STRANGE FOODS AND RECIPES FOR POPULAR DISHES OF MYANMAR’S ETHNIC GROUPS

PALAUNG PICKLED TEA

The chief crop of cultivation among the Palaung is tea. The tea shrub is indigenous to areas where they live and grows wild all over the hills while tea cultivation is closely associated with Tawngpang. Tea is abundant in places like Mong Long, Mong Mit, Mong Khe, Panglong and in the Petkang areas of Keng Tung State. Tea likes a high latitude, shade and dampness. Tawngpang is the most suitable place with such conditions. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information =]

The tea is made in two forms: 1) Neng Yam, or wet or pickled tea; and 2) dry tea. One needs skills and experience for picking, drying and curing of tea leaves. The leaves are steamed in a wooden strainer with a perforated bamboo bottom, which is placed over a large cauldron of boiling water. It is steamed for a few minutes just to moisten and soften the leaves so that they can be easily and quickly rolled with the fingers on matswhile another lot is being steamed. These steamed and rolled leaves are spread out on the screen resulting in dry tea. The picking seasons for the tea are: May to June, July to August, September to October and November, each of which has its name. The first picking is always the best and it is called Shwepyi (Golden Land). =

The making of the pickled variety is more complicated. The steamed leaves are heaped together in a pulp mass and thrown into basket and left until the next day. The baskets are then put into pits in the ground and covered with heavy weights placed on top of each. Inspection is often made to see how fermentation is progressing and sometimes there is re-steaming . Palaungs are the only tea growers who produce the "pickled tea, " which some of them call "salad tea." Palaung tea plantations are on steep hill-sides. It takes three years to get a crop, and after ten years or more the plants weaken and the output is poor. =

Much of the dry tea goes to different parts of Myanmar and some to Yunnan across the border in China. Pickled tea is transported down to Mandalay and Yangon for general distribution. Myanmar people like pickled tea more than anyone else and it has become a delicacy for them and is eaten mixed with a little oil, salt, garlic and topped off with sesame seeds. =

Shan Dishes

In Shan State, ngapi is made from fermented beans rather than fish or shrimp, and is used as both a flavoring and also condiment in Shan cuisine. Fermented beans, called pè ngapi, from the Shan State plays a major role in Shan cuisine. Dried bean ngapi chips are used as condiments for various Shan dishes.

Shan-inspired dishes include: 1) Htamin jin, a rice, tomato and potato or fish salad kneaded into round balls dressed and garnished with crisp fried onion in oil, tamarind sauce, coriander and spring onions often with garlic, Chinese chives or roots (ju myit), fried whole dried chili, grilled dried fermented bean cakes (pè bouk} and fried dried topu (topu jauk kyaw) on the side; 2) Lahpet thohk, a salad of pickled tea leaves with fried peas, peanuts and garlic, toasted sesame, fresh garlic, tomato, green chili, crushed dried shrimps, preserved ginger and dressed with peanut oil, fish sauce and lime; 3) Meeshay, rice noodles with pork and/or chicken, bean sprouts, rice flour gel, rice flour fritters, dressed with soy sauce, salted soybean, rice vinegar, fried peanut oil, chilli oil, and garnished with crisp fried onions, crushed garlic, coriander, and pickled daikon/mustard greens; 4) Papaya salad; 5) Shan tohu, a type of tofu made from chickpea flour or yellow split pea eaten as fritters (tohpu jaw) or in a salad (tohpu thohk), also eaten hot before it sets as tohu byawk aka tohu nway and as fried dried tohpu (tohu jauk kyaw); 6) Shan khao swè, rice noodles with chicken or minced pork, onions, garlic, tomatoes, chili, crushed roasted peanuts, young vine of mangetout, served with tohu jaw or tohu nway and pickled mustard greens (monnyinjin); 7) Wet tha chin, preserved minced pork in rice; 8) Wet tha hmyit chin, pork with sour bamboo shoots. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Shan soaked noodle come either in the wet type or dried. The Shan noodle base is the common wetland rice or the more glutinous Shan variety. The rice is steamed and kneaded when cooked. The dough is then passed through rollers. The flattened dough then goes through a cutting machine to create noodle strands. The strands are gathered in skeins. The skeins are sold in the wet stage or are air-dried. The dried version is convenient for the home. A skein of Shan noodles serves four persons. If the noodles are made of hard rice they should be soaked in water for about four hours. They should then be dipped in hot water and retrieved with a sieve before serving. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information =]

