Burma: The Land of a Million Pagodas

A couple of years ago, some friends and I had dinner at a Burmese restaurant in San Francisco. Being an adventurous diner, I ordered the least familiar item on the menu, Burma’s national dish, the wildly popular tea leaf salad called Lahpet Thok. It was like nothing I’d ever tasted, and I resolved to recreate it at home. The result was quite successful, and when I realized there was nobody specializing in this cuisine locally, I decided to change that. Thus began a two year long journey of research, culinary trial and error, and a lot of construction. This labor of love has resulted in a Portlander’s take on the cuisine of Burma, and the realization of a food cart called Burmasphere.

You’re calling it Burma, but I keep hearing Myanmar. Which is it, anyway?

Originally populated by tribes from Tibet and China, and first united in the twelfth century around the Irrawaddy Delta, “Burma” is an anglicized reference to the Bamar tribe, the country’s most prominent ethnic group, and first came into regular usage in the nineteenth century during the British colonial period. Independence came in 1948, and in 1962 the government came under strict military control, a situation which has continued until very recent times. Since 2008, the country’s official name has been The Republic of the Union of Myanmar. This name has been contested by much of the West, as well as pro-democracy advocates in Burma and throughout the rest of Asia. For our purposes, “Burmasphere” just seems to roll off the tongue a bit more gracefully than “Myanmarshphere” would.

That’s all well and good, but what about the food?

Burma is comprised of a variety of ethnic groups, and is surrounded by Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand, all of which is reflected in Burmese cuisine. From Bangladesh and India comes the use of turmeric, chickpeas and flatbreads; from Laos and Thailand the inclusion of fiery chile peppers and fermented fish products. The Yunnan region of China has contributed noodles and stir-fry cooking methods, while the fertile Irrawaddy Delta has made culinary staples of rice and freshwater fish. All of these influences, in combination with the regional traditions of the Rahkine, Chin, Kachin, Karen, Mon and Shan populations among others, have endowed Burma with a cuisine at once reassuringly familiar and uniquely exotic, and every bit as rich and varied as the respective cuisines of its neighbors.

So, what’s happening in Burma these days?

Recent years have seen Burma opening itself to the outside world, as well as loosening many of its restrictions on political and personal expression. In 2008, the military took steps toward instituting a democratic form of government, and in the landmark year of 2010, held Burma’s first democratic elections. Six days later, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from fifteen years of house arrest. In 2011, the ruling military regime was officially dissolved. A significant result of Burma’s steps toward democracy has been a dramatic increase in tourism, as well as a renewed world-wide interest in Burmese culture after decades of self-imposed isolation. All of us at Burmasphere would like to extend an invitation to you to come by for a visit, say hello, and enjoy the cuisine of this ancient and fascinating country!

Mingala Ba, and Ya Ba Deh!

(Hello, and no worries!)