Look east, and two of the most exotic tourist destinations appear on the horizon- our mesmerizing Myanmar and its immediate neighbor, Thailand. One exudes an old world charm, and the other is cosmopolitan and modern, with tourism as its biggest industry. Both countries have a predominantly Buddhist population, and the tropical climate implies similar agricultural produce is cultivated, both being considered as rice bowls to the world in the past even as they works towards becoming the world’s largest rice producers again. Thailand is also the most popular gateway to Myanmar, offers employment to over 2 million Myanmar nationals who migrated across the border legally and illegally, and is one of the largest foreign investors in the country.
Brown rice is one more fad spreading globally in an increasingly health conscious society, besides fitness, eating organic, putting fiber before processed foods, veges over meats, grilling over frying…the list gets longer by the day. All these are justified too, since they promise good returns in the form of better health and longevity, hopefully. The end result is the growing popularity of foods like quinoa, corn, wheat, beans, lean meats, tofu and greens.
For a long time, rice, synonymous with white rice, has been considered part of the list of healthy, body building foods, consumed as it is, by 3 billion people worldwide. It is only in the last decade or so that brown rice has appeared on the shelves of health food outlets, and is being touted as a far superior and healthier option than its white counterpart. It remains doubtful, how aware majority of the world’s population is, about the benefits of brown rice, and how many would consider switching to this whole grain, given that, for the present, it is consumed by a very small percentage of rice eaters.
Brown rice is virtually unheard of in Myanmar, and rarely seen on supermarket shelves. This happens to be in a country known to be one of the world’s leading rice producers. The country has yet to wake up to the nutritional advantages of brown rice to be able to process its paddy into this healthier type. Elsewhere too, brown rice has not yet become the staple of the common man, since it is surprisingly more expensive, available in select stores and its taste not yet palatable to all. Its shorter shelf life of 6-8 months is one of the many reasons why its supply levels are nowhere close to the supply of white rice that lasts up to ten years.
What is brown rice?
Brown rice is an unrefined, less processed, but more nutritious form of white rice. It is rice grains with just the husk removed, the bran and germ layers staying intact and giving it the light brown color. It is also called whole rice or cargo rice. Any harvested paddy can be processed to remove only its outermost layer (the husk) to result in brown rice. Thus we can get long grain, short grain or glutinous brown rice, all of which have a milder flavor, are a bit firm rather than soft, even after being cooked for long, and a flavor that is slightly nutty. The grains stay whole and provide the nutritional advantage of bran and germ, unlike the processed and refined white rice. While both bran and germ shorten the life of the rice, making it rancid sooner, they contain essential and beneficial fats, making brown rice a far healthier staple than even the best white rice.
Rice- From field to table
All over the world, short grain, medium and long grain rice in thousands of varieties is sold, with Basmati being rated as one of the best long grain varieties, for its fragrance and less starchy content. But basmati like all other white rice varieties is simply the polished, refined version of rice whose husk and layers of bran have been removed before being polished.
Most of the rice varieties are composed of 20% husk that forms the outer layer, a layer of bran that constitutes 11%, and the remaining 69% is the starch-rich endosperm, called milled rice.
Rice fields are submerged in water till the plant grows to its full height, at which point the water is drained. The paddy is ready to be harvested as the stems turn yellow. The stalks cut from the fields contain what is called ‘rough rice’ that has to be dried before milling to ensure that the moisture content ranges between 18-22%. The next step is the milling process which includes cleaning the kernels, clearing foreign matter and then removing the non-edible hull or husk. The rice that emerges is the wholesome brown rice. It still contains a layer of bran, which is highly nutritious with its reserves of essential oils and fats, minerals and vitamins.
White rice is a processed, refined version of the brown rice, lasts longer and has a finer taste, amenable to various cooking styles in cuisines from all over the world. White rice is lower in fiber, softer and easier to digest, though its high glycemic index raises the risk of getting type 2 diabetes. It has a longer shelf life and not considered a high allergy food.