Shan soaked noodle may be eaten with meatless Shan style garnish, Myanmar style curry or Chinese style steamed duck. Ingredients: tomatoes 1 kg; ground dried shrimp 4 teaspoon; vegetable oil 2 teaspoon; Shrimp paste 1 teaspoon; ginger root 1 .5 cm; garlic 2 cloves; shauk-kaw Shan spice 1/2 teaspoon; pauk-kaw(-do-) 1/2 teaspoon; water 6 cups. How to cook: Heat the water to boil. Put in tomatoes and continue boiling for 5 minutes and let cool. Remove skin and seeds and mash the tomatoes. Set aside the liquid. Heat oil and fry pounded ginger root and garlic. Add shrimp paste and the spices on the fire. Add the tomatoes and the set aside liquid. Bring to boil. Serve the Shan soaked noodles in the soup. Fried bean curd, pickled pork, "nampong" (fried calfhide) and Shan pickles may be served as side dishes. =

Shan Fish-Tomato Rice Snack

Shan Fish-tomato Rice Snack: Ingredients: Rice (preferably Shan variety); fresh-water fish (Ophiocephalus striatus) preferably those fished from the Inlay Lake; some tomato. onion. garlic; some tamarind pulp; some coriandar leaves; some dried red chilli; some dried soybean cake; some salt and oil. How to cook: Preparation which goes in the making of the rice entails a long process. First cook rice to required texture. Then put in a bowl and allow it to cool. Boil the fish. Scoop from pot with sieve and let it cool. Then separate flesh from bones and mash. Boil the tomatoes. Grate them into fine pulp. Roast soybean cake and pound into fine powder. Pound garlic and onion. Deep-fry in oil adding a pinch of red coloring powder. Then add the mashed boiled fish into the heated oil mix and stir. Fry the dried red chilli until crisp. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information =]

Mixing the tomato rice: First place the cooked rice in a large bowl. Then pour the fried fish-onion-garlic mix on the rice. Add tomato pulp and a dash of salt. Then stir briskly with a ladle. Then make the fish-tomato-rice into sizeable balls. Sprinkle with roasted soybean powder. Arrange the balls neatly on a flat platter. Place them on the table. You will notice there is quite an array of ingredients that go with the rice ball to heighten the taste and accentuate the presentation. The side dishes include: a small bowl of roasted soybean powder; a small bowl of prawn, fish or Chinese table sauce; a small bowl of thick tamarind pulp paste; a half-plate of finely cut coriander leaves; a half-plate of fried dry chilli; a half-plate of Shan white vegetable root; The main item—the platter of fish-tomato-rice balls—are placed in the center. =

To eat place one rice ball on your dinner plate. Mix with the array of ingredients to taste. Repeat if your appetite is good. Relish the distinctly unique Shan flavor. This snack also goes well with local fries such as fried tofu, fried pork rind or thin sesame rice wafer. Local gourmets also serve a hot sour vegetable pickle made from pickled turnips, garlic, onions, ginger and mustard green leaves. Enjoy this delicious fare at source in the Shan State. Accompany it with a delicious fish soup, and feel the cool breeze teasing your cheeks. Then top it off with aromatic Shan green tea. =

Karen and Mon Cuisine

Ngapi is also used as a condiment such as ngapi yay,an essential part of Karen cuisine, which includes runny ngapi, spices and boiled fresh vegetables.

Mon-inspired dishes include: 1) Thingyan htamin, fully boiled rice in candle-smelt water served with mango salad; 2) Htamane, a dessert made from glutinous rice, shredded coconuts and peanuts; 3) Banana pudding, a dessert made from banana boiled in coconut milk and sugar; 4) Wet mohinga, like mohinga but vermicelli is served while wet; 5) Durian jam, also known as Katut jam; 6) Nga baung thohk, mixed vegetables and prawn, wrapped in morinda leaves and then banana leaves outside; 7) Sa-nwin makin, a dessert cake made from semolina, sugar, butter, coconut. +

Rakhine Cuisine

The ngapi of Rakhine State contains no or little salt, and uses marine fish. It is used as a soup base for the Rakhine 'national' cuisine (mont di). It is also used widely in cooking vegetables, fish and even meat. Galangal: alpinia conchgera (ba de: go) is an essential spice in the broth in mohinga of the Rakhine nationals. The spice is aromatic, tonic and carminative. Rakhine mohingar is famous for its distinct blend of flavors that includes a very liberal mix of hot pepper. Rakhine Mohingar is popularly known by the name "Hot palate. hot tongue concoction" (Aap- lYap). [Source: Myanmar Travel Information =]

