Culinary traditions of Burma
Burmese food certainly doesn't have the excellent reputation enjoyed by its neighbours, India and Thailand, but there is plenty of delicious Burmese cuisine to sample if you know where to look and what to ask for.
As is the case throughout Asia, rice is the core staple of the Burmese diet, and is served as part of pretty much every meal. A Burmese meal will usually consist of one main dish (such as a mild curry, fried dish or salad) with a wide variety of different side dishes, including soup, vegetables and dips (such as the fishy ngapi ye or the spicy balachaung). Burmese people don't usually drink alcohol with their meals, opting instead for green tea or fruit juice.
Those who don't cope well with spice can also breathe a sigh of relief in Burma, as the curries here are milder than in any other Asian country!
One thing to watch out for is that Burmese food can be very oily. This is because Burmese curries are traditionally cooked until the oil separates and rises to the surface, forming a protective layer over the curry as it bubbles away throughout the day, ensuring that the ingredients are properly melded together. The fact that most of the oil remains on the surface of the food means that it is generally relatively easy to avoid if you wish to.
The cuisine of lower Burma (including Yangon and the Irrawaddy Delta) can be broadly differentiated from that of upper Burma (roughly centred on Mandalay) by its use of more fish pastes and sour foods, whilst the latter generally involves more sesame, nuts and beans.
Meanwhile, especially in states where ethnic minorities have a heavy presence, it is possible to find various other types of ethnic cuisine - such as Shan (similar to northern Thai) or Rakhine (similar to Bangladeshi cuisine).
Chinese restaurants are extremely prevalent in Burma, but constitute one of the least interesting forms of cuisine to be found in the country. Indian restaurants are also popular, and generally of a reasonably high standard.
Meat & vegetarianism
The most common sources of protein to be found in Burmese food are chicken, fish, prawns and mutton. Pork and beef are usually avoided, since eating beef is offensive to most Hindus and Burmese Buddhists, whilst eating pork is looked down on by the Burmese nat spirits.
Vegetarian fare, meanwhile, is relatively easy to find, and most restaurants will offer at least one vegetarian option. Some Indian or Nepali restaurants are vegan, but these are more tricky to find.
Desserts in Burma are usually small (sweet dishes are more often considered as snacks rather than as part of a main meal), and often involve pickled tea leaves or jaggery (palm sugar). Some dishes also include coconut, rice, tapioca, fruits, and influences from India such as semolina or poppy seeds.
Burmese black tea - as well as the weaker, Chinese tea - are ubiquitous throughout the country. The Burmese often drink tea with meals, and many restaurants offer all-you-can-drink tea with your food. Teahouses are also an important social institution in Burma, serving as a meeting places where locals will sit and socialise for hours. Good coffee is much harder to find, and is generally limited to Western-style cafés in large cities.
The Burmese are not traditionally very big drinkers of alcohol, partly due to a lack of disposable income and partly due to the fact that intoxication is frowned on by strict Buddhists. Nevertheless, these days draught beer is cheap and plentiful in Burma, and you will see lots of Burmese people enjoying a drink in the evening.
In certain regions, certain liquors such as orange brandy, strawberry wine, toddy (fermented palm juice) and rum are considered specialities.
Toddy is a drink fermented from palm sap and favoured by Burmese farmers, and you will see thatched-roof toddy bars in many rural villages. The fermentation process only takes a day or so, and the product is a milky, viscous drink with a nutty, sour flavour. You'll see it served in terracotta pots and drunk out of coconut shells.
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