Nutritional content of Brown rice
Brown rice scores over white rice due to the nutritive goodness contained in this whole grain. Its minimal processing to remove just the outer husk does not damage the healthful beneficial store of vitamins and minerals.
Being unpolished, brown rice contains the grain’s aleurone layer which is laden with healthy fats, essential for good health.
Brown rice has a high fiber content, which aids digestion, and prevents the accumulation of cancer causing substances. It is rich in minerals like iron, copper and phosphorus, besides many others, all of which are essential for a healthy body.
Brown rice is a treasure trove of vitamins. It contains vitamin A, C, D, E, K and complex B vitamins like B1, B2, B3, B6, and B12.
The selenium contained in brown rice works towards synthesis and repair of damaged human cells, which trigger the self-destruction of disease causing cells. Selenium works in tandem with other minerals and vitamins to promote better health.
Brown rice is laden with manganese which helps produce energy from carbohydrates and protein. It also facilitates the synthesis of essential fatty acids, and is a component of critical antioxidant enzymes. A single cup of brown rice helps to meet 80% of the body’s daily requirement of manganese.
The magnesium contained in brown rice helps to regulate the body’s muscle and nerve tone by balancing the calcium action, serving as a calcium channel blocker in many nerve cells, thereby keeping the nerve cells relaxed, which may otherwise have go activated by calcium.
Brown rice is more filling and therefore cannot be eaten in large quantities, and is lower in carbohydrates and calories than white rice. This helps in maintaining lower weight levels and help people stay slimmer, as has been found in numerous research studies carried out on groups of people eating white and brown rice.
Wholegrain or brown rice contains phyto-nutrients that are quick to dissolve and be quickly absorbed in the bloodstream. These include phenolics that are some of the strongest phyto nutrients that help to fight disease. Plant lignan, another phyto nutrient, works as a shield from heart disease and certain types of cancer.
Keeping diseases at bay with Brown rice
The processing and refining of rice to produce fine, white rice leads to the loss of essential nutrients which, are beneficial for the human body. In the milling process and the polishing of rice, the grain loses 80% of vitamin B1, 67% of Vitamin B3, 90% of Vitamin B6, and half of its iron, manganese and phosphorus, while all the fiber and fatty acids are destroyed. This implies that all the goodness of rice as a whole grain is lost, and only a stomach filling, refined, starchy staple is being consumed, unless the polished white rice is fortified before being packaged.
The long list of nutrients of brown rice have been extensively tried and tested on large groups of people and the research findings indicate how regular consumption of brown rice instead of white rice can help to keep the following diseases away:
Most people look at brown rice as rice meant for patients of Type 2 Diabetes. Yes, it is the only type of rice diabetics can eat, but brown rice also works as a preventive of diabetes. Studies conducted by researchers at Harvard, and at the Diabetes Research Foundation in India, reveal that substituting brown rice for white, led to a significant reduction in glucose levels and lowered serum insulin with just a single daily substitution. A weekly intake of two or more servings of brown rice reduced the risk of Type 2 Diabetes by around 10% as compared to those who do not eat brown rice. The risk reduced by 20% in the case of those who consumed 4-5 weekly servings of brown rice.
Brown rice works to protect against diabetes with its high fiber content, the high level of magnesium and its lower Glycemic Index. Magnesium in particular, serves as a cofactor for over 300 enzymes that impact the use of glucose in the body and the secretion of insulin.
Cancer is a killer disease, and unhealthy eating habits have led to a spurt in the occurrence of colon cancer. The high fiber content of brown rice, causes the fiber to bind to all the cancer causing chemicals, reduce constipation and improve bowel functions. Fiber also works as a preventive for breast cancer in post-menopausal women. Hormone dependent cancers are kept at bay due to phyto nutrients like lignans. Selenium, contained in brown rice, works with Vitamin E to facilitate antioxidant actions in the body to prevent cancer.
