We were introduced to Burmese salads in Chiang Mai, where we first tried young tamarind leaves. The simplicity of the dressing - peanuts, peanut oil and salt - and the clean, bright taste stuck in our heads. As we became more familiar with Burmese flavors in Thailand, we were lured westward to Myanmar where we would learn some of their secrets.
Myanmar afternoons are not designed for hot noodle slurping. When the sun is at its zenith, tofu nwey is out of the question. It's simply too hot. The answer, however, is as simple in Myanmar as it is during the hot months in California. Salad for lunch.
You have to think about Burmese salads a bit differently than western ones. First off, don't assume greens. The word for salad in Burmese - thoke (purnounced more like toke) - means mixed. It could be greens like pennywort, a bitter green reminiscent of nasturtium leaves, or it could be thick rice noodles, as in moti thoke. Your salad could even include deep-fried pastry stuffed with spiced meat, as in samosa thoke. But more than the main ingredient used in Burmese salads, it's the technique of mixing and the characteristic flavors and textures that make them special. Travel agent Win Thuya, a good friend and Bagan native, explained to us, "In Bagan, we just pick some leaves, mix them with peanuts and eat them." That's the base that Burmese salads are built on.
Peanuts and chickpeas, two widely grown ingredients in Myanmar, are the soul of so much of the cooking. Both are great sources of plant-based protein, and both are extremely versatile and cheap. Peanuts appear in a Burmese tomato salad in two forms: toasted and pounded in a mortar and pestle until almost the texture of peanut butter; and, peanut oil. Great cooks in Myanmar will opt to use locally produced, cold-pressed, unfiltered peanut oil. This old-fashioned oil has a flavor far beyond the neutral oil that peanuts are mostly used to produce. Chickpeas main role in Burmese salads is in the form of finely ground flour. A few teaspoons are transformative, soaking up excess liquid and coating the ingredients in the seasoning. The texture of the smashed peanuts, the oil and chickpea flour is not unlike that of caesar dressing.
Mixing the salad: no utensils allowed. It is very important to smush everything with your hands so that all the juices start running and mixing together. The crushed peanuts and chickpea flour will pick up the excess juices and oils. That's how the dressing is made. Also, bruising the ingredients in the salad by squeezing them a bit helps them to absorb more of the surrounding flavor and seasoning. Put the tongs down until your ready to serve.
Seasoning a Burmese salad starts with umami. Cooks in Myanmar will use shrimp paste, fish sauce, fried pork skin, dried whole shrimp, tiny fried fish and a number of other ingredients to create a tasty base. To balance the rich umami and the creaminess of the peanuts and beans, acid may be used, but is not essential to the Burmese palate. Often acid is provided by the main ingredient. Tomatoes, sour tamarind leaves, fermented tea leaves and green mango are some classics. For green salads or ones with cabbage as a base, a few wedges of lime or lemon may be squeezed in, but often it is omitted. Burmese salads are more about umami and creamy mouthfeel than about acid.
The real beauty of these salads is how they can be adapted to whatever is fresh and available. As long as cooks have a few pantry staples, they can substitute any fresh ingredients and make something delicious. Here is a guideline to creating Burmese-style salads with whatever is available to you.
Essentials These ingredients will provide the proper mouthfeel and underlying flavor:
Well Crushed Nuts (peanuts, walnuts, hazelnuts, pine nuts could all work. If you don't have a mortar and pestle, a food processor works too.)
Flavorful Oil (unrefined peanut oil is amazing, but if it's not available, use a good quality olive oil, walnut oil, pumpkin seed oil, unrefined rape seed oil, etc.)
Chickpea Flour, finely ground
Main Ingredients It's summer, so here are some summer suggestions:
Raw or Roasted Squash
Blanched Green Beans
Boiled New Potatoes
Grilled Fish (no bones please)
Seasoning Salt is the only absolutely necessary seasoning. Fish sauce is highly recommended. The others can be used in different combinations to enhance the flavor:
Shrimp Paste (you will only find this in an Asian market, preferably a Southeast Asian market)
Anchovies or Anchovy Paste
Fresh Hot Chiles, sliced thin
Raw Ginger, minced
Raw Garlic, minced
Lemon or Lime juice
Mint (whole leaves or chopped herbs both work well, depending on taste)
Raw Sliced Shallots
Whole Nuts (or lightly crushed)
Toasted Sesame Seeds
Toasted Pumpkin Seeds
Toasted Mustard Seeds
Toasted Curry Leaf
1. Choose one or two main ingredients - cut into bite size - some garnishes, hopefully including herbs, and the seasonings that seem appropriate for flavoring the main ingredients. Greens should be sliced thin.
2. Put the chosen ingredients with the essential ingredients in a bowl.
3. If using lemon or lime, squeeze a few wedges into the salad and drop the juiced skins right in. Mush with hands so that everything is very well-mixed, and the main ingredients are wilted.
4. Taste and adjust seasoning. These salads are meals in and of themselves. They are also great with steamed white rice and grilled meat.