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Burmese Cuisine,
Its Unique Style and Changes after British Annexation

By U Khin Maung Saw
1. Introduction:

1.1. What is Burmese Cuisine?

Nowadays, whenever one asks a foreigner who has just visited Burma about Burmese
cuisine, his/her answer will either be "Burmese cuisine is somewhere between Indian
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and Chinese" or "Burmese dishes are somewhere between Thai and Indian dishes".

The writer does not share the aforementioned opinions. Traditional Burmese Cuisine is
unique, and totally different from that of the Indians, and it is also not similar to Chinese
cuisine. It is however to a certain extent similar to Thai Cuisine.

But why do so many people come to such conclusions? Here, six important points must be
made, frankly: (1) This kind of answer is generally given by someone who has very limited
knowledge of Burmese food. (2) Traditionally, the Burmese are humble and easy-going
people. Thus, they are not keenly interested in opening big restaurants like the Chinese
and Indians
2
. (3) Mostly, traditional Burmese foods can be found in local markets or in the
side streets where foreigners rarely go and eat. (4) Otherwise, one must either befriend a
Burmese family and get invited home for a genuine native style lunch/dinner or join a
Buddhist festival at the monasteries, pagodas and temples, where varieties of traditional
Burmese foods are served free of charge. However, many tourists staying only a limited
time in Burma may not have this kind of chance. (5) Burma was put under the umbrella of
the British Indian Empire. Thus, about one million people from the subcontinent and some
thousands of Chinese came to settle in Burma. Their offspring, most of them of mixed blood
with Burmese, invented either Indo-Burmese or Sino-Burmese "hybrid cuisines". (6) There
are very few publications about traditional Burmese recipes. Most recipes, though written
and published during the post-independence era, are based on those "hybrid cuisines".

In this paper, the writer will explain the differences between traditional Burmese foods and
those “indianized” Burmese foods which evolved after the British annexation of Burma.

2. Into the "Hidden Traditional Burmese Cuisine":


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2.1. Cook Books and Recipes:

As mentioned before, there are very few publications about traditional Burmese recipes.
Most recipes, though written and published during the post-independence era, are based
on those "hybrid cuisines".

Here, I would like to cite Daw Mi Mi Khaing
3
, who wrote: "We never have recipes to cook
from like the western cookbooks give. Someone must always show you. Methods and
suggestions are easy to obtain, but exact amounts and duration of processes hardly ever.
The cooks who produce the best dishes, done to a precise turn and flavoured to a delicate
balance are the least helpful. Perhaps in the context of our variable food materials their
cooking from feel of hand and eyes and the certainty of experience is not lack of precision
but the true Science of cooking".

A Japanese scholar Yasuko Dobashi
4
who also wrote: "Burmese meals today should taste
quite familiar to a Japanese, if he/she has a chance to eat them. It is probably because we
are sharing the same meal pattern, which means cooked rice is taken as main food and
meat, fish and vegetables are taken as subsidiary ones. However, Burmese food is not
actually so well known to most Japanese. Maybe, because many Japanese have not
stayed in Burma long enough to introduce her delicacies to Japan and also because we
may have not had enough Burmese visitors yet to learn about their food from. Accordingly,
one who is keenly interested in Burmese food or cooking is not always able to meet a
Burmese who is good at cooking or any food specialist from either Burma or Japan. And
similarly, an enthusiastic lover of Burmese food is not always able to find a good listener
easily. In such circumstances, the phrase, often used in expressing the character of
Burmese food, saying "Burmese food is a sort of a hybrid between those of the Indian and
Chinese" might be convenient for those who want just a little bit of knowledge about it. It
may be true to a certain degree, though, considering the great increase in the Indian and
Chinese population in Burma since Burma became part of the British Indian Empire. But
there should have been the traditional Burmese food. ---- ---- Anyhow, it is not easy to trace
what traditional Burmese food is. As far as I know, there is no historical document written
by any European or any other foreign visitors to Burma during her Monarchic days,
recording the fact that a particular food was served at the Palace or at any Burmese private
residence, etc. Prof. Than Htwun (Than Tun), the prominent Burmese scholar of Burmese
history, said that he had never read or found any archives describing the food taken by old-
time Burmese people. Then he gave me a copy of an old Burmese book, telling me that it
was the only one concerning old-time Burmese food or cooking, as far as he knew. The
book was "Sâ-do-Hce'-Cân", a cook book from the palace kitchen. "Sâ-do-Hce'-Cân" is
probably one of the oldest cook books ever published in Burma. It was originally written on
palm leaves in 1866, that is twenty years before the Konbaung Dynasty collapsed and all
Burma became a British colony. Later on, the book was transcribed from the palm leaves
to be published by Hanthawaddy Press, a publisher in Burma, in 1965". "This tiny cook
book begins with an elaborate list of contents, giving a total of 89 recipes, and a few know-
hows are mentioned in it".


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The present author has consulted with many Burmese from Upper Burma, which means
they are pure Bamars (Burmese/Burman)
5
, including Burma Scholars like U Tin Htway
from the University of Heidelberg, Germany. Unfortunately, however, most of them have
never heard of that book.

So, no wonder, most foreigners cannot research deeply into Traditional Burmese Cuisine.
Even Sir James Scott (Shway Yoe)
6
, though he wrote 64 chapters on the life and notions of
the Burmese, did not discuss traditional Burmese cuisine clearly except in one chapter
about Ngapi (fish/shrimp paste).