Brown rice is a whole grain, filling, chewy, low in energy density with its high fiber and water content. This implies that smaller quantities can be eaten at a time, which fill up the stomach, even though fewer calories have been consumed. Reduced calorie intake is one of the essentials for reducing weight. An affected metabolism which causes weight gain has been linked to refined and processed grains like white rice.
Heart Disease, Hypertension and High Cholesterol
Brown rice contains manganese that helps in synthesizing body fats, and the outer bran layer contains essential fatty acids like Omega-3 which reduce the risk of developing heart ailments. Magnesium helps to regulate muscle and nerve tone and serves as a calcium channel blocker, thus preventing hypertension and heart disease. New research carried out in Philadelphia indicates that a component in the outer subaleurone layer surrounding grains of brown rice inhibits angiotensin II, an endocrine protein that causes hypertension and artherosclerosis, or hardening of arteries, which eventually leads to heart disease. Selenium helps the action of antioxidants that help the heart, and the existence of fiber, is beneficial as well.
Brown Rice Potential in Myanmar
Rice paddy grows best in areas with abundance of water, and Asian countries like China, India, Thailand and Myanmar provide a significant percentage of the global rice produce. Myanmar with its abundant water resources, is ideal for rice cultivation. The delta region in Myanmar including Ayeyarwaddy, Yangon, Bago and Mon states form the main rice growing region in the country. Rice is the main staple for the local population, and exported in large quantities to countries like China and Africa, among others. However, the demand is only for white rice. The existing mills can very easily process paddy to yield brown rice, but there is no market for this healthy product, due to lack of awareness and information about it. Its shorter shelf life further adds to the problem. The strata of society consuming brown rice in other countries, which is the health conscious, upper class elite, has yet to emerge in Myanmar.
We live in a world where borders are mere political demarcations, not cultural or culinary, and these ubiquitous forms move beyond any man-made divisions. Cuisine forms a major part of cultural practices that connect people and ways of life. India is a close neighbor of Myanmar, and its influence on the local cuisine is evident, seeing the use of herbs and spices, and so many common dishes adapted from the Indian repertoire. This can be attributed to not just the thousands of Indian immigrants, but also because Indian food is tasteful, nutritious and makes for a complete balanced meal. These are now an integral part of Myanmar cuisine, the taste and cooking style strikingly similar to the original Indian preparations. The older generation of Myanmar folk, claim to have grown up eating more Indian food than any other. Apparently, the Chinese and Thai influence on food and tastes in Myanmar came up later.
A walk down Anawrahta Road or Mughal Street in downtown Yangon, is a treat for all Indian food fans. A haven for vegetarians, these areas are also home to a large number of Indians, and typically symbolize the Indian influence in Yangon. There is no dearth of stalls selling Indian samosas, the deep fried vegetable-filled wantons, pakoras or vegetable fritters, dosa or wafer thin crepes made out of rice and lentil batter, and the mouth-watering biryani, an elaborate rice and meat preparation containing a medley of spices, and a complete meal in itself. Indian sweets, snacks and spices are all seen in abundance in this area, and eaten while on the move. It is not difficult to cook Indian food in any corner of the world, even with non-Indian ingredients, since it is all about the method of cooking and handling foods. The unique taste and consistency comes from the type and degree of heat, the oil and sequence of adding ingredients that make all the difference.
