Burmese cuisine is mainly an amalgam of cuisines from various regions of Myanmar. It has also been influenced by various cuisines of neighbouring countries, in particular, China, India and Thailand.
Modern Burmese cuisine comes in two general varieties: coastal and inland. The cuisine in the coastal areas, such as that in the main city Yangon, makes extensive use of fish and seafood-based products like fish sauce and ngapi (fermented seafood). The cuisine in inland regions, such as Upper Myanmar and hill regions, tends to use more meat and poultry although modern inland cooking too has incorporated freshwater fish and shrimp as a source of protein in several ways: fresh, salted whole or filleted, salted and dried, made into a salty paste, or fermented sour and pressed.
Burmese cuisine also includes a variety of salads (a thoke), centred on one major ingredient, ranging from starches like rice, wheat and rice noodles, glass noodles and vermicelli, to potato, ginger, tomato, kaffir lime, long bean, lahpet (pickled tea leaves), and ngapi (fish paste). These salads have always been popular as fast foods in Burmese cities. Mohinga is the traditional breakfast dish and is Burma's national dish.
A popular Burmese rhyme sums up the traditional favourites: "A thee ma, thayet; a thar ma, wet; a ywet ma, lahpet" (အသီးမှာသရက်၊ အသားမှာဝက်၊ အရွက်မှာလက်ဖက်။), meaning: "Of all the fruit, the mango's the best; of all the meat, the pork's the best; and of all the leaves, lahpet's the best".
Traditionally, Burmese eat their meals from dishes on a low table, while sitting on a bamboo mat. Dishes are served simultaneously. A typical meal includes steamed rice as the main dish and accompanying dishes called hin, including a curried freshwater fish or dried/salted fish dish, a curried meat or poultry dish instead, a light soup called hin gyo (ဟင်းချို), called chinyay hin (ချဉ်ရည်ဟင်း) if sour, and fresh or boiled vegetables to go with a salty dish, almost invariably a curried sauce of pickled fish (ngapi yayjo) in Lower Burma. Fritters such as gourd or onions in batter as well as fish or dried tofu crackers are extra.
Out of respect, the eldest diners are always served first before the rest join in; even when the elders are absent, the first morsel of rice from the pot is scooped and put aside as an act of respect to one's parents, a custom known as u cha (ဦးချ, lit. first serve).
The Burmese eat with their right hand, forming the rice into a small ball with only the fingertips and mixing this with various morsels before popping it into their mouths. Chopsticks and Chinese-style spoons are used for noodle dishes, although noodle salads are more likely to be eaten with just a spoon. Knives and forks are used rarely in homes but will always be provided for guests and are available in restaurants and hotels. Drinks are not often served with the meal and, instead, the usual liquid accompaniment is in the form of a light broth or consommé served from a communal bowl. Outside of the meal, the Burmese beverage of choice is light green tea, yay nway gyan (ရေနွေးကြမ်း).
In traditional Burmese medicine, foods are divided into two classes: heating (အပူစာ, apu za) or cooling (အအေးစာ, a-aye za), based on their effects on one's body system, similar to the Chinese classification of food.
Examples of heating and cooling foods include:
The Burmese also hold several taboos and superstitions regarding consumption during various occasions in one's life, especially pregnancy. For instance, pregnant women are not supposed to eat chili, due to the belief that it causes children to have sparse scalp hairs.
A traditional Burmese meal includes a bowl of soup, rice, several meat curries, and ngapi yay (a dip or dipping sauce) with tozaya (vegetables for dipping).
The country's diverse religious makeup influences its cuisine, as Buddhists avoid beef and Muslims pork. Beef is considered taboo by devout Buddhists because the cow is highly regarded as a beast of burden.Vegetarian dishes are only common during the Buddhist Lent (ဝါတွင်း), a three-month Rains Retreat, as well as Uposatha days. During this time, only two meals (i.e. breakfast and lunch) are consumed before midday to observe the fasting rules (Uposatha) and abstinence from meat (သက်သတ်လွတ်, lit. 'free of killing') is observed by devout Buddhists. Throughout the rest of the year, many foods can be prepared vegetarian on request, but the bulk of Burmese food is prepared with fish or meat broth bases. Also, many of the several ethnic groups prepare at least one inherently vegetarian dish (notably cuisine from the Shan people).
