In this extract from The Burma Cookbook, authors Robert Carmack and Morrison Polkinghorne describe the delights to be had in a typical Myanmar rice and curry restaurant.
There are several sorts of generic Burmese eateries, from humble hawker stalls to tea shops, local food shops and more upmarket restaurants catering both to locals and foreigners alike. But a favourite remains the basic Myanmar rice and curry restaurant, hta min shaing. These restaurants typically offer a cafeteria-style range, with a plethora of dishes cooked and set behind a glass partition (in the perhaps hyper-hygienic West, health authorities would designate it a ‘sneeze guard’). Just pick and point to your favourites, and the establishment will round out the offerings, ensuring that you get ‘a balanced meal’ as mothers are wont to say.
Myanmar assar-asa is the term for such a Burmese spread, and it’s a veritable feast. As a non-Burmese speaking tourist, one can sit down to receive a truly extravagant hta min hin or hta min nae hin set menu without even ordering! Or go just outside the kitchen where the selection rests, and point. Rice reigns as king, and half a dozen or so side dishes crown its glory. A standard menu includes pulses, such as butter- or soy beans cooked with turmeric, or a lentil dal; clear broth gourd soup or sour tamarind soup; light and mildly spicy a-thoke salad of raw fruits or vegetables, or mildly tart salads from pennywort, to citron, to crisp-fried chicken skin; one or two curries, variously of fish, chicken and prawns, or ‘mutton’ (actually goat); and concurrently a relish or sambal eaten with raw vegetables. Finally, there’s salty Bate Chin sauce, used to season like salt and pepper.
Cooks prepare the sumptuous spread in the early morning, and serve throughout the day. Consequently, late morning and lunch is the best time to head to a local roadside eatery for Myanmar assar-asa at its freshest. Better yet, dishes are replenished for free. As such a meal mostly attracts locals and not ‘wealthy’ foreigners, its cost is typically just a few dollars.
Throughout the meal, a weak Chinese-style green tea, la pey yay chan, is offered for free, and at the end hard lumps of jaggery palm sugar taken. Otherwise, sweets are typically served at a tea house, but not at the end of this meal. Surprisingly, savoury la phet, or fermented tea leaf salad, is eaten in place of dessert. Here green tea leaves are steamed and buried to mature for six months, then washed and pounded with garlic, and tossed variously with sesame seeds, nuts, fried beans or peas, dried fish and fried garlic and ginger. An unusual, yet delicious, finish to a meal, and fittingly, more like a digestive.