2.2. Traditional Burmese Cuisine:

2.2.1. A Burmese meal

2.2.1.1. Htamin and Hin:

The two main Burmese meals are identical in structure. The major staple food for Burmese
people is ±. Htamin , meaning cooked rice which is eaten together with - Hin. Hin
means any type of main and/or side dish of meat or fish or vegetables, which may be
roasted, stewed, cooked, boiled, fried, steamed, baked, or grilled, or any type of soup, or
any type of salad of either meat/fish or vegetables, or any type of vegetable and fruit either
fresh/raw or boiled, - in some cases with gravy - to eat together mainly with cooked-rice (as
well as noodles; and the like). There is no exact English word for it. Anything one eats
between, before and after these two meals is called .∑ ·..-· (thayeza).

2.2.1.2. Types of Hin:

The name of the Hin is based on the type and how it is prepared or cooked. Generally, it
can be constructed by means of post-positioning a verb used in Burmese cooking terms to
a noun such as meat, fish, vegetables etc. For example, the noun ÷.· (wet-tha) means
pork and the verb .¨÷· (kyaw) means to fry. When the verb is placed after the noun; a new
noun ÷ .·.¨÷· wet-tha kyaw) meaning fried pork, is formed, which is the name of a
Burmese Hin . Similarly, when the verbs . (poun) meaning to steam and . (thok)
meaning to make salad are placed after the noun ÷.· (wet-tha) meaning pork, two
Hins namely ÷.·. (wet-tha poun) meaning steamed pork and ÷.·. (wet-tha
thok) meaning pork salad are formed.


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The following are some verbs used in traditional Burmese cuisine and their rough
translation in English:

Burmese Verb Meaning in English

(1) ÷ (chet)

to cook something with water until all the
water evaporates; to cook something with
oil, water and some ingredients or spices
such as onion, garlic, ginger etc.

(2) “- (pyot)
to boil.
(3) .¨÷· (Kyaw)
to fry; to deep fry.
(4) .·˙· (hlaw)
to roast.
(5) .- (phot)
to bake.
(6) ÷ (kin)
to toast; to barbecue; to broil; to roast; to
grill.
(7) ¬ (own)
to bake in live coals.
(8) .“.· (phyaw)
to blanch with boiling water.
(9) . (poun)
to steam.
(10) ÷ (kyo)
to dissolve by means of boiling
(11) .˙ (hnat)
to tenderize food; to stew in own juice.
(12) ”÷- (kyait)
to grind; to mill.
(13) .±· (htoun)
to pound.
(14) . (thok)
to mix various ingredients to prepare a
salad.
(15) ¬◊-. (ahchin-te)
to pickle.
(16) ¬.“·÷·˙. (Ahchauk-hlan)
to dry.
(17) .¨÷·÷ (Kyaw-chet)
to fry first and then to simmer.
(18) `-.¨÷· (pyot-kyaw)
to stew.


2.3. Misinterpretations of the Burmese word Hin:

There is no exact English word for the translation of Hin. However, some people, especially
British and Indian writers, translated Hin as curry and preferred to use that term. A real
Burma scholar will not share that view, nor does the writer.

2.3.1. Definition of curry:

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Col. Henry Yule and A. C. Burnell published "Hobson-Jobson" A Glossary of Colloquial
Anglo Indian Words and Phrases, and Kindred Terms, Etymological, Historical,
Geographical and Discursive (First Published in 1886). In page 281 of 1990 Edition,
Calcutta, where it was written: "Curry, s. In the East the staple food consists of some
cereal, either (as in N. India) in the form of flour baked into unleavened cakes, or boiled in
the grain, as rice is. Such food having little taste, some small quantity of a much more
savoury preparation is added as a relish, or 'kitchen', to use the phrase of our forefathers.
And this is in fact, the proper office of curry in native diet. It consists of meat, fish, fruit, or
vegetables, cooked with a quantity of bruised spices and turmeric [see Mussala]; and a little
of this gives a flavour to a large mass of rice. The word is Tamil kari, i.e. 'sauce'; [kari, v. 'to
eat by biting']".

Since the above mentioned book is an indispensable dictionary for those who want to study
the history of India during the last 300 years and its impact on East and West, it should no
doubt be considered as standard literature.

2.3.2. Why should Hins not be translated as Curries?

As I mentioned in 2.1.1.1., any type of main or side dish, cooked or uncooked can be a Hin.
So, soups, salads, -≥-.· touzaya or dippers, sauces, fruits, vegetables, ngapi or
fish/shrimp paste, `·.. nganpyaye or fish sauce, .. ngapiye concentrated solution
of fish/shrimp paste,
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generally all foods taken together with rice are Hins. Hence, the
definition of Hin is not similar to the definition of curry mentioned by Col.Yule & Co.

Apart of that, Burmese rarely use Indian curry spices like ,,.- coriander seeds, ».·
cumin, .-¨÷ cinnamon, ÷...∑÷ bay leaves, .··· cardamom, .±·· curry powder or
other curry ingredients.

Instead of Indian spices, they use bean products, -. basil, .˙.,, Erygium foetidum,
¡`.- Allium tuberosum, -. -,, celery and √ .-·.. 'Curry Leaves' Clausena
excavata in Upper Burma. Lemon grass -·, "ngapi" (shrimp/fishpaste), `·..
"nganpyaye" (fishsauce) and coriander leaves ,, are used in Lower Burma. The main
ingredients of Burmese dishes include a lot of onion ¨÷÷.∑,,, garlic ¨÷÷.∑,`.¡ and ginger
. In some dishes chillies .-., pepper . -.÷·, galangal Hedchium gracile
-.÷· and Turmeric Curcuma longa ,.∑ are also used.