The countries that border Myanmar, especially India, China and Thailand, have influenced Burmese cuisine. Indian influences are found in Burmese versions of dishes such as samosas and biryani, and Indian curries, spices and breads such as naan and paratha. Southern Indian, especially Chettiar (ချစ်တီးကုလား) cuisine is also popular in cities. Chinese influences in Burmese cuisine are shown in the use of ingredients like bean curd and soya sauce, various noodles as well as in stir frying techniques. As in neighbouring Thailand and Laos, fried insects are eaten as snacks.
Burmese dishes are not cooked with precise recipes. The use and portion of ingredients used may vary, but the precision of timing is of utmost importance. One of the few remaining pre-colonial cookbooks is the Sadawset Kyan (စားတော်ဆက်ကျမ်း, lit. Treatise on Royal Foods), written on palm leaves in 1866 during the Konbaung dynasty.
Depending on the dish at hand, it may be roasted, stewed, boiled, fried, steamed, baked or grilled, or any combination of the said techniques. Burmese curries use only a handful of spices (in comparison to Indian ones) and use more garlic and ginger. Dishes are prepared with plenty of oil in the case of curries and soups, and the level of spices and herbs varies depending on the region; Kachin and Shan curries will often use more fresh herbs.
Ingredients used in Burmese dishes are often fresh. Many fruits are used in conjunction with vegetables in many dishes. The Burmese eat a great variety of vegetables and fruits, and all kinds of meat. A very popular vegetable is jengkol (တညင်းသီး), which is usually boiled or roasted and dipped in salt, oil and sometimes, cooked coconut fat.
The most common starch (staple food) in Myanmar is white rice or htamin (ထမင်း), which is served with accompanying meat dishes called hin (ဟင်း). Consumers in the northern highlands (e.g., Shan State) prefer stickier lower-amylose varieties like kauk hnyin (ကောက်ညှင်း; glutinous rice) and kauk sei, while consumers in lower delta regions preferring higher-amylose varieties like kauk chaw and kauk kyan. Lower-amylose rice varieties are commonly used in Burmese snacks (mont).
Paw hsan hmwe (ပေါ်ဆန်းမွှေး), a fragrant aromatic rice, is the most popular rice used in Burma and is rated as high as Thai jasmine rice or basmati rice. Today, Myanmar is the world's sixth largest producer of rice, though in recent times less is exported and even domestic supplies cannot be guaranteed. A purple variety of kauk hnyin, known as nga cheik (ငချိပ်), is commonly a breakfast dish.
Various types of noodles, ranging from egg and wheat noodles to rice vermicelli, are also used in salads and soups. Typically, vermicelli noodles and rice noodles are often used in soups, while thick rice and wheat noodles are used in salads. Palata (ပလာတာ), a flaky fried flatbread related to Indian paratha, is often eaten with curried meats while nan bya (နံပြား), a baked flatbread is eaten with any Indian dishes. Another favourite is aloo poori (အာလူးပူရီ), puffed-up fried breads eaten with potato curry.
Ngapi (ငါးပိ), a paste made from salted, fermented fish or shrimp, is considered the cornerstone of any Burmese traditional meal. It is used as a main ingredient in soup base, salads, main dishes, condiments, and plainly with cooked rice as well. Different usage for various dish depends on the region.
The ngapi of Rakhine State contains no or little salt, and uses marine fish. It is used as a soup base for the Rakhine regional cuisine, mont di (မုန့်တီ). It is also used widely in cooking vegetables, fish and meat.
In the coastal Ayeyarwady and Tanintharyi divisions, the majority of ngapi is based on fresh and salty fish. Ngapi is also used as a condiment such as ngapi yay (ငါးပိရည်), an essential part of Karen cuisine, which includes runny ngapi, spices and boiled fresh vegetables. The upper part of Myanmar which is the Shan State does not eat ngapi at all, instead they use fermented beans or fermented bean curd for their dishes and cuisines. Although some natives families from the lower part of Myanmar who settled in the upper parts still eat ngapi as their tradition.