Rakhine-inspired dishes include: a Mont di, an extremely popular and economical fast food dish where rice vermicelli are either eaten with some condiments and soup prepared from nga-pi, or as a salad with powdered fish and some condiments; 2) Kya zan thohk, glass vermicelli salad with boiled prawn julien and mashed curried duck eggs and potatoes; 3) Ngapi daung, an extremely spicy condiment made from pounded ngapi and green chili; 4) Khayun thee nga chauk chet - aubergine cooked lightly with a small amount of oil, with dried fish and chilli; 5) Nga-pyaw-thi-bohn, bananas stewed in milk and coconut, and garnished with black sesame. Eaten either as a dish during meals, or as a dessert; 6) Saw-hlaing mont, a baked sweet, made from millet, raisins, coconut and butter; and 7)Sut-hnan - millet cooked in sweet milk with raisins. [Source: Wikipedia]

Rakhine Mone-Ti: Rakhine nationals on the Bay of Bengal coast have a special way of making mohinga, the national dish. It is cooked differently, served differently, tastes different and is consumed differently. It is so different is worthy of its different name—Rakhine mone-ti. It may be enjoyed as a mixed salad accompanied by a soup or as noodles in clear fish soup. Ingredients: Thin rice noodles 1. 6 kg; Pike Conger Fish 400 gm (nga-shwe); oil 320 gm; Turmeric a dash ginger 2. 5 cm; garlic sliced 320 gm; onion sliced 320 gm; greater galangal 80 gm (pade-gaw); shrimp paste 3 tsp; pepper 1/2 tsp; chili powder 2 tbs; tamarind 80 gm; salt to taste; coriander leaves 160 g; Water to make 15 cups. =

How to cook: Boil fish until tender together with ginger and salt in water to just cover the fish. Debone the fish and slightly squeeze out the water when mashing it with the turmeric. and roast on slow fire in one tablespoon of oil until the fish becomes grainy. This is the fish garnish. Strain the liquid in which the fish has been boiled, add shrimp paste and boil for 40 minutes. Cool and let the solids settle. Take only the clear liquid. Place the roughly ground galangal together with 160 grams of crushed garlic in a muslin bag in the liquid. add the pepper and boil 30' filling up with water to get 15 cups of liquid. This is the clear soup to serve ten persons. Fry the remaining 160 grams of sliced garlic in oil and remove the garlic into a dish adding 4 tablespoons of the cooked oil. This is the garlic garnish. Fry the onion in the remaining oil until golden. Strain into another dish. This is the onion garnish. Make paste of chili powder in 2 tablespoons of water and cook in the frying oil until the water evaporates. This is the chili sauce. Dissolve the tamarind in warm water to form a thick sauce. How to serve: take the noodles and add roasted fish, tamarind sauce, chili sauce, fried garlic in oil, fried onions and coriander leaves and mix thoroughly. Serve soup in a separate bowl. Alternately put all the above ingredients in a bowl and pour the soup into the bowl. This is served as Rakhine mone-ti. =

Strange Food

Burmese eat roasted locusts skewered on a sticks. Some tribes are quite fond of them. Cooked sparrows served on a banana leaf with rice are commonly sold on the streets. No part of a chicken is wasted. It is not unusual to have chicken soup with bits of beak, claws, crop, eyeballs, and bones floating around in it. [Source: "The Great Railway Bazaar" by Paul Theroux]

People also eat roasted chicken legs and rooster heads. A common snack is green tea leaves mixed with nuts. Other offbeat foods include pickled ferns, cooked field crabs, mice, snake, insect lrvae, and fish innards

A popular snack is a handful of peanuts spiced with garlic and chili. An enjoyable breakfast for some people is goat brain with nan roti (Indian bread). Some people pick out the head of the fowl in a chicken dish to get at the brain.

Dog is not widely eaten in Myanmar as it is in Vietnam. Pradeep Kumar Nath said: "It is mainly tribal people who eat dogs." No other reports were received. [Source: animalpeoplenews.org]

Eating Insects in Myanmar

Many insects have found a place in the diets of the Burmese, Karens, Chins, Kachins, Shans, Talaings and others.The Buddhists have no objection there to eating animals killed by others. Many Burmese kill insects for themselves, as well as for sale. [Source: www.food-insects.com >>]

Cerambycidae (long-horned beetles) larvae are extracted from logs, dried, preserved in oil, and consumed with Burmese tea. C.C, Ghosh reports that the larva of the curculionid, Rhynchophorus ferrugineus, known as on-po, or coconut insect, is liked by everyone but is not easily procured. It occurs in Phoenix acaulis. Larvae are fattened by being placed inside ripe coconuts from which the water has been drained, then they are sold for 8 annas. They are eaten boiled; the skin, which separates during boiling, is rejected. [Source: Ghosh, C.C. 1924. A few insects used as food in Burma. Rpt. Proc. 5th Entomol. Mtg. Pusa, 1923. Calcutta, pp. 403-405, Pl. 36.*]

