Learning the Basics of Burmese Cuisine at the Moegyo Burmese Food Fair

By Wendy Wong


(Photographs by Lily Chin)

Editor’s Note: If you missed the Moegyo Humanitarian Foundation’s 6th Annual Burmese Food Fair, there are similar food fairs taking place this summer. Stay tuned to our Facebook page or follow us on Twitter for an early word on the ThinGyan Association’s Burmese New Year Water Festival in Manhattan and the Myanmar Baptist Church’s food fair in Briarwood, Queens.

Despite New York City’s incredible range of food and culture, it’s still surprisingly difficult to find authentic Burmese food when dining out. Fortunately, I got an excellent introduction to the cuisine at the Moegyo Humanitarian Foundation’s annual Burmese Food Fair in Long Island City, Queens, in early June.

Burma (also known as Myanmar) is located at the crossroads of South Asia, East Asia and Southeast Asia. It’s not surprising, then, that Burmese food is a dazzling blend of Asian flavors and cooking methods. Some dishes—like chicken biryani and crispy pork belly—are overtly influenced by Burma’s much larger neighbors, India and China. Others call to mind Vietnamese, Thai and Indonesian fare.

Still other dishes at the fair had completely unique flavors. Burmese cooking commonly employs curry powder, tamarind powder, lemongrass, fish sauce, chili powder, fresh green chilies, fried garlic and fried onion. Various combinations of these ingredients gave many of the dishes I tried a complex blend of flavors: mildly spicy, subtly fishy and slightly acidic.

Burmese cuisine also employs distinct cooking techniques. One popular style of food preparation is known as thohk, or “mixing together.” Perhaps the most common thohk-style dish is lahpet thohk, a pickled tea leaf salad made with preserved tea leaves, split lentils, sesame seeds, peanuts, cabbage, tomato, fried garlic and peanut oil.

The lahpet (preserved tea leaves) are fermented underground (not unlike Korean kimchi and Nepali gundruk), then taken out and seasoned, to taste, with chilies, lime juice or other flavor-enhancing ingredients. The leaves, a staple food eaten throughout Burma, are crunchy, bitter and mildly sour.

At the fair, all of the ingredients for lahpet thohk were laid out on a table. As each order was placed, everything was mixed together by hand in a large bowl. My salad was refreshing and crunchy, with layers of nutty, salty and bitter flavors.

Burmese cuisine also has an overwhelming variety of noodle soups. The most common is mohinga, a rice noodle dish steeped in a lemongrass-flavored fish paste broth and topped with yellow split peas and cilantro.

Mohinga can be eaten for lunch or dinner, but is most commonly a breakfast dish. It’s arguably Burma’s unofficial national meal, and in Burma vendors can be found selling mohinga on nearly every street corner.

In the bowl I tried at the fair, the crisp beans added a nice crunch, and the silky noodles made for great slurping—but the soup itself was the standout component. Its piquant smell and flavor were enhanced by the potent fish paste.

Another popular noodle dish, mont di (or “mote ti,” as vendors identified it at the fair), comes from Rakhine, a coastal state in southwestern Burma. It is similar to mohinga but with a spicier kick.

Other regions of Burma have their own interpretations of the dish, but Rakhine mont di is served either as a salad or as a noodle soup. The more popular soup option, which I tried, is made with spicy fish paste, chili paste, onion and a garnish of cilantro and crispy fried onion. The salad version combines thin rice noodles with tamarind juice, chickpea flour and garlic oil. The broth, seasoned with galangal (rather than lemongrass, as in mohinga), ginger and pepper, is served on the side.

The mont di’s flavorful broth—equal parts spicy, fishy and savory, with a subtly bitter aftertaste—evoked many Southeast Asian flavors, yet managed to have its own distinct taste and style, a fitting description for Burmese cuisine.

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