Myanmar, with its amazing variety of vegetables, provides ample variety of foods that can be cooked in an Indian style. Herbs and spices needed for an authentic Indian taste can be found in one of the many grocery stores, which also stock wheat flour and long grain rice. In fact, Myanmar’s basmati rice is very close to its Indian counterpart and cooks just as well. A wide variety of leafy vegetables, okra, pumpkins, beans and lentils, mutton, poultry and seafood, found here, make cooking Indian meals at home far easier than it would be in western countries. Ready to use pastes, bottled spices, pickles and chutneys, have now reached the shelves of supermarkets in the city. Myanmar, as the largest exporter of beans and pulses to India, provides the entire range of lentils that all Indians love to eat on a daily basis. It is only here that many of us have tasted the unpolished varieties of lentils that are healthier to consume, and taste a lot better. The time when Indians carried bags full of their favorite foods from India, is a thing of the past. One is indeed spoilt for choice when it comes to preparing an Indian meal in Myanmar.
Yangon is not just the nation’s commercial hub, but can easily be termed the country’s culinary capital as well. Some of the country’s best restaurants are found in the city, including the best Indian ones. For a quick, simple meal in downtown Yangon, one can walk into the packed New Delhi restaurant, Nepali Food House or Ingyin Nwe. New Delhi is a small nondescript eatery offering a whole thali, a plateful of dishes including vegetables, curry, chapatti and rice. Nepali Food House serves both Indian and Nepali vegetarian food at unbelievably low rates. Ingyin Nwe offers delicious dosas and wide ranging South Indian fare at very reasonable prices. A new entrant is Titu’s Banana Leaf that has opened just behind Trader’s Hotel (now called Sule Shangri-La). It serves sumptuous South Indian delicacies including non-vegetarian dishes. Another new Indian eatery named AV’s has brought in favorite foods that could be called Indian fast food, which include plated meals from various parts of India, along with elaborate Indian sweets. Biryani is sold in many places and is a favorite of tourists and locals alike. All these restaurants, though, suffice for quick meals, when the ambience is not a concern. They are frequented by tourists looking for vegetarian meals, since Indian cuisine is one that offers the widest range of non-meat options.
With a fast growing expatriate Indian community, places like Titu’s and AV’s are gaining popularity, and are suitable for low cost family dining. Indian fine dining is an option at the well known five star hotels like the Sule Shangri-La, Park Royal and Sedona, all of which have had Indian chefs ready to toss up personal preferences even beyond what is listed in the menu. As of now, there is only one stand alone up-market Indian restaurant, namely, The Corriander Leaf. Started in December 2011 in the Yangon International Hotel Compound, Ahlone Road, it serves authentic Indian cuisine with a wide variety of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes prepared by their four Indian chefs. The restaurant, with its 118 covers, is almost always full for both lunch and dinner, with tourists, locals, and expatriates, most of whom are repeat customers. For those enjoying barbecued foods, this is the best place to dine at, for unmatched and delectable Indian tandoori specialties. With plans to open an outlet in Mandalay and another one in Yangon in the near future, Corriander Leaf may continue to reign supreme. Indian cuisine is as diverse as its ethnic groups residing in its 29 states, and its most popular dishes from North and South India, have found their way into every corner of the world, including Myanmar. It is only a question of time before we get a taste of more and more regional Indian cuisines here, in this Golden Land.
My first memory of Khow Suey was of a one-dish meal that looked so very appetizing and presentable, and such a welcome change from staple Indian fare that we ate day after day, with minor variations. This was over two decades ago, when the noodle craze, and fixation for Chinese food was abating, and ‘noodles in gravy’ with an endless line of condiments to be added seemed a delectable novelty.
Many countries and cuisines later, my interest in Khow Suey remains, except that I now happen to be living in the country of its origin. It is in Myanmar I learnt that the version of this dish I like, is called Ohn-no khow suey, meaning noodles with coconut milk gravy.
Ohn-no khow suey is one of the most palatable preparations in Burmese cuisine and is actually a breakfast dish, and relished by locals and foreigners alike, though the latter are happy eating it for meals during the day as well. No strong odors, while being appetizing and wholesome, Khow Suey can be made as a purely vegetarian dish as well, substituting fried tofu for chicken.
It is served with a long list of condiments for garnishing, which when arranged on the table, make it one of the most presentable single dish meals.