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Daw Aung San Suu Kyi
8
, winner 0f the Nobel Peace Prize for 1991, also wrote in her book
"Freedom from Fear", on page 75: "The basic item of a Burmese meal is usually rice, taken
with what westerners would describe as a 'curry'. However, Burmese 'curries' are not quite
the same as the better-known Indian ones. The Burmese use less spices but more garlic
and ginger. Fish products are also an important part of Burmese cooking. Fish sauce and
dried shrimps are used for flavouring. Ngapi, a paste of preserved fish with a very strong
smell, is taken as a relish at almost every meal”.

In fact, the Burmese word Hin does not mean "curry" but "curry" can be a type of Hin. The
nearest Hin to the Anglo-Indian word "curry" may be the "Hseebyan" Hin. "Hseebyan" Hin
is a Burmese dish in which one has to cook for a very long time until all the water
evaporates and only oil remains in the gravy. However, this dish too, does not have any
curry ingredients.

A Japanese scholar, Yasuko Dobashi
9
also noticed this wrong translation and wrote
therefore: "(the Burmese word) Hin is the subsidiary food taken with rice. It is just like
"Okazu" in Japanese meals. There is no exact English word for it".

Daw Mi Mi Khaing
10
also mentioned: "Due to a common colonial past with India the English
word "Curry" is still used by Burmese as a ready translation for their main meat or fish dish
(Hin). In fact, not half of such dishes contain curry-spice in the Indian style".

2.3.3. Misinterpretations due to Anglo-Indian Influences:

Actually, the Indian style curries are called either Kalachet Hin ÷··÷-¦, meaning
the Hin cooked in Indian style or Masala Hin .±··-, meaning the Hin cooked with
Masala, Curry Powder. Unfortunately, however, because of the same colonial past and
more or less because of the influence of Indian English on the English language used in
Burma, especially at the beginning of the colonial era, most of the people in Burma use the
word "Curry" as a ready-made translation of Hin , although it is incorrect.

I have several times heard incorrect translations like "Chinese Curry" for Chinese dishes,
"Japanese Curry" for Japanese dishes, "European Curry" for European dishes and "sour
curry" or "acid curry" for sour soup and so forth used by my own compatriots when they
speak in English. The biggest mistake is, they usually say: "We Burmese eat rice and
curry" instead of saying "We Burmese eat cooked rice and any side or main dish which is
called Hin in our language which you westerners would name as curry".


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That was the main reason why my colleagues Dr. A. Esche
11
and the late Prof. E. Richter
12
were misled and used the word "Curry" for the general translation of the Burmese word Hin
in their older publications without carefully checking the real facts. This was corrected in
their later publications.
13


Among other southeast Asian countries which either became British colonies like Malaysia
and Singapore, or a country which was very close to the British like Thailand, the Anglo-
Indian word "Curry" is used as a ready-made translation for their main and/or side dishes
although they too do not use Indian curry spices. Actually, they call their dishes Kaeng in
Thai and Lauk in Malay. However, in a country like the Philippines, where American
English rather than British English (or Anglo-Indian terminology) is preferred, nobody calls
their dishes "Curry", although some of their dishes are very similar to those of their
southeast Asian neighbours. Instead the English word "Viand" or their own word Ulam is
used. Another example is Indonesia which became a Dutch colony. Although Malay and
Indonesian are very similar languages and some of their dishes are identical, the Malays
use the ready-made translation "Curry" but the Indonesians rarely. In fact, the Burmese
word Hin, the Thai word Kaeng, the Malay word Lauk, Filipino word Ulam and the Japanese
word Okazu have the same meaning, namely any kind of dish taken with their major staple
food, cooked rice.

2.4. Serving and Eating in the Burmese Way:

2.4.1. Dining Table:

As in most Asian countries, dining tables in Burma are low and round. They are about 30
centimetres off the floor. One can sit on a mat either made of bamboo or the skin of “thin”
. Clinogyne dichotomata. Sometimes, a low stool .± (phintaingkhon) may be used
for children. Generally, people eat with their fingers, using only the finger tips. Palms must
not be smeared with Htamin and Hin, because this is considered to be "uncultured".
Usually, people wash their hands properly with soap before and after eating. Neither fork
and knife nor chop sticks are used, however spoons are necessary for noodle dishes, and
soups, and/or used as serving spoons for normal meals.

Burmese are devout Buddhists and therefore neither wine nor should alcoholic beverages
be expected on the traditional Burmese dining table. Instead of alcoholic beverages, a pot
of plain tea or a jug of water is served. All the courses of a meal will be laid simultaneously
on the table. Generally, beef is not a major element in the Burmese meal
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, and milk is
used only sparingly
15
. A guest should not expect that the host -with the exception of

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westernized ones and/or if the host is either a relative or a close friend of the guest - will eat
together with him/her. A Burmese host will keep company in the Burmese way.
He/she/they will sit with his/her/their guests, entertaining them by means of conversation
and serving food.

2.4.2. Taste:

Since there are no exact expressions in the English language for some Burmese flavours
and spices, I have taken the liberty of using botanical names written in Italics.