Adult Dytiscidae (predaceous diving beetles) are eaten, Maxwell-Lefroy wrote the insect is known as the "Twinpo"; both larvae and adults are eaten and "considered a delicacy by the Burman." Kingdon Ward's book, “In Farthest Burma” says that Ward's Nung porters searched in the "shingle" of a river bed for a species of bug "which when captured was decapitated between the fingernails and dropped into a bamboo tube.T hese bugs are fried in oil and eaten as a delicacy, despite their horrible odour." >>

Distant (1892) and Bodenheimer (1951) reported that the larva of the cicadid, Platypleura insignis, is collected by the dexterous use of a long thorny branch inserted into a shaft sunk 60-90 centimeters into the ground. It is considered a great luxury by the Karens .Delphin states:"In the northern and southern Shan states, the cicada (Hemiptera:Cicadidae) is highly esteemed.I have tried them, and must say they are tasty, but to all Burmese, the tastiest insect is the large brown cricket." >>

Among the Sema Negas, the nests of wild rock bees become the private property of the finder (Hutton 1921).Both honey and grubs are harvested.The collector must observe certain restrictions (described by Hutton) in taking the nest. A "much-relished soup" is made from the eggs, larvae and pupae of honey bees which are boiled with the comb (Ghosh 1924), and Delphin also notes that the larvae and pupae of honey bees are eaten. >>

Bingham (1903) noted that in Myanmar, as well as in Thailand and parts of India, a paste is made by pounding the ant, Oecophylla smaragdina Fabr., which is eaten as a condiment with curry. Maxwell-Lefroy (1971) mentioned the red ant as a delicacy in Myanmar. According to Ghosh, nests of the weaver ant, O. smaragdina, are collected and the adults and larvae killed by smoke. They are then made into a paste which turns sour and is called Khagyin.It is consumed especially by the women, who believe it to be good for menstruation. The wasp, Vespa auraria, is collected by the Shans by smoking the nests at night. The larvae and pupae are eaten. Wasps nesting underground are also caught and eaten (Ghosh 1924). >>

Ghosh (1924) reports that silkworms, Po-gaung-gyaw (presumably Bombyx mori), are eaten fried or are stored for future use, then boiled before being eaten. They sell for 1½ rupees per 3½ lbs.The silkworm pupa is ready to be eaten as it comes from the reeling pan in boiled condition. According to Ghosh, "It was delightful to see the little children come begging for such pupae from the Indian reelers...in the Prome district among the Yabeins."Also, the boiled pupae made a ready dish to be carried home by the girls being trained, after the day's work was done. >>

Frederick Delphinand the Study of Insects as Food in Burma

Frederick Delphin, MD, Ph.D., a native of Myanmar and occupant of the chair in zoology at Mandalay University prior to 1978, has done a considerable amount of research on the subject of insects used as food in Burma, In upper Myanmar, even scorpions, killed by immersion in hot water, are considered as food and are sold in the village markets, Dr. Delphin concluded his remarks by saying:"I come from a culture where insects are traditionally eaten because we like the taste of them.If I have written this account with my heart and soul, I have also written it with my stomach, so to speak." [Source: www.food-insects.com >>]

Dr. Delphin mentions that in the coastal areas of the Irrawaddy Delta, the larva of Rhynchophorus, which lives in the soft core of the brackish water palm tree, is as highly prized as is the larva of the dung beetle elsewhere.He relates an amusing incident relative to this species that occurred while he was at Mandalay University. >>

As in most developing countries, a professor is somebody who is expected to know everything about his subject (that is the connotation of the term professor in the Burmese language, pah-mouk-kha).So, when anything zoological was to be identified, the professor would be referred to.It so happened that, one day in 1974 or 1975, none other than the President, General Ne Win, on his return from an excursion to the riverine towns, brought back some larvae of Rhynchophorus, and he wanted to know the true identity of the insect.Local superstition had it that the larva changes into a strange-looking creature (obviously the pupa), which then emerges from the palm tree and flies away as a bird!!!The larvae were sent to the professor at Rangoon University; he, having been my professor, called me at Mandalay to come to Rangoon urgently; in this context, a call meant a command.In the meantime, the Rangoon people had told the First Lady that the larva was an `Ee-koke,' which is the Burmese name for the larva of the dung beetle; but the First Lady said she was familiar with the Ee-koke, having herself eaten it many times before, but that the present larva was from a palm tree and not from a ball of earth.Fortunately for we zoologists, I was already familiar with the palm weevil, and could come up with the identification right away. >>