Just thought of sharing my recipe for Ohn-no khow suey, which tastes great, and has been enjoyed, both by family and guests.
Noodles- thin or round wheat or rice noodles. Boiled drained, and twirled into rounds and kept separately for individual servings
For the gravy:
Boneless chicken- 500 gms, preferably from thigh
Onions- finely chopped-1 cup
Ginger garlic paste- 1 tablespoon
Vegetables (optional) – baby corn and mushrooms, halved- 1 cup
Red tomatoes-pureed, 1 cup
Coriander powder- 1 teaspoon
Red chilli powder-1/2-1 teaspoon
Turmeric- ¼ teaspoon
Chick pea flour/Black gram flour/Besan- 2 tablespoons
Coconut milk-250 ml
Fish sauce- 1 tablespoon (optional)
Salt to taste
Oil- 3 tablespoons
Golden fried sliced onions
Fried chopped garlic
Fresh coriander leaves, chopped
Green chillies- sliced, and soaked in light soy sauce
Spring onions, chopped with the green stems
Crushed, roasted peanuts
Red chilli paste, or red chilli oil
Boiled eggs, cut in wedges
Fried corn fritters
Boil noodles and keep ready in a serving tray, twirled in single portions, or can even be placed in a bowl and served with tongs. A bit of oil prevents sticking.
In a pan, take two tablespoons of oil, add the chopped onions and cook till golden. Add a bit of water to prevent burning, and then add ginger-garlic paste, tomatoes, coriander, chilli and turmeric powders, and cook till oil appears. Now add chicken and a cup of water, and simmer till chicken is soft. Keep very little water in the gravy.
In another pan take the remaining one tablespoon of oil, add the flour and fry on low heat till it looks light golden in color. Quickly add coconut milk and simmer on low for five minutes. Add to the chicken, and cook for 5-10 minutes till it thickens. Take out in a deep curry bowl.
In small sauce bowls, place the condiments separately. Put them next to noodles and chicken.
Serve in soup bowls, first putting noodles, topped with gravy and then condiments of choice, or all of them.
As the aircraft begins its descent towards the Mingladon airport, the view from the window is of numerous water bodies, the Yangon River, several lakes, besides small ponds and streams. Myanmar has a 1930 km coastline as it borders the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. Further inland, there are large rivers like Ayeyarwady, Sittuang, Chidwin, Thalwin and a part of the Mekong river basin that stretch across 2000 km besides another 2600 km of their tributaries and smaller rivers. It is only natural then, to find an amazing variety of fish and seafood in Myanmar.
Fish, along with rice is principal staple fare for the people of Myanmar, who love small fresh fish with their meals, besides using dried fish and fermented fish paste in plenty for numerous exotic preparations. A distinct fish aroma permeates the air especially around eating places, which one gets accustomed to, gradually.
For someone who has grown up in a landlocked place, fish is an acquired taste, enjoyed, but even after decades of eating it, reservations persist about quality, odor, and freshness, and many a time I can’t help wrinkling my nose. Bones of the smaller fish scare me still, and I have never quite understood how native fish eaters are so comfortable with such fine bones, seemingly in tens, in a single piece.