Burmese word Meaning in English Spice or flavour used

, ngan

salty

table salt, fish sauce
√ chin
sour lemon, lime, tamarind
cho
sweet, bland, mild dried shrimps, mono sodium
glutamate
- sut
stinging hot, pungent chilli, garlic, ginger,
pu
hot pepper, Piper logum,
galangal
kha
bitter bitter gourd, leaves of
Azadirachata indica
.÷ thet
slightly bitter tendril of gourd or pumpkin
etc.
.. hmway
aromatic roasted shrimp paste,
roasted garlics, ginger and
onions
., phan
acrid, astringent unripened fruits
¬ i
be rich, fatty pork fat, eggs
±. hsaint
slightly enriching nuts, beans, lentils
.· lay
strong flavour of all tastes mixture of all flavours
mentioned above
. paw'
weak flavour of all tastes very weak mixture of all
those mentioned above

2.4.3. Specimen Menu:

2.4.3.1. A Full Course used in Buddhists Festivals;

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2.4.3.1.1. Htamin and Hins

Htamin or cooked rice is compulsory because it is a major staple food. Many Hins, main or
side dishes are served. Usually, two meat dishes, one fish dish, one soup, one fried
vegetable dish, one salad, boiled or fresh vegetables as -≥-.· touzaya or dipper, .¨÷·
ngapikyaw fried shrimp/fish paste and .. ngapiye fish paste solution as dip (to whet
the appetite) can be found on the table.

Generally, ÷.·,÷ (wetthani-chet) reddish-brown pork, ¨÷÷.·±`, (kyettha
hseebyan) oily cooked chicken or chicken curry `a la birmanie , ..··÷.
(ngathalauk-poun) steamed Hilsa ( "Rangoon Shad"), √.- (chinpaun-hin) sour
soup made of roselle leaves, -.∑÷-.¨÷· (hinywetson-kyaw) or ¬-..¨÷· (asein-kyaw)
fried mixed green vegetables, either ¬.·. meat salad or ... a salad of fried fish
called ‘Feather Back’, either green mangoes or cucumbers as -≥-.· touzaya or dipper,
.¨÷· ngapikyaw fried shrimp/fish paste and .. ngapiye fish paste solution as
dip, are very common Hins for those festivals. In some places -`·. (peti-pepya-
thok) bean sprouts and bean curds salad with roasted sesame seeds is another dish for
vegetarians. Although bean sprouts and bean curds are of Chinese origin, the salad
dressing is purely Burmese style.

There is a famous Burmese pop-song about a festival meal: ¨÷÷±“, ÷.·, ,÷,
.¬.¬· √. ÷.·-”÷ ·÷.±.-, which can be roughly translated as:
chicken curry `a la birmanie, served together with a plate of "wetthani", (have yourselves
what you see)! "Chinpaun-hin" (Sour soup made of roselle leaves) will neutralize the
richness of these. The size of meat in the reddish-brown pork is as big as a fist as you see!
(Taste it, and be in seventh heaven!)

2.4.3. Poor men’s menu:

Unfortunately, however, a poor family or even an average salary earner can not afford the
above mentioned menu for their daily meals. So, they have to plan according to their
budget. Generally, they eat Htamin cooked rice, which is a major staple with only one Hin,
either soup or fried vegetables. Some have to be satisfied with .. ngapiye shrimp/fish
paste solution and -≥-.· touzaya dipper only.

2.5. .∑·..-· (thayeza) or snacks:


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As mentioned before, anything eaten between, before or after the two main meals is called
.∑·..-· (thayeza), meaning snack. Mainly noodles, ¬.¨÷·- (Akyawsoan) or assorted
fries and ·÷.- (lethoksoan), assorted salads (literally: salads which must be mixed by
hand) are taken as snacks.

2.5.1. Noodle Dishes:

There are a variety of wheat, rice and soya noodles. Some are fresh and some are
fermented. Some are sold dry and some fresh, all of them vary in size and taste.
Generally, noodles are called "Kaukswe". This Burmese word is believed to be the
corruption of the Shan (Tai) word "Kawsein" or Thai (Siamese) word "Kausoi" literal
meaning "rice thread". Noodles can be eaten fried, as salads, soups and/or with gravies.
The following are the varieties of noodles:

Name of noodle

Meaning in English
¨÷÷√.÷±∑ (Kyet-u-kaukswe)
Wheat and egg noodles
¨÷·±”÷ (Kyarzangyi)
Rice noodles (as big as macaroni)
±,¨÷·± (Hsankyarzan)
Rice vermicelli
¨÷·± (Pekyarzan)
Soya vermicelli
`.-∑.Mueswan)
Tiny and soft wheat vermicelli
.,≥-.`·÷ (Mondi-chauk)
Dried rice noodles
.,≥-.,≥ (Monhinga-mon)
Fermented rice noodles
±,.÷±∑ (Hsan-kaukswe)
.˙.÷±∑ (Hnyat-kaukswe)

Flat rice noodles
.˙..÷±∑ (Shan-kaukswe)
.-, (Kausein)

Common Shan-rice noodles

2.5.2. ¬.¨÷·- (Akyaw-soan) or assorted fries:

¬.¨÷·- (Akyaw-soan) or assorted fries are made of vegetables and/or other foods mixed
with crisp batter and deep fried in oil. In fact, ¬.¨÷·- (Akyaw-soan) is very similar to the
Japanese Tempura. Assorted fries are eaten together with strong chilly-garlic sauce.

2.5.3. ·÷.- (Lethok-soan) or assorted salads:

Vegetables either boiled or raw, boiled meats, cooked rice or noodles are mixed (mostly by
hand) with roasted bean powder or roasted peanut powder, cooked oil, fish sauce,

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powdered dried shrimps, either lime juice or tamarind juice, either green chillies or dried
chilly powder, .- (ngapibok), baked shrimp/fish paste, fried onions and fried garlics.
Generally, - (hinga), a plain soup strongly flavoured with pepper powder (either black
or white) is a side dish for most ·÷. (lethok).

3. Changes in Burmese Cuisine during the Colonial Period:

3.1. Indian immigration waves:

After the First Anglo-Burmese War, which broke out in 1824 and ended in 1826, some parts
of Burma were annexed into the British Indian Empire. The whole of Burma was occupied
by the British in 1886. Hence, people from the subcontinent could come to Burma freely
and unconditionally and some were brought by the British for many reasons
16
. Only from
that time did real Indian influences in Burmese daily life such as cuisine, architecture and
language begin.

