Tuesday, 28 May 2013

A Burmese Background (Part 1)

MiMi's Burmese Kitchen
Larking around in Bagan, the land of pagodas

Burma or Myanmar? Myanmar or Burma? Apart from the fact that it makes my ears bleed to hear people butcher the pronunciation of its official name (it’s “Myuhn-MAR”, not “MY-An-Ma” - click the play button below to hear), I have always called my spiritual homeland Burma as that’s how I've always known it.

Pronunciation no longer available Sorry, pronunciation no longer available. Check Forvo for alternatives.Pronunciation no longer available Sorry, pronunciation no longer available. Check Forvo for alternatives.

I say “spiritual”, since I was born in the slightly more prosaic seaside town of Margate and I grew up in the UK. But my parents (and both my brothers) are Burmese born and bred, and have taken us back to visit their homeland ever since I was tiny, so it’s natural I feel an affinity with the place.

My folks, especially my mother, were deathly afraid that I would reject my “Burmeseness”, so in order to instill a “proper” sense of culture, at home they taught me the beautiful Burmese language, raised us as strict(ish) Buddhists, and reared us on brilliant Burmese food. 

I guess my parents were anxious they were fighting a losing battle, as at the same time I was attending a convent school run by some French nuns called Sister Denise, Sister Marie-Antoinette, Sister Marie-Claire and Sister Marie-Therese (strange but true).

Eating roast duck at my eldest aunt's house in Yangon. Can you see the heads?

And 25 years later, on the way to Mount Popa. Yes, that is a fried chicken's butt.

Rangoon and beyond

My parents also took us to visit Burma year after year, where most of my family still lives. My mother’s side is mainly based in the former capital city of Yangon aka Rangoon (though they’re originally from Mogok – of which more another time). They’re lively, brash and lots of fun, rather like the town itself.

This attitude translates to the food in Yangon – it’s more modern and flashy, the first to adopt new trends and to embrace foreign influences. There are hip cafes and bars everywhere, plus a relatively recent influx of chain restaurants, whilst, due to a government crackdown, genuine street food is almost a thing of the past, except in markets or Chinatown.

Snack stalls near Karaweik, Rangoon
Burger Queen near the Karaweik. Oh yes.

The first time I saw a Burmese supermarket was in Yangon – although the supermarket is a common sight back in England, in the Burma of 1998 it seemed truly astonishing. So alien were they that, when a cousin came to the UK a few years before that, we popped to the shops and she put everything straight in her rucksack as she didn't know she should use a basket (I wondered why a member of staff was following us around).

I remember when burger bars and spaghetti joints started to open up in Yangon, and thinking how incongruous they were, even though there were still very Burmese touches such as pickled chillies spiking the silky pasta, or bacon comprising more juicy, caramelised fat than lean meat.

MiMi's Burmese Kitchen
Chilli pic and mix at a Yangon supermarket

The reason for my awe was, and still is, the peculiar juxtaposition of Westernisation and staunch traditional values. I hesitate to say Buddhist values; whilst ninety per cent of Burma is Theravadin Buddhist, its conservatism is, I believe, a result of Burmeseness (and isolation) rather than Buddhism per se. For example, both men and women, for the most part, still wear traditional Burmese clothes on an everyday basis: sarongs called longyis - pasoe for men and htamein for women.

Though many men do wear trousers, until recently women didn't even tend to wear skirts (at least not ones which show anything more than an ankle), and those that did deign to wear trousers were looked at askance or assumed to be from abroad.

Any public displays of affection between couples are also frowned upon – although weirdly, it’s fine for those of the same sex to hold hands or link arms, even men, as it’s assumed that such friendliness must be platonic ...

Alcohol is also considered a bit of a no-no, and specifically discouraged by Theravadin Buddhist precepts (though eating meat is not). Although there has been a recent proliferation of roadside pubs peddling Myanmar beer and rum, those that frequent them are not very well thought-of. If a Burmese man drinks regularly, he is considered a drunken reprobate, and if a Burmese woman drinks at all, she is deemed beyond the pale.

Burma old album
Chillaxing with my cousins, Burmese-style. That's me in the pale gingham dress.

Smoking, however, is greeted with tolerance, if not approval, for both men and women. Kipling’s Burmese maiden and her “whackin’ white cheroot” is still a relatively familiar sight, although these days you’d substitute the older generation for the "maiden" (the same for betel-chewing), as Yangon’s youth is more likely to prefer Lucky Strike.

This sense of tradition translates to the Yangon kitchen. Whilst it may be more common to go out for dim sum or pizza, at home it's more usual to have a Burmese menu of rich curries, fragrant rice and saucy noodles. The variety of flavours and spices are endless, so there’s never a dull meal.

And occasionally, due to the flourishing Indian community in Yangon, the odd South Asian element creeps in, such as crunchy potato and pea-packed samosas with fresh mint coleslaw, or onion pakoras with a yoghurt and cucumber sauce.

Chinatown, Rangoon
Yangon Nightlife

So Yangon was, and still, is the part of Burma most familiar to someone hailing from the West - if you squinted your eyes, you could almost imagine you were in Bangkok or Singapore. 

Next time though, I'll tell you about Mandalay.


  1. Thank you for this fascinating post!

  2. This is so interesting! More please!

  3. Thank you for sharing your story - it's so interesting as it's part of the world that we don't hear very much about.

    I'm intrigued . . . do they actually eat the meat on the ducks' heads and chicken bottoms or is it just easier to cook the whole bird that way?

    Kitty x

    1. Hi Kitty! No, we actually like to eat the lot - waste not want not ;)

  4. My mother and her side of the family are from Burma but I have never visited, have you ever been to Insein? Looking forward to reading more x

    1. The Yangon suburb? Yes, my parents have friends there x

  5. This is really interesting :) Please continue with the great posts! x

    1. Thank you, and I will :) x

    2. An excellent post, and I love the top pagoda pic! It's only vaguely sunk in recently that my aunt and uncle and various older cousins used to live in Rangoon (though that was decades ago). Interesting that there's still an Indian community there.

    3. Oh wow - would love to hear more! And yes, flourishing Indian community in Yangon - Mandalay has a bigger Chinese community.

  6. Thanks for the lesson on how to pronounce Myanmar.

    As ever, a great post. Looking forward to reading more!

    1. Annoyingly, the sound file has broken - will have to find another. And thank you!

  7. MiMi, thanks so much for this post - what a lovely read first thing in the morning! Please write more - it's a fascinating read :)


Thanks for taking the time to comment!