(Above: “Palaung women rolling tea leaves for tea leaf salad, Hu’kwet village,” rheanna2/flickr)
Things you know about Myanmar/Burma:
2) Last fall, the ruling military junta cracked down on widespread, monk-lead demonstrations, leading to the political imprisonment of hundreds and quashing hopes of a democratic revolution
3) Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel prize-winning democracy activist, has been under house arrest there for much of the past two decades
Things you may or may not know about Myanmar/Burma:
1) “Myanmar” is a pre-colonial name that the junta encourages you to use, and “Burma” is the somewhat racist colonial appellation that Aung San Suu Kyi prefers, because one really sticks it to the junta that way
2) Until a few days ago, Burma — let’s just go with that…stupid junta — was a net exporter of rice, but the country’s rice bowl (this is an official term) was storm-surged into oblivion. Maybe China will give them rice?
Things you don’t know about Burma:
2) Burma has a unique and wonderful cuisine that’s hard to find in the United States but always a joy to come across. It’s a natural fusion of Indian, Chinese and South-East Asian traditions, meaning you can get chicken biryiani, durian ice cream and night market rice noodles in a single sitting if you so desire. They even have their own form of tofu, made from chana dal (split, skinless chickpeas) or yellow split pea flour, depending on the ethnic group. Better than soy-based tofu? In many ways. You like dumplings? The Burmese have half-a-dozen indigenous varieties to try. And so forth.
For us, though, the single biggest achievement of the Burmese kitchen is its myriad and exotic salads. Thai salads are more famous, but the Burmese do a job at least as sophisticated throwing raw and pickled vegetables and miscellany together into something greater than the sum of their parts. Observe:
• Pork Ear & Tongue Salad from the recently closed Burmese Cafe in Queens, NY (Jane! Jane! Jane!):
More salads than you could properly digest, after the jump…
• Burmese Tofu Salad from Nyaung Shwe in Inle Lake, Burma (rheanna2):
• Pickled Tea Leaf Salad, colorful, from Ko Phayam, Thailand (rheanna2):
• Tomato & Cucumber Salad, available all over the country (mook elliot):
• Unknown Salad involving bamboo from Kyauktan, Burma (Danburg Murmur):
• Champac Flower Salad from Sagaing, Burma (meemalee):
• Pennywort Salad from Yangon, Burma (Danburg Murmur):
You’ll note that the salads available in Burma itself are somewhat less elaborate than their expat cousins — a common occurrence for resource-poor countries with important cuisines (cf. Cuba and Ethiopia). Also, Burmese food the world over is on the sour side; just keep it in mind.
The tofu and tea leaf salads are prominent (and delicious), but you basically can’t go wrong in the oeuvre. Aside from the restaurants already mentioned, we recommend Cafe Mingala or Village Mingala in New York (a mini-chain!), Rangoon in Philadelphia, and Mandalay in San Francisco. Consider it an international civic duty. And/or, again, donate!