Most of the big cities in lower Burma and the coastal areas were dominated by people
coming from the subcontinent, especially the capital city, Rangoon, where more than half of
the population were from the subcontinent. That's why Rangoon was called ÷··`. "Kala
Myo" (the city of Indians) by Burmese from other towns, particularly Mandalay, "the Golden
City", the last capital of the Burmese Kingdom.

Prof. B.R. Pearn wrote in " A history of Rangoon" (published in 1939) "The population of the
city was not merely increasing; it was changing in character. The opportunities for trade
and for employment which were now available attracted a considerable Indian population.
The Census of 1872 shows that there were some 16,000 Indians, being 16% of the whole
population, in the town; in 1881, there were over 66,000, being about 44% of the whole.
The Burmese population had actually undergone a slight decrease, from 69,000 to 67,000,
and relatively had declined considerably, from nearly 70% to about 50%. Of the total
population in 1881, less than 49% had been born in Rangoon. Thus was commencing the
process which has made Rangoon an Indian rather than a Burmese city".

3. 2. Indian-style cooking in Burma:

The whole of Burma came under the umbrella of the British Indian Empire from 1886
(Arakan and Tenasserim from 1826, lower Burma from 1852). Hence, about a million
people from the subcontinent and some thousands of Chinese came to settle in Burma.
Their offspring, most of them of mixed blood with Burmese, invented either Indo-Burmese

12
or Sino-Burmese "hybrid cuisines". However, during the colonial era, as the Indian
community in Burma was much bigger than that of the Chinese, it was no wonder that
"cooking in the Burmese way" was more or less influenced by "Indian-style cooking".

Traditionally, Burmese never used "Masala" or "curry powder"in their dishes. However,
nowadays many Lower-Burmese in coastal areas, especially in Rangoon, use "curry
powder" in their meat (except pork) and fish dishes. These kind of dishes may be called
either "Indo-Burmese hybrid cuisine" or "Indianized dishes of Burma".

Nowadays in Burma, Persian dishes like "biryani" and "pillau" which were introduced by
people from the subcontinent, have become delicacies for Burmese people. In Burma,
these dishes are called (·.÷±. "Danbauk Htamin". The origin of "Danbauk" comes
from Persian word Dumpuhkt. Since these dishes are of Muslim origin, the original recipe
from Persia uses ghee (clarified butter) instead of oil and the meat commonly used is either
beef or mutton or goat or chicken. These types of "biryani" can be bought in Indian food
shops owned either by Indians or Indo-Burmese people of mixed blood, "Burmese
Muslims"
17
. However, when such dishes were adapted and commonly used by the
Burmese who are devout Buddhists; since pork and lobsters are favourites of the Burmese,
they invented a special type of biryani and pillau simplified to Burmese taste by cooking
either with spare ribs or with lobsters. These dishes can be called biryani et pillau`a la
birmanie, and these recipes can be found in some "Modern Burmese Cook Books".

One south Indian dish called (÷··- "Kala Hin" meaning Indian dish, cooking dried
fish (.`·÷ ), drum sticks (fruits of horseradish tree) Moringa oleifera (·,.·∑,. ),
eggplant or aubergine (...), radish (. ,··) and other vegetables together is also a
favourite dish for Burmese nowadays.

Cooking meat with potatoes may also be an Indian influence. The Burmese word for potato
is ¬·· (Ahloo) and the origin of that word is Hindi. The recipe for "butter and lentil rice" is
also of Indian origin.

Indians were everywhere in Burma during the Colonial Period, so as a result, even now one
can find Indian restaurants or rather "Food Stalls" and tea shops even in very small towns,
though the owner might now be a Burmese or an Indo-Burmese ("Burmese Muslim"). One
can buy Indian food like "Samosa" (-.±·), "Parata" (··-·), "Nan" (,`·), "Pakoda" or
"Baya" (-.·.¨÷· ) and "Chana Jo" (-·÷.·.) everywhere. Some Indian food like
"Mango Pickle" (..÷.., ), "Nan" (, `·) and Indian Sweetmeat like "Halawa"

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(-··) are so strongly assimilated into Burmese that even some Burmese believe these
to be original Burmese.

There is no doubt that tea was and is a national drink of the Burmese. I believe it was
either Chinese or Shan influence after the fall of the Pagan Empire (14
th
century A.D.). But
it is the plain tea like the Chinese. The Burmese are the only people in the whole world
who eat pickled tea leaves (·÷.÷ ). The Burmese never call tea "Cha" like the Chinese,
Thais, Indians and others but "Laphetye" (·÷.÷.. ) in their own language, which can be
roughly translated either as "solution of tea" or liquid of tea". However, the drinking of black
tea with milk and sugar, although of British origin, was brought by the Indians to Burma
during the colonial era. So, nowadays, all tea shops in Burma sell black tea. Whenever
you buy a cup of black tea, a pot of green tea is also served as a gift and that tea is called
"Sada" (±··) which is a Hindi word, meaning "extra" or "gift".

Before the whole of Burma became a British colony in 1886, Burmese, like their other
southeast Asian cousins, rarely drank milk, yoghurt or sour milk and rarely ate dairy
products. They used bean products in Upper Burma and fish products in Lower Burma
instead. The west end of Arakan then used to be the real boundary between two ethnic
groups namely; the fish and bean products eating people (the Southeast Asians) and the
dairy products eating people (Indians or South Asians). However, nowadays in Burma,
because of Indian influence, some people, especially in Rangoon eat and drink dairy
products. In most of the towns in Burma, one can buy "Faluda" (.···), an Indian dessert,
which is mainly made of milk, and other dairy products.