In the last three decades, I have lived in places like Kolkata, Singapore and Bangkok, all of which are famous for fish and seafood, and widely perceived to have some of the world’s freshest fish varieties. But it is here, in Yangon, that I have found the fish to be the freshest, and hence completely odorless. The fish available in the market passes the freshness test I learnt-the meat is pink and moist, the scales are intact, the color is not dull and the gills still look pinkish red and not brown. Not knowing the language, the easiest was to buy fish initially from Citymart that carries the English names of the local fish varieties on sale. However, in a matter of days I found the Inya Road market, one of the many wet markets around town, and the fish on sale there, seemed even fresher. I somehow found it close enough, convenient, clean and cheap, and it has been my fish source for nearly two years now. It was here that I discovered the following:
- Rohu- NgaMyit Chin – I was thrilled to find this freshwater brackish fish on my first trip to the market. Easy to identify, this is one of the most popular fish varieties cooked all over Asia. Though bony, it belongs to the carp family, grows up to 200 cm in length and can weigh up to 45 kilograms. And the bigger the fish, the tastier it is. Rohu has a smaller head and silver scales that darken with a tinge of red closer to the tail, and is generally big in size. Not too fond of smaller, finer bones for fear of choking, I prefer to buy the middle section of a big fish and prepare it like an Indian curry, to be eaten with rice. At Inya market, the fish vendors cut the fish into perfect pieces for curries and frying, and even remove the skin and scales completely, if preferred. Once cut, the meat is pink. It cannot be made into boneless fillets though. A dash of mustard, a mild flavor of garlic, Rohu makes for the most sumptuous afternoon meal.
- Katla- NgaThaingGuangBua- Katla is another carp variety, a scaly freshwater fish that has a marked resemblance to Rohu, in size and appearance, except that it has a much bigger head and an upturned mouth. It is thicker around the middle and its deep body helps in differentiating it from other fish. Again, it is bony but with lighter pink meat when cut. Here too the midsection is the best cut. Native fish eaters love to prepare fish-head curry, while I am happy preparing a coconut milk based curry out of small less bony pieces, happily leaving the skin, scales, head and tail for the fish vendor!
- Mrigal- NgaGyin- It took me a long time to find the English name for Nga Gyin, that everyone spoke about. It is actually ray-finned white carp. It is one of the most popular widely cultured fresh water fish varieties with fine white meat inside its silver, scaly exterior. Again a freshwater fish, it survives in fast flowing streams and grows extremely fast and up to a maximum length of one meter. The first time I bought Nga Gyin, I found it to have a very fine taste, and have since, used it for frying and mild gravies.
- Hilsa- Nga Tha Lauk- The hilsa is a fish of the herring family, extremely flavorful and delicious. It is a silver colored tropical fish with a purple overtone and easily identifiable amongst the other varieties. For the people of Bengal and Bangladesh, it is the ultimate delicacy with its soft, smooth and creamy taste. The hilsa has an interesting life pattern since it spends its life in the sea and then migrates for spawning up to 1200 km inland through rivers. This migration typically takes place during the monsoons. The fish breed in freshwaters and then move to the sea as the young ones grow. I had been hearing of hilsa for years in Kolkata, but could never attempt eating it due to its hundreds of fine bones. I was pleasantly surprised to try Hilsa prepared Myanmar style at a friend’s place, where it had been soaked overnight in vinegar, which melted its bones completely and I was able to savor every bit of it!
- Butterfish- Nga Dang and Nga Myin – I loved this fish the first time I ate it, primarily because it was boneless. With a big center bone that is easy to remove it can be cut perfectly into fillets and cubes. I am told that there are two varieties of butter fish, the lean nga myin that is the dearer, finer butter fish, and one that is true to its name, and loaded with butter-the layers of fat are visible and just have to be discarded-this is nga dang, the cheaper variety, delicious but probably too fatty, unless stripped clean of all the surrounding fat. This fish is ideal for frying, grilling and barbecuing, and seemed to lose its softness when I once to prepare it as a curry. Butter fish stands out as a fresh water fish, with its smooth silvery skin, darker on top and nearly white below, and a flat body that is extremely broad in the middle.
- Seabass-Nga Ka Kadit- Seabass is an old favorite available in other countries, and always a safe bet, having neither a strong odor nor too bony, and its fillets are the easiest to cook. It took me a while to find out its local name, where after it was easy to buy. I learnt that there is extensive pond culture of seabass, which besides the local market is exported to Australia, and its culture is being encouraged since it is a species easy to produce, and highly lucrative. Seabass catch comes from shrimp ponds as well. It was interesting to find out that a new variety of seabass is cultured in easntern Myanmar and has been named ‘lates uwisara’, as a tribute to the famed Myanmar monk U Wisara who died while on hunger strike to revolt against British rule. Seabass is universally liked and adapts to all styles of cooking, retaining its taste, texture and moisture, as it melts in the mouth.
