After nearly a half-century of military dictatorship, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma, as it's still popularly called) finally saw an easing of authoritarian rule two years ago, a mixed blessing that both restored Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to political life and has led to a flaring of the long-simmering ethnic and religious conflicts in various parts of the country.
Undoubtedly, one of the most positive outcomes has been the steady influx of new visitors to the nation and the exposure of its culture – especially its simple yet flavourful cuisine – to the wider world. "It was the hole in the [Southeast Asian] picture," says the Canadian photographer and food writer Naomi Duguid, who had travelled throughout Burma to learn as much as she could about local flavours and food even before its fledgling steps toward democracy. In 2012, Duguid released Burma: Rivers of Flavor, her handsomely produced cookbook and cultural primer nominated for a James Beard Award this spring. "From the brilliant salads, sparkling condiments and easy curries of the Bamar people living in the central river valleys to the inventive aromatic dishes of the people in the hills, Burma has a motherlode of delicious and accessible food traditions," she writes.
One of the most interesting of these, says Mardi Michels, who authors the blog eatlivetravelwrite.com and visited Myanmar for the first time this past winter, is the Burmese "rice meal," served around midday in both homes and restaurants. "It was a complete revelation," Michels says from her home in Toronto. "You're surrounded by all these little dishes at once."
Typically, the meal consists of soup, salad and rice, a plate of mixed vegetables, a curried meat dish (especially pork and chicken or, if it's near the sea, fish) and an array of condiments. Key ingredients include chili, lime, turmeric, dried shrimp and shallots, resulting in dishes that are hot, sour, earthy, briny or sharp but also deliciously balanced.
"Burmese food is incredibly varied," says MiMi Aye, a London, England-based blogger and food writer whose heritage encompasses several Burmese groups, including Shan, Burman and Intha. For her, one of the best aspects of the cuisine is its emphasis on texture and crunch. "We try to fry everything!" she quips, pointing to the chicken-skin scratchings that she sprinkles atop her own poultry dishes – and which served as inspiration for the crackling that garnishes the chicken dish on these pages, part of a menu intended to help beginners create a Burmese rice meal at home. Most of the ingredients, including the more esoteric ones, can be found in a good Asian food shop. Wash it all down with Asian beer, raising a toast, perhaps, to a peaceful future for the country.