Even the cooking done by the people of Upper Burma is very different from that done by the
people of Lower Burma
18
. There are three main reasons:
(1) The colonial period in Lower Burma was almost double that of in Upper Burma.
(2) Hence, no wonder, the Indian population in Lower Burma was much bigger than that in
Upper Burma and Indian influence was therefore more dominant in Lower Burma than in
Upper Burma.
(3) At the time of British annexation, the Upper Burmese were pure Burmese but the
Lower Burmese were either Mons or mixed blood Mon and Burmese. Since Mons lived in
the coastal areas they had contact with people from the subcontinent at a very early date.
So, there is no doubt that the Indian influence on Mons was greater than their influence on
the Burmese.

3.2.1. Indic loan words in Burmese cuisine:


14
In the Burmese language too, some Indic words were adopted and now- adays some
people no longer know that these words are not pure Burmese but taken from one of the
Indian languages. The following are some examples:


Adopted word Indic word Meaning

¬·· (Ahloo)

Ahloo

Potato
(Jon)
Gehom Wheat
¬·-· (Ahta)
Atta wheat flour (roughly ground)
.· (Malaing)
Malai Cream of milk
..,≥ (Poun-mont)
Poun
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Bread
·, (Dane)
Dehi Yoghurt
-, (Pusinan)
Pudina Pepper mince
.±·· (Masala)
Masala Curry powder
÷·-· (Kaliza)
Khalija Viscera
».· (Ziya)
Jeera Cumin
(Ghee)
Ghee Clarified butter
..¨÷. (Shwe Kyi)
Suji Semolina
.,··√ (Monla-oo)
Moola Radish
.¨-± (Gawbihtok)
Gobi Cabbage

Here, I would like to point out that, in Rangoon most of the Indian foods are called by their
original names. Mandalayan usage is however different. They use Burmese words for
these foods.

Examples:

Original Rangoon Mandalay Meaning
Samosa
-.±·
(Samusa)
.,≥÷∑..·
(Mont Kunya)
Food that looks like
Kunya
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Prata
··-·
(Plata)
±-.·
(Htattaya)
Food with a hundred
layers
Kheema Prata
÷.···-·
(Keema Plata)
¬.···-·
(Atha Plata)
Prata filled with meat


3.3. Burmese-style Cooking on the Subcontinent:

15

Here, I have to mention that Burmese cuisine has also influenced Indian cuisine to a certain
extent. After 1964, a lot of people from the subcontinent left Burma and went back to India
and Pakistan, taking Burmese cooking with them, too.

When one reads modern Indian recipes, there are recipes like "Coconut Rice" (¬,±.),
"Ohno Kaukswe" (¬,.≥.÷±∑ ) (noodles with a gravy of chicken cooked in coconut milk)
and "Panthay Kaukswe" (,...÷±∑ ) (noodles with a gravy of chicken cooked in
coconut milk, chillies and curry spices), and they have to admit that the original is from
Burma.

3.4. Chinese-style cooking in Burma:

3.4.1. Sino-Burmese Dishes:

Chinese Cuisine has also influenced "Modern Burmese Cuisine" to a certain extent.
Cooking with celery, soy sauce (thick and thin), dried mushrooms, oyster sauce, bean curds
(tofu), pickled Chinese cabbage, pickled mustard, bean sprouts, etc. is more or less of
Chinese origin. Some favourite dishes of the modern Burmese people are fried rice, fried
noodles, spring rolls, fried rice vermicelli, noodle soups, "Twelve Varieties Soup", roasted
duck, "Sweet and Sour", Gonbang, roast pork, sausages etc. These recipes are also given
in "Modern Burmese Cook Books", of course with Burmese names such as
÷,.-·”÷.¨÷· (konboungyi-kyaw) for Gonbang, ÷-÷ (Peking-baigin) for "Peking
Duck", .÷·`,.¨÷· (Kawpyan-kyaw) for "Spring Rolls", √ .¨÷· (chochin-kyaw) for
"Sweet and Sour" etc. These dishes may be called "Sino-Burmese Hybrid Cuisine".

3.4.2. Chinese loan words in the Burmese cuisine:

In the Burmese language too, some Chinese words were adopted and nowadays some
people no longer know that these words are not pure Burmese but taken from one of the
Chinese dialects. The following are some examples:

Loan word Chinese Meaning

÷÷·, (kike-lan)

Gailan

Chinese kale, Brassica
alboglabra
¨÷·.≥ (Kyarnyo)
Jaing you Thick soy sauce

16
¬¨÷·.÷∑ (Ikyakwe)
Youzha gui Deep fried twisted dough
sticks
÷,.-·”÷ (Konboungyi)
Honbaoji/Gonbangji Meat (mostly chicken) fried
with chillies and onions
.÷·`,≥ (Kopyan)
Baobing/Lopia/Kopian Spring rolls
-- (Tohu)
Doufu/Tofu bean curd
.÷- (Pausi)
Baozi/Paus Chinese dumpling
“...˙ (Mishei)
Mixian Rice noodles prepared with
bean sprouts, meat, pickled
mustard and dressing
`.-∑. (Mueswan)
Mianxian, Miasua Tiny and soft wheat
vermicelli
”÷.± (Kyamasai)
Chamchai Pickled mustard
÷∑·- (Kwasi)
Guazi Roasted watermelon seeds


3.4.3. Arrival of Chinese Cuisine in Burma:

When did Chinese cuisine arrive in Burma? A very good question, but difficult to answer. It
is easy to conclude that Indian influences on Burmese Cuisine started only after the British
annexation of Burma because: (1) No Indian delicacies were mentioned in Burmese
literature. (2) Although Burma has direct land borders with the subcontinent she felt the
least Indian influence on her culture and daily life throughout the whole pre-colonial era in
comparison with other Southeast Asian nations. Politically too, there was almost no contact
between Burma and India before India became a British Colony. Burma herself had never
suffered massive invasion from the Indian side. (3) It was only after the British annexation
of Burma that Indian immigration waves to Burma were encouraged by the British
authorities, and this immigration led to changes in Burma.



