Khin Maung Saw – Burmese Cuisine, Its Unique Style and Changes after British Annexation



Khin Maung Saw – Burmese Cuisine, Its Unique Style and Changes after British Annexation


  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 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, especially in noodle dishes and sweetmeats.


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.  (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.


  1.  Into the “Hidden Traditional Burmese Cuisine”


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, 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 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”.


The present author has consulted with many Burmese from Upper Burma, which means they are pure Bamars (Burmese/Burman) , 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), 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 Htamin and Hin


The two main Burmese meals are identical in structure.  The major staple food for Burmese people is ထမင္း  Htamin , meaning cooked rice which is eaten together with ဟင္း 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 သြားရည္စာ (thayeza) meaning ‘snacks’. 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 ဝက္သား (wet-tha) means pork and the verb  ေၾကာ္ (kyaw) means to fry.  When the verb is placed after the noun; a new noun ဝက္သား ေၾကာ္ (wet-tha kyaw) meaning fried pork, is formed, which is the name of a Burmese Hin .  Similarly, when the verbs  ေပါင္း (poun) meaning to steam and သုပ္ (thok) meaning to make salad are placed after the noun ဝက္သား (wet-tha) meaning pork, two Hins namely ဝက္သား ေပါင္း  (wet-tha poun) meaning steamed pork and ဝက္သား သုပ္ (wet-tha thok) meaning pork salad are formed.


I intentionally chose pork here as an example meat because it is the favourite meat of the Burmese.  There is a Burmese saying  အသီးမွာသရက္၊ အရြက္မွာလက္ဖက္၊ အသားမွာဝက္။ which can be roughly translated as: “Among the fruits, mango is the best, of leaves the tea is the nicest and among the meat pork is the tastiest”.


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


Burmese Verb Meaning in English
(1)  ခ်က္ (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)  ျပဳတ္ (pyot) to boil.
(3) ေၾကာ္ (Kyaw) to fry; to deep fry.
(4)  ေလွာ္ (hlaw) to roast.
(5)  ဖုတ္ (phot) to bake.
(6)  ကင္ (kin) to toast; to barbecue; to broil; to roast; to grill.
(7) အံုး (own) to bake in live coals.
(8)  ေျဖာ  (phyaw) to blanch with boiling water.
(9)  ေပါင္း (poun) to steam.
(10) က်ိဳ (kyo) to dissolve by means of boiling
(11) ႏွပ္ (hnat) to tenderize food; to stew in own juice.
(12) ႀကိတ္ (kyait) to grind; to mill.
(13) ေထာင္း (htoun) to pound.
(14) သုပ္ (thok) to mix various ingredients to prepare a salad.
(15) အခ်ဥ္တည္  (ahchin-te) to pickle.
(16) အေျခာက္လွန္း (Ahchauk-hlan) to dry.
(17) ေၾကာ္ခ်က္ (Kyaw-chet) to fry first and then to simmer.
(18) ျပဳတ္ေၾကာ္ (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


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, any type of main or side dish, cooked or uncooked can be a Hin.  So, soups, salads,  တို႔စရာ touzaya or dippers, sauces, fruits, vegetables,  ငပိ ngapi or fish/shrimp paste,  ငံျပာရည္ nganpyaye  or fish sauce, ငပိရည္  ngapiye concentrated solution of fish/shrimp paste, 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 နံနံေစ့ coriander seeds, ဇီရာ cumin, သစ္ႀကံပိုး cinnamon, ကရေဝးရြက္ bay leaves,  ဖာလာ  cardamom, မဆလာ curry powder or other curry ingredients.


Instead of Indian spices, they use bean products,  ပင္စိမ္း basil,  ရွမ္းနံနံ  Erygium foetidum, ဂ်ဴးျမစ္ Allium tuberosum, တရုတ္နံနံ celery and ပ်ဥ္းေတာ္သိမ္  ‘Curry Leaves’ Clausena excavata in Upper Burma.  စပါးလင္ Lemon grass, ငပိ “ngapi” (shrimp/fishpaste),  ငံျပာရည္ “nganpyaye” (fishsauce) and နံနံပင္ coriander leaves are used in Lower Burma.  The main ingredients of Burmese dishes include a lot of  ၾကက္သြန္နီ onion, ၾကက္သြန္ျဖဴ garlic and  ခ်င္း ginger.  In some dishes ငရုတ္သီး chillies, ငရုတ္ ေကာင္း  pepper, ပတဲေကာ galangal Hedchium gracile, ေလးၫႇင္း cloves and နႏြင္း Turmeric Curcuma longa are also used.


Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, 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 ဆီျပန္ဟင္း “Hseebyan” Hin.  ဆီျပန္ဟင္း “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 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 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 ကုလားခ်က္ Kalachet or ကုလားခ်က္ဟင္း Kalachet Hin meaning the Hin cooked in Indian style or မဆလာဟင္း Masala Hin meaning the Hin cooked with Masala  or 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”.


That was the main reason why my colleagues Dr. A. Esche and the late Prof. E. Richter 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.


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 သင္ (thin) Clinogyne dichotomata.  Sometimes, ဖင္ထိုင္ခံု (phintaingkhon) a low stool  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, and milk is used only sparingly.  A guest should not expect that the host -with the exception of 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
ငန္  ngan salty table salt, fish sauce
ခ်ဉ္ chin sour lemon, lime, tamarind
ခ်ိဳ  cho sweet, bland, mild dried shrimps, mono sodium glutamate
စပ္ sut stinging hot, pungent chilli, garlic, ginger,
ပူ pu hot pepper, Piper logum, galangal
ခါး kha bitter bitter gourd, leaves of Azadirachata indica
သက္ thet slightly bitter tendril of gourd or pumpkin etc.
ေမႊး hmway aromatic roasted shrimp paste, roasted garlics, ginger and onion
ဖန္  phan acrid, astringent unripened fruits
အီ  i be rich, fatty pork fat, eggs
ဆိမ့္ hsaint slightly enriching nuts, beans, lentils
ေလး lay strong flavour of all tastes mixture of all flavours mentioned above
ေပါ့  paw’ weak flavour of all tastes very weak mixture of all those mentioned above


2.4.3. Specimen Menu A Full Course used in Buddhists Festivals 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 တို႔စရာ touzaya or dipper, ငပိေၾကာ္ ngapikyaw fried shrimp/fish paste and ငပိရည္ ngapiye  fish paste solution as dip (to whet the appetite) can be found on the table.


Generally, ဝက္သားနီခ်က္ (wetthani-chet) reddish-brown pork, ၾကက္သားဆီျပန္ (kyettha hseebyan) oily cooked chicken or chicken curry `a la birmanie, ငါးသေလာက္ေပါင္း (ngathalauk-poun) steamed Hilsa ( “Rangoon Shad”),  ခ်ဉ္ေပါင္ဟင္း  (chinpaun-hin) sour soup made of roselle leaves,  ဟင္းရြက္စံုေၾကာ္ (hinywetson-kyaw) or အစိမ္းေၾကာ္ (asein-kyaw) fried mixed green vegetables, either အသားသုပ္ meat salad or ငါးဖယ္သုပ္ a salad of fried fish called ‘Feather Back’, either green mangoes or cucumbers as တို႔စရာ touzaya or dipper, ငပိေၾကာ္ ngapikyaw fried shrimp/fish paste and ငပိရည္ ngapiye  fish paste solution as dip, are very common Hins  for those festivals.  In some places  ပဲတီပဲျပားသုပ္ (peti-pepya-thok) bean sprouts and bean curds or tofu salad with roasted sesame seeds is another dish for vegetarians. Although bean sprouts and bean curds (tofu) are of Chinese origin, the salad dressing is purely Burmese style.


There is a famous Burmese pop-song about a festival meal: ၾကက္သားဆီျပန္ ဝက္သားနီပန္းကန္ မအီေအာင္ခ်ဉ္ေပါင္ခံ ဝက္သားတံုးႀကီး လက္သီးဆုပ္သဏၭန္၊  which can be roughly translated as: chicken curry `a la birmanie, served together with a plate of “wetthani” (the reddish-brown pork), (have yourselves all on the table 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 ငပိရည္ ngapiye shrimp/fish paste solution and တို႔စရာ touzaya dipper only.