- Grouper- Nga Tauk Tu/Nga Kya Uk- The day I find a Red Grouper in the market becomes a feast day, since I love to steam it whole, with fresh herbs and spices, and serve with the flavorful Myanmar Basmati rice. There is a vast market for Grouper and it is also exported live, mainly to Hong Kong. I did not know that twenty varieties of Grouper can be found in Myanmar waters, and are now cultured in ponds and net cages. However, it is not one those fish varieties that are seen every day in the market, and never in plenty. For me, red Grouper stands out with its orange red colored scaled body and more often than not, one finds small sized fish weighing up to 2 kilograms.
- Tilapia- Nga Yan- I believe the local people call it tilapia also. Tilapia is an easily available fresh water fish, and now being cultured extensively to feed export markets including the vast US market since the import ban was lifted, where it is the fourth most popular plated fish. Its high protein content and fast growth makes it easy to farm besides being highly lucrative. Tilapia tastes best when grilled, but it is not one of the fish varieties I buy often. It is supposed to be rich in Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, but then that’s true for other varieties as well.
The list can go on, but I probably will not even be able to find local names for the numerous varieties available and enjoyed by the locals. There is plenty of fresh and dried fish available in the markets, but I understand that though fish exports must be permitted after local consumption has been provided for, this is not generally the case. Lack of sufficient data prevents an accurate calculation of the gap between demand and supply of fish for local markets. As of now, only a handful of the 450,000 fish and shrimp farms are able to produce fish that matches international standards, and this has led to a decline in export earnings by the fishery sector by over $116 million over last year. This is disappointing since fisheries stand third in earning foreign exchange for the country.
There is obviously a tremendous opportunity waiting to be tapped to its fullest potential with Myanmar’s abundant freshwater and brackish water fisheries. The vast river systems run from north to south in the country and offer promise of tens of thousands of tons of marine products and seafood. It is only a matter of time before foreign investment and participation in introducing the latest fish culture and farming techniques yield seafood that is comparable to the best in the world.
Myanmar Fish Facts
- Aquaculture has grown tremendously in the last ten years.
- The most extensive fish culture operations are in the Ayeyarwady Division
- The Rakhine state is a significant area for fish farming and the largest for shrimp farming.
- 75% of the total fish produce comes from marine fisheries while only 25% comes from freshwaters.
- Cold water fisheries are confined to the four hilly, remote states of Chin, Kachin, Shan and Kayah.
- There are 450,000 fish and shrimp farms but they lack capital and the latest technology to meet international standards.
- The common man prefers fish also because the price ratio between red meat and fish is 4:1.
- Official figures reveal that fish consumption is three times more than meat consumption.
- Myanmar boasts of vast wild fisheries even today
Fish & Health
- Fish is the healthiest meat to eat, being highly nutritious and easily digested.
- Most fish have a 15-20% protein content, and most have essential amino acids
- Fish contains unsaturated Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids that work as heart protectors.
- Contains B- Vitamins like B6 and B12, besides Vitamin D.
- Fish is a good source of minerals like iron, zinc, potassium and phosphorus.
- Fish lowers blood triglycerides, and reduces heart disease risk.
- It is also good for the brain and prevents brain related diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia.
There was a time when vegetarians had to literally hunt for safe places to get a palatable meat-free meal once they stepped out of their homes. Thankfully now, vegetarian options are available in varying proportions across the globe. Vegetarianism is becomingly increasingly popular for numerous reasons, at least one of which is health. Living in Yangon as a vegetarian, is not really a challenge, but interesting culinary experiences give us reasons to smile, even here.