However, it is not easy to say when Chinese cuisine became known to the Burmese people
because: (1) Throughout their history, the Burmese had to repel repeated invasions only
from their north eastern border, namely from the Chinese side. This means they always
had contacts with the Chinese. (2) After Kublai Khan's invasion of the Pagan Empire at the
end of the 13
th
century, Burma became a vassal state to China for a few years. (3) In the
mid-17
th
century, after the Manchurian invasion of China, the last emperor of the Ming
Dynasty, Emperor Yung Li and his followers, stayed in Sagaing, Burma as refugees. So,
there is no doubt that the emperor might have brought some of the royal chefs with him. (4)
Burmese literature like -.-...·÷..·÷∑ , ("Archives in Lyrics" on the arrival of Chinese

17
envoys) composed by the poet ·-. ,.· "Nawaday the Second" in 1823, mentioned
some Chinese and Burmese dishes. (5) Burmese called the Chinese .÷..· (pauk
phaw) meaning "brother". This means that despite wars, there must have been affinity and
close contacts between the two peoples.

I recall a "hectic discussion" between a Rangoonian and a Mandalayan while we were
students at Rangoon University. The Rangoonian said "The foods in Mandalay are
something like Chinese", the Mandalayan answered back sharply, "Of course we cook
traditional Burmese style, no wonder our foods taste like Chinese or better to say,
like Shan because we had traditional ties with those people whom we consider our
relatives. What is your cooking in Rangoon? It is neither Mon nor Burmese, instead
it tastes like Indian!" If we consider it properly the Mandalayan was correct.

Hence, generally, it is safe to say that Chinese Cuisine was introduced to the Burmese
even before the British annexation of Burma. However, it is difficult to say when exactly it
was introduced to the Burmese. Most probably during the reign of -·. King Pintalei
in the mid-17
th
century.

4. Conclusion:

Although traditional Burmese cuisine is unique and neither similar to that of the Indians nor
that of the Chinese, many foreigners easily conclude that Burmese Cuisine is somewhere
between Chinese and Indian cuisine. The main reason for that is: for many foreigners, real
Burmese cuisine is out of their reach because cook books on traditional Burmese cuisine
are extremely rare, and very few good restaurants serve traditional Burmese meals. Thus,
it is no wonder that traditional Burmese cuisine is like a closed book for many foreigners.
Apart from that, there was a huge Indian immigration into Burma during the British colonial
era and some Indian influences can be traced in modern Burmese cuisine even today.
Since most of the modern cook books are based on "hybrid-cuisines", one cannot get the
real information about traditional Burmese cuisine. Reading those books may even lead a
foreigner to jump to the wrong conclusions.

To conclude, I have presented this article in the spirit of genuine good will or ".--,·
(Cetana)", for the sake of all people in the very small field of "Burma Studies", and hope this
essay will be one of the useful contributions to it.

Notes:


18
1
I have used the word Indian in this paper to represent not just the people of India, but rather the people from
the Subcontinent that means Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis. In this paper I have taken the liberty of
using the word "Burma" instead of "Myanmar" for the country, though the latter is the real and correct word in
the Burmese language. I have also used the word Burmese for the language and not Myanmar. Also other
"anglicized" terms like Rangoon instead of the correct name Yangon were chosen because these words were
and are still known and established in the international media. The word Burmese or Burman, applies only to
the "Bamas", the biggest and most dominant ethnic group in Burma and not for the citizens of Burma,
because if one asks a Karen or a Shan or even a Tavoyian, "Are you a Burmese or a Burman?" his answer
will be, no doubt, " I am neither Burmese nor Burman. I am a Shan/Karen and so forth. The term Arakanese
is also only for the "Rakhaing" people, the largest ethnic group living in Arakan (the Rakhine State of Burma)
and not for the other ethnic groups. The Arakanese (Rakhaings) are devout Buddhists and are called
"Yakhaings" (Yakhines) by the Burmese.

2
By the 1980s, Rangoon, the Burmese metropolis with about four million inhabitants, had more than 50
Chinese restaurants and about 30 Indo-Pakistani restaurants. There are only 5 big restaurants which serve
traditional Burmese meals!! After the opening of foreign investments in 1988, some Thai, Indonesian,
Japanese, Korean, French, Italian, German and American-style fast-food restaurants opened. There are still
very few traditional Burmese restaurants, however.
3
Mi Mi Khaing, Cook and Entertain the Burmese Way, the Student Press, Rangoon, 1975, p. 11.

4
Dobashi Yasuko,"A Study of the Traditional Burmese Meals with Special Reference to Recipes Given in
"Sâ-do-Hce'-Cân", A Cook Book Of The Palace Kitchen, Burma and Japan, edited by the Burma Research
Group, Tokyo, 1987, p. 190.

5
Nowadays, though all Burmese in Lower Burma claim to be Bamars, in fact, almost all of them are either
descendants of Mons assimilated into Burmese society and culture, or of Mon-Burmese mixed blood.

