mixture of glutinous rice flour and rice flour, salt, water, and eggs. However, it should be possible to make this crepe vegan-friendly. For this crepe to be mote thine chone, it has to be filled with freshly caramelised shredded coconut (made by heating up shredded coconut with sugar and a pinch of salt till the sugar melts and the shredded coconut turns light brown). Lastly, after placing the filling in the crepe, five sections of the edge of the crepe are folded over to encase the filling and create a pentagonal shape. The pentagon is flipped over so the folded part is sealed by the heat of the pan before the crepe is served.

Overall, rice is a vital ingredient in Burmese cuisine and is used in a wide range of dishes, both savory and sweet.

Tofu: A Protein Source in Burmese Cuisine

Burmese Tofu: Shan Tofu or Tohu Thoke

Burmese tofu, also known as Shan tofu or tohu thoke, is a type of tofu made from chickpea flour. It is a staple food in Myanmar and is commonly eaten as a protein source.

To make Burmese tofu, besan (chickpea and yellow split pea) flour is mixed with water and salt to form a batter. The batter is then cooked over low heat, stirring constantly, until it thickens and becomes glossy. The mixture is poured into a greased dish or container and left to cool and set. The resulting tofu can be sliced and fried or baked for a crispy exterior and is often used in curries, salads, and stir-fries.

Chickpea Tofu
Chickpea Tofu by @BurmeseVegan. Click on the image to view this post on Instagram.

Hsan Ta Hpo: Burmese Tofu Made from Rice Flour

There is a variation of Burmese tofu known as ‘hsan ta hpo.’ It is made from rice flour and has a similar colour to soy tofu (whiteish) although its consistency is closer to that of the more common Burmese tofu (the chickpea flour variant). However, it has its own unique taste. Hsan ta hpo is used in a similar manner as the chickpea Burmese tofu and is quite popular in salads in the Shan region.

Tofu Nway: Burmese Thick Noodle Soup

Tofu nway, also known as, ‘warm tofu,’ is a Burmese thick noodle soup. It is made by pouring a creamy Burmese tofu sauce over rice noodles and topping it in a variety of ways, such as, with soy sauce, sesame oil, fried garlic, chillies, peanuts, vegetables, and fresh greens.

The tofu sauce is made by mixing besan flour, salt and turmeric with water to form a batter, leaving the batter to sit for 2-3 hours then pouring the batter into a pot of boiling water, stirring continuously, till the mixture thickens and the tofu becomes fragrant. 

The noodles are often first mixed into the sauce before they are transferred into a serving dish with extra sauce poured over them and the toppings added.

Tofu Nway
Tofu Nway by @lahpet. Click on the image to view this post on Instagram.

Salads: A Refreshing Dish in Burmese Cuisine

Burmese salads, also known as, ‘a-thoke,’ are a popular dish in Myanmar that consist of a mixture of vegetables, fruits, herbs, and other ingredients. The salads are typically served as a side dish or a main course and are known for their refreshing and flavourful taste.

Lahpet: Fermented Green Tea Leaves

One of the most common ingredients in Burmese salads is the green tea leaf, known as “lahpet.” The leaves are fermented and mixed with other ingredients such as tomatoes, peanuts, sesame seeds, garlic, and fish sauce to create a delicious and unique flavor. Other popular ingredients include shredded cabbage, onions, chilli, lemon juice, and fried garlic.

Burmese salads are often served with a side of crispy fried beans or nuts, which add a crunchy texture to the dish. They can be enjoyed on their own or alongside other traditional Burmese dishes such as curries or noodle soups.

Tohu Thoke (Shan Tofu Salad)
Tohu Thoke (Shan Tofu Salad) by @lovekhaoswe. Click on the image to view this post on Instagram.

Thin Baw Thee Thoke: Burmese Green Papaya Salad

Thin Baw Thee Thoke is a Burmese Green Papaya Salad with a recipe that slightly varies with households. It usually contains raw julienned unripe papaya, onions, and chillies, coriander (cilantro) leaves, as well as fried garlic, garlic oil, roasted besan/gran flour, lemon juice, and roasted peanuts. Variations are often seen with the addition of thinly sliced cabbage, baked or steamed potatoes, spring onions (scallions/green onions), and/or a tamarind sauce. Although this salad can often be found vegan, it should be noted that some cooks include animal products and byproducts in their thin baw thee thoke (usually fish sauce and/or shrimp paste).

Papaya salad (Thin Baw Thee Thoke)
Papaya salad (Thin Baw Thee Thoke) by @beesuatthay. Click on the image to view this post on Instagram.

Gin Thoke: Ginger Salad

Gin Thoke, also known as, ‘ginger salad,’ is a salad made from pickled ginger, fried chickpeas, fried lentils, toasted besan flour, shallots, cabbage, garlic, chillies, tomatoes, lime juice, sesame seeds, and coriander (cilantro). The vegetables are finely sliced and seasoned with lime juice and salt to make a savoury, sour, and hot salad. Some Cooke add julienned carrots, spring onions, and crushed peanuts to add more flavours and textures to the salad. Again, although this salad can often be found vegan, some cooks do add some fish sauce to their gin thoke. Thus, if purchasing it, it is best to confirm what will be in it.

Gin Thoke (Ginger Salad)
Gin Thoke (Ginger Salad) by @nandareatkindly. Click on the image to view this post on Instagram.

Recipe: Tohu Thoke by Khin’s Kitchen 

Tohu Thoke is a Shan Tofu Salad made from sliced Burmese tofu, fried garlic, garlic oil, shallots, chillies, roasted chickpea flour, sesame seeds, crushed roasted peanuts, tamarind sauce, lime juice, coriander (cilantro) and, at times soy sauce (in place of fish sauce). It is a delicious and unique dish known for its bold and complex flavours, combining sour, salty, spicy, and sweet elements, as well as its range of textures that, together, create a fresh and vibrant salad.

In this recipe, Khin, from @KhinsKitchen (on Instagram and YouTube) shows how she makes vegan Tohu Thoke from scratch through an easy-to-follow video. In this video, the Burmese tofu is made and then, combined with the vegetables to make the Tohu Thoke.

Article by Samantha Onyemenam. Featured Image Credit: Burmese Vegan (@burmesevegan).

Samantha Onyemenam


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