Delphin says that a very popular insect is the larva of Eretes sticticus, which breeds in prodigious numbers in a lake in the crater of an extinct volcano at Twinn-daung in central Myanmar.The larvae come up to the shore and burrow into the soil where they pupate.The larvae are sundried, then fried crisp and eaten as a snack between meals or as a dessert after meals.The larvae are also used as a substitute or in addition to powdered shrimp in the typically Burmese preparation consisting of fermented tea leaves (called Le-hpet = tea) (called pickled tea in the British press), toasted sesame seeds, crisp fried slivers of garlic, shrimp (or fish) sauce (in lieu of salt), and chopped hot green peppers, with a dash of fresh lime or lemon juice for tartness. This is eaten at all times of the day or night, and is offered to visitors to homes, and as a digestive after the meal at typical Burmese social gatherings.Many foreigners cannot tolerate the taste, but those that like the taste can get quite addicted to it. >>

Delphin mentioned the giant water bug, Lethocerus, which is collected in the Rangoon area as it flies around the bright mercury lanterns that line the streets.The bugs are placed on hot coals, and the cooked insides eaten just as one would the soft parts of the limbs of lobsters and crabs. This practice, however, is not widespread. Delphin notes that in some parts of central and upper Burma, especially in the Mandalay area, myriads of Notonecta (back-swimmers) are scooped up from the ponds, mashed in a mortar, and used as a shrimp substitute to give "body" to gravies and soups and other dishes. >>

Delphin states that the large red ant, Formica [or O. smaragdina?], which lives in paper nests on trees, particularly mango trees, is used as an ingredient in a cough expectorant called locally Yet-hsar, "a salt to lick."This "salt" is widely eaten not only to loosen phlegm in the throat, but also to leave a pleasant taste in the mouth. Winged termites "are eaten in many places, boiled or fried" (Ghosh 1924).According to Delphin, termites are eaten raw as they emerge from underground in the extreme northern parts of Myanmar.The queen termites are a particularly great delicacy. >>

Scarab Beetles and Crickets as Food in Myanmar

According to Ghosh, the pupa of the large dung beetle, Helicopris bucephalus, known as shwe-po, is in "great demand among the Shans," each pupa costing 1 to 1½ annas.It is "widely exported."It is common from March to May in the Shan hills, where men, women and children dig over large areas in search of the pupae which are found inside round balls of earth one to two feet deep in the soil.As summarized by Bodenheimer (p. 269), "They seem to know as if by instinct where to dig for these balls by finding the opening hole of the gallery."They are dug out during the "season when the cuckoo begins to sing."Another scarabaeid, the larva of Oryctes rhinoceros, which breeds in dung heaps and is eaten fried, is "highly esteemed by the Karens."The larva of Xylotrupes gideon is also eaten.Other Coleoptera include larvae of various species that are found in cattle droppings and which are "eaten by many"; and various beetles attracted to light and collected with lanterns, then eaten or sold. [Source: www.food-insects.com >>]

Delphin states that: The larva of the dung beetle (Scarabaeidae:Coprinae) which is enclosed in a globe of earth, is particularly prized.The globe is found some one to three or more feet underground, either singly or in groups of three or more, and entails a lot of hard work to be unearthed.The gooey contents of the larva are squeezed out of the cuticle and cooked with scrambled eggs.(This is one insect I have never had the courage to try because I do not like gooey things except perhaps oat-meal porridge.)

The big brown cricket, Brachytrupes portentosus (= Brachytrypes achatinus), called payit, "is widely eaten and sold, fried, on the market at Mandalay"(Ghosh 1924).Collectors in the villages sell 10 large crickets for 2 annas.In Mandalay, 100 are sold for 1 rupee and 4 annas.Fried crickets are sometimes eaten by the basketsfull during festivals of the "rich." A former Burmese national, now living near Chicago, mentioned that the "large brown crickets" which she ate as a child (B. portentosus, obviously) is the food which she misses the most since coming to the United States.

According to Delphin, the most popular food insect in Burma is the large cricket, Brachytrupes portentosus, which breeds underground and emerges during the end of the rainy season, around September-October.It is particularly plentiful in the upper regions of the country, less so in the Rangoon area.It is gathered by the thousands at sundown and is considered to be more delicious when dug up from the loamy earth or when just emerging from underground rather than after it has flown around and maybe fallen into muddy fields or drains.The spiny tarsi, mouthparts and wings are clipped, the gut pulled out, and then the crickets are mixed with ground garlic and salt and deep fried until crisp.Females laden with eggs are more prized than the males. Live as well as fried crickets may be bought in the local markets.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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