2.5. သြားရည္စာ (thayeza) or snacks


As mentioned before, anything eaten between, before or after the two main meals is called သြားရည္စာ (thayeza), meaning snack.  Mainly noodles,  အေၾကာ္စံု (Akyawsoan) or assorted fries and လက္သုပ္စံု  (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
ၾကက္ဥေခါက္ဆြဲ    (Kyet-u-kaukswe) Wheat and egg noodles
ၾကာဆံႀကီး          (Kyarzangyi) Rice noodles (as big as macaroni)
ဆန္ၾကာဆံ             (Hsan-kyarzan) Rice vermicelli
ပဲၾကာဆံ               (Pé-kyarzan) Soya vermicelli
ျမဴစြမ္           (Mewswan) Tiny and soft wheat vermicelli
မုန္႔တီေျခာက္        (Mondi-chauk) Dried rice noodles
မုန္႔ဟင္းခါးမုန္႔       (Monhinga-mon) Fermented rice noodles
ဆန္ ေခါက္ဆြဲ        (Hsan-kaukswe)

ၫႇပ္ ေခါက္ဆြဲ      (Hnyat-kaukswe)

Flat rice noodles

Flat rice noodles

ရွမ္းေခါက္ဆြဲ/ ေခါစိန္  (Shan-kaukswe)/


Common Shan-rice noodles


2.5.2. အေၾကာ္စံု  (Akyaw-soan) or assorted fries


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


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


  1.  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.  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 ကုလားၿမိဳ႕ “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”.


  1. 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 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 ဒံေပါက္ထမင္း “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”.  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  ကုလားဟင္း “Kala Hin” meaning Indian dish, cooking  ငါးေျခာက္ dried fish, ဒန္႔သလြန္သီး drum sticks (fruits of horseradish tree) Moringa oleifera, ခရမ္းသီး eggplant or aubergine,  မံုလာဥ 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 isအာလူး (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 စမူဆာ “Samosa”, ပလာတာ “Parata”, နံျပား “Nan”, ဘယာေၾကာ္   “Pakoda” or “Baya” and စာကေလးေခ်း “Chana Jo” everywhere.  Some Indian food like  သရက္သီးသနပ္ “Mango Pickle”, နံျပား “Nan” and Indian Sweetmeat like ဟာလဝါ “Halawa” 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 (14th century A.D.).  But it is the plain tea like the Chinese.  The Burmese are the only people in the whole world who eat လက္ဖက္ pickled tea leaves. The Burmese never call tea “Cha” like the Chinese, Thais, Indians and others but လက္ဖက္ရည္ “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  ဆာဒါး “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 ဖာလူဒါ “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.  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


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
အာလူး       (Ahloo) Ahloo Potato
ဂ်ံဳ             (Jon) Gehom Wheat
အာတား     (Ahta) Atta wheat flour (roughly grounded)
မလိုင္        (Malaing) Malai Cream of milk
ေပါင္မုန္႔       (Poun-mont) Poun Bread
ဒိန္           (Dane) Dehi Yoghurt
ပူစီနံ         (Pusinan) Pudina Pepper mince
မဆလာ     (Masala) Masala Curry powder
ကလီစာ     (Kaliza) Khalija Viscera
ဇီရာ         (Ziya) Jeera Cumin
ဂီး                 (Ghee) Ghee Clarified butter
ေရႊၾကည္     (Shwe Kyi) Suji Semolina
မံုလာဥ       (Monla-oo) Mooli Radish
ေဂၚဖီထုပ္    (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.




Original Rangoon Mandalay Meaning
Samosa စမူဆာ



(Mont Kunya)

Food that looks like  Kunya
Prata ပလာတာ




Food with a hundred layers
Kheema Prata ကီးမားပလာတာ (Keema Plata) အသားပလာတာ

(Atha Plata)