6
See: Shway Yoe, The Burman: His Life and Notions, New York, 1963.

7
Ngapi, fermented fish or fish/shrimp paste and nganpyaye or fish sauce are delicacies for the Southeast
Asians, namely Arakanese, Mons, Burmese, Thais, Malays, Indonesians, Laotians, Cambodians, Vietnamese
and Filipinos. However, people from the subcontinent cannot stand the smell of ngapi and nganpyaye and
they never use them in their dishes. The over-sensitive remark of Indians on ngapi was copied by R. Kipling
as: "fish pickled when it ought to have been buried long ago". Sir James Scott (Shway Yoe), on the other
hand, remarked that: " the smell of Ngapi is certainly not charming to uneducated nose, but the Backsteiner
or Limburger cheese of Southern Germany is equally ill-calculated to evoke approbation on first experience".

8
Aung San Suu Kyi, "Freedom from Fear", Penguin Books, 1991

9
Dobashi Yasuko,"A Study of the Traditional Burmese Meals with Special Reference to Recipes Given in
"Sa-do-Hce-can", a Cook Book of the Palace Kitchen, Burma and Japan, edited by the Burma Research
Group, Tokyo, 1987, p. 190.

10
Mi Mi Khaing, Cook and Entertain the Burmese Way, the Student Press, Rangoon, 1975, p. 7.

11
Esche, A, Wörterbuch Burmesisch-Deutsch, Leipzig, 1976, p. 520.

12
Richter, E, Lehrbuch des modernen Burmesisch, Leipzig, 1983, p. 122. However, Prof. Richter used the
term "Goulash" for Burmese "Hseebyan Hin" in his older publication which he wrote together with a native
speaker. (See and compare Eberhardt Richter and Maung Than Zaw, Deutsch-Burmesisches
Gesprächsbuch, Leipzig, 1968, p. 83.) So, it can not be ruled out that he was influenced by Dr. A. Esche's
Burmese-German Dictionary (published 1976) for the later translation of "Curry" for the Burmese word "Hin" in
his book published in 1983.

13
Annemarie Esche, Eberhard Richter and U Khin Maung Saw, Burmesisches Übungsbuch, Leipzig, 1988, p.
143, 401; 144, 403; 197,409.

19

14
There is no religious reason for some Burmese not eating beef. There is one social and cultural reason.
Burma was and still is an agricultural land. Cows, oxen and buffaloes were and are used for ploughing paddy
fields and pulling carts. People, especially farmers and peasants consider these animals as their comrades.
Therefore, they avoid eating these meats if possible. The Burmese word for bull/cow/ox is .∑· Nwa, however,
the word for beef is not .∑·.· Nwatha, instead it is called ¬..· Ametha, which can be literally translated
into "the meat you get from hunting". By using this "word of courtesy" the Burmese can excuse themselves by
means of not eating "the meat of their own friend or comrade". Instead they eat "the meat of a wild animal" if
they want to eat beef!! The Burmese word for veal is .∑·÷.·.· Nwakalaytha or .∑·..· Nanutha which
can be literally translated as "calf meat". The calves are not yet used for ploughing, and therefore they cannot
be considered as comrades. However, Burmese never eat veal for humanitarian reasons. Nor can veal be
found in markets and butchers' shops, although almost all (beef)-butchers are either offspring of Muslim
settlers from the subcontinent or "Burmese Muslims" (of mixed blood Indian-Burmese)!!

15
Milk is considered to be the food of calves. Hence, the drinking of milk means the stealing of calves' food.
So, some devoted Buddhists rarely drink milk. Most of the milk sellers in Burma are Indian (either Hindus or
Muslims) and/or their mixed blood offspring.

16
The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 marked a turning point in the economic and administrative history
of Burma. The British government wanted to export Burmese rice and they extended the rice fields in Lower
Burma. As they needed peasants and coolies they imported a lot of Indians.

17
"Burmese Muslims" nowadays (4% of the total population of Burma) are either descendants of Indian
Muslim father with a native woman, (either Burmese or Mon, Karen or Shan etc.) who were called
"Zerabardis" during the colonial era, and/or the descendants of Indian Muslims settled in Burma. Because of
their Indian features and complexions they are easily distinguishable from other ethnic groups in Burma who
have Mongolian features.

18
Once, the writer invited Dr. A. Esche, the most famous Burma Scholar in the former German Democratic
Republic (East Germany) and her husband Dr. Otto Esche, who used to be the first secretary of the G.D.R
Embassy in Rangoon, for a Burmese meal. On that day, I cooked a typical dish from the Pagan area Wettha
Ponyegyi Hin (÷.·..”÷-)"Pork cooked in thick brown bean sauce of horse gram". They said that
it could not be a Burmese Hin. Knowing exactly why they were confused, I had to explain to them that it was
a 100% pure Burmese Hin, but it was not a "Curry". Further, I had to add that it was a dish from Pagan
where the first Burmese Kingdom was established and therefore one should not be confused about whether it
was a pure Burmese Hin or not. However, its taste, appearance and cooking style would be very different
from those Indianized Burmese Hins prepared by their cook U Shwe Myint who had learnt cooking from the
Indians and/or some dishes they ate in Rangoon which could be translated as "Curries".

19
According to Hla Thamein and also the Myanmar-English Dictionary, the etymology of the Burmese word
.., (bread) is a Hindi word poun. The writer is of a different opinion. It is most probably the corruption of
either Portuguese or French word pan since the Portuguese were in Burma from the 16
th
century A.D.

20
Kunya is a combination of split betelnut half-smeared with slaked lime, usually white but sometimes tinted
pink or salmon-coloured, a little morsel of clutch (a juice of the Acacia catechu) and tobacco rolled up in a
betel vine leaf in the shape of a triangle.









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