Burmese cuisine is full of condiments, from sweet, sour to savoury. The most popular are pickled mango, balachaung (shrimp and ngapi floss) and ngapi gyaw (fried ngapi) and preserved vegetables in rice wine (from Shan State). Ngapi plays a major part in condiments, as a dip for fresh vegetables.
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.
Another bean-based condiment popular amongst the Bamar and the central dry region is pon ye gyi (ပုံးရည်ကြီး) - a thick salty black paste made from fermented soy beans. It is used in cooking, especially pork, and as a salad, with ground nut oil, chopped onions and red chili. Bagan is an important producer of pon ye gyi.
Because a standardised system of romanisation for spoken Burmese does not exist, pronunciations of the following dishes in modern standard Burmese approximated using IPA are provided (see IPA/Burmese for details).
Gyin thohk (ချင်းသုပ် [dʒɪ́ɰ̃ θoʊʔ]), ginger salad with sesame seeds
Kat kyi kaik (ကတ်ကြေးကိုက်[kaʔtɕígaɪʔ]), lit. 'cut with scissors'), a southern coastal dish (from the Dawei area) of rice noodles with a variety of seafood, land meats, raw bean sprouts, beans and fried eggs, comparable to pad thai
Let thohk sohn (လက်သုပ်စုံ[lɛʔ θoʊʔsòʊɴ]), similar to htamin thohk with shredded green papaya, shredded carrot, ogonori sea moss and often wheat noodles
Mont let saung (မုန့်လက်ဆောင်း[mo̰ʊɴlɛʔsʰáʊɴ]), tapioca balls, glutinous rice, grated coconut and toasted sesame with jaggery syrup in coconut milk
Nan gyi thohk (နန်းကြီးသုပ်[náɰ̃dʒí θoʊʔ]) or Mont di, thick rice noodle salad with chickpea flour, chicken, fish cake (nga hpe), onions, coriander, spring onions, crushed dried chilli, dressed with fried crispy onion oil, fish sauce and lime
Fried chapati, crispy and blistered, with boiled peas (pé-byohk), a popular breakfast next to nan bya
Halawa (ဟလဝါ[hàləwà]), a snack made of sticky rice, butter, coconut milk, from Indian dessert halwa. In Burma halwa is referred to a loose form, something like smashed potato, without baking into a hard or firmer cake in contrast to Sa-Nwin-Ma-Kin.
Hpaluda (ဖာလူဒါ[pʰàlùdà]), similar to the Indian dessert falooda, rose water, milk, jello, coconut jelly, coconut shavings, sometimes served with custard and ice cream
Htat taya (ထပ်တစ်ရာ[tʰaʔ təjà]), lit. "a hundred layers", fried flaky multi-layered paratha with either a sprinkle of sugar or pè byouk
Htawbat htamin (ထောပတ်ထမင်း[tʰɔ́baʔtʰəmɪ́ɴ]), rice made with butter and mostly eaten with chicken curry
Htamin jin (ထမင်းချဉ် [tʰəmíɴdʒɪ̀ɴ]), 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 (pé bouk) and fried dried tofu (topu jauk kyaw) on the side
Khow suey (ခေါက်ဆွဲ), a one-dish soup meal made of egg noodles and curried beef or chicken with coconut milk, served with a variety of contrasting condiments
Lahpet thohk (လက်ဖက်သုပ်[ləpʰɛʔ θoʊʔ]), 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
Meeshay (မြီးရှေ[mjíʃè]), rice noodles with pork 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 white radish/mustard greens
Shan tohu (ရှမ်းတိုဟူး[ʃáɴ tòhú]), 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)
Shan khao swé (ရှမ်းခေါက်ဆွဲ[ʃáɴ kʰaʊʔsʰwɛ́]), 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)
Wet tha chin (ဝက်သားချဉ်[wɛʔ θətʃʰɪ̀ɴ]), preserved minced pork in rice
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.
Kya zan thohk - glass vermicelli salad with boiled prawn julienne and mashed curried duck eggs and potatoes.
Ngapi daung - an extremely spicy condiment made from pounded ngapi and green chili
Khayun thee nga chauk chet - aubergine cooked lightly with a small amount of oil, with dried fish and chilli
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.
Saw-hlaing mont - a baked sweet, made from millet, raisins, coconut and butter
Sut-hnan - millet cooked in sweet milk with raisins