Prata filled with meat


3.3. Burmese-style Cooking on the Subcontinent

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 likeအုန္းထမင္း “Coconut Rice”, အုန္းႏို႕ေခါက္ဆဲြ “Ohno Kaukswe” (noodles with a gravy of chicken cooked in coconut milk) and ပန္းေသးေခါက္ဆြဲ “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 ကုန္းေဘာင္ႀကီးေၾကာ္ “konboungyi-kyaw” for Gonbang,  ပီကင္းဘဲကင္ “Peking-baigin” for “Peking Duck”, ေကာ္ျပန္႔ေၾကာ္ “Kawpyan-kyaw)” for “Spring Rolls”, ခ်ိဳခ်ဉ္ ေၾကာ္ “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
ကိုက္လန္    (kike-lan) Gailan Chinese kale, Brassica alboglabra
ၾကာညိဳ႕          (Kyarnyo) Jiangyou Thick soy sauce
အီၾကာေကြး       (Ikyakwe) Youzha gui Deep fried twisted dough sticks
ကုန္းေဘာင္ႀကီး  (Konboungyi) Honbaoji/Gonbangji Meat (mostly chicken) fried with chillies and onions
ေကာ္ျပန္႔          (Kopyan) Baobing/Lopia/Kopian Spring rolls
တိုဟူး               (Tohu) Doufu/Tofu bean curd
ေပါက္စီ           (Pausi) Baozi/Paus Chinese dumpling
ၿမီးေရွ                (Mishei) Mixian Rice noodles prepared with bean sprouts, meat, pickled mustard and dressing
ျမဴစြမ္                   (Mewswan) Mianxian, Miasua Tiny and soft wheat vermicelli
ႀကံမဆိုင္          (Kyamasai) Chamchai Pickled mustard
ကြာစိ                    (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 13th century, Burma became a vassal state to China for a few years.  (3)  In the mid-17th 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 တရုတ္သံရာက္ေမာ္ကြန္း (“Archives in Lyrics” on the arrival of Chinese envoys) composed by the poet ဒုတိယနဝေဒး “Nawaday the Second” in 1823, mentioned some Chinese and Burmese dishes.  (5)  Burmese called and still call the Chinese  ေပါက္ေဖာ္ “pauk phaw” meaning “sibling”.  This means that despite wars, there must have been affinity and close contacts between the two peoples.  In contrast, Burmese call Indians (people from the subcontinent) ကုလား “Kala” meaning ‘stranger’ or ‘alien’ or ‘foreigner’.   That shows that Burmese had and have no affinity towards Indians (people of the subcontinent).


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  ပင္းတလဲမင္း King Pintalei in the mid-17th century.


  1.  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  ေစတနာ (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.

Footnote –

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 1990s, 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 – See and contrast with  Mi Mi Khaing, Cook and Entertain the Burmese Way, the Student Press, Rangoon, 1975, p. 144 where she had mistakenly written chicken as the favourite meat of the Burmese!!

8 – 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 nganpyayay.  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”.

9 – Aung San Suu Kyi, “Freedom from Fear”, Penguin Books, 1991

10 – 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.

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

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

13 – Richter, E, Lehrbuch des modernen Burmesisch, Leipzig, 1983, p. 122.  However, Prof. Richter used the term “Goulash” for Burmese ဆီျပန္ဟင္း “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.

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

15 – 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  ႏြားသား  Nwatha, instead it is called အမဲသား Ametha, which can be literally translated into “the meat one got 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 use the term of courtesy that they eat “the meat of a wild animal got from hunting” if they want to eat beef!!  The Burmese word for veal is  ႏြားကေလးသား Nwakalaytha or  ႏြားႏုသား 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)!!

16 – 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.

17 – 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.

18 – “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.

19 – Myint Myint Than, Scientific cooing in Burmese Style, Pyinya Alinpya Book Stall, Rangoon, 1967   ျမင့္ျမင့္သန္း၊ သိပၸံနည္းက်က် ထမင္း – ဟင္း ခ်က္နည္းမ်ိဳးစံု၊ ပညာအလင္းျပစာအုပ္ဆိုင္၊ ၁၃၀ ဗိုလ္ခ်ဳပ္လမ္း၊ ရန္ကုန္၊ ၁၉၆၇။

20 –  Once, the writer invited his colleague 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, the present author cooked a typical dish from the Pagan area ဝက္သားပုန္းရည္ႀကီးဟင္း 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,  could be translated as “Curries”. Once, the writer invited his colleague 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, the present author cooked a typical dish from the Pagan area ဝက္သားပုန္းရည္ႀကီးဟင္း 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,

21 – According to Hla Thamein and also the Myanmar-English Dictionary, the etymology of the Burmese word ေပါင္မုန္႔  (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 16th century A.D.

22 –  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.