Myanmar with its wide variety of earthy produce, a phenomenal variety of greens, tofu and lentils, has endless non-meat options. In fact, it is easier to survive in Myanmar with such preferences than other tourist friendly Asian countries like Thailand and Malaysia. Myanmar cuisine has numerous vegetable-rich salads, soups that can easily be kept vegetarian as well as rice and curries that are delicious even without the addition of meats. Yet vegetarianism is not very common among the locals, since dried fish, meats and seafood are added to nearly every preparation to make them tastier, nutritious, and more of a complete one-dish meal. The word to know is “thut-thut-lau” pronounced as “tatalou”, which actually means ‘lifeless’ but implies vegetarian. Interestingly, eggs are not considered to be non-vegetarian.
The ever increasing class of vegetarians can be attributed to the greater awareness about cruelty meted to animals, and also those who avoid meats for religious beliefs. Buddhism does not impose food restrictions but Hinduism does. Many Hindus are pure vegetarians and many are selectively vegetarian on specific days of the week and at certain times in the year. Myanmar has thousands of Indians residing for generations and though many have adapted to local tastes, an equal number have opted to stick to their vegetarian food habits.
Still, as vegetarians, we end up with interesting experiences that become amusing narratives later, the dismay and anger long forgotten. These are almost universal, and anyone with specific food preferences would have been through similar experiences in any country, be it Canada, Philippines, Argentina or any other.
A few years ago, I would have been appalled at the prospect of finding a dubious chunk of something chewy, halfway through my soup. Today, I just put away my plate, take a deep breath, and not think of what has already gone in. It is no longer shocking to ask for fried rice ‘thut-thut-lau’ and find pink, curled pieces of shrimp stirred in. For many, being vegetarian simply means not eating pieces of meat, so soup, made of meat stock is fine as long as no pieces are visible. Adding fish sauce and shrimp paste to add flavor are also considered acceptable, much to the horror of those who would rather starve. Some people are highly sensitive to odors and smells and can make out if a ladle of a meaty preparation has touched their food. I am grateful that I am not one of them, or else eating out would have been impossible. Yet I find it difficult to share a table where steamed whole fish is ordered, since I am convinced the fish is looking imploringly at me, to save it…now I try to switch seats so that I face the tail and not the eyes!
The variety on offer in Yangon is much more than other places in Myanmar, which have lesser number of tourists. This helps since it no longer necessitates eating rice with chili paste as I would have done a decade ago. The abundance of fresh fruit is a boon since these can be picked up and eaten on the go. New eateries from noodle shops to international chains like The Pizza Company are transforming the food scene in Yangon and vegetarian options are offered as well. Fine dining restaurants, street stalls and tea shops all have something for the vegetarian. The list of options is endless, whether you walk down Anawratha Road in Downtown Yangon, or along the upscale Dhammazedi. Myanmar cuisine is vast, and delectably so. Its repertoire of salads includes the exotic tea leaf salad made out of fermented tea leaves, rich in caffeine, and mixed with sesame seeds, crushed nuts, cabbage, onions, lime and garlic. Lemon salad is a tangy mix of cabbage, red onions, chili, and sesame seeds. Tomato salad goes beyond traditional tomato slices, to include peanuts, sesame, onions and garlic. Even more sumptuous is the eggplant salad made out of the smoked vegetable that gives it a unique taste. Soups are often thickened with cooked chickpeas, and common ingredients include, tofu, vegetables and noodles. Steamed rice is served with curries that are rich and thick, and can be made with vegetables instead of chicken, fish or red meats. Easily available cauliflower, cabbage, bamboo shoots, beans, potatoes and pumpkins, provide numerous curry options. Noodles are prepared with sauces and vegetables, to be eaten as snack or at mealtimes. Fresh juices, jaggery and coconut sweets serve as perfect accompaniments to a vegetarian meal.
Myanmar cuisine has a strong influence of Indian cooking styles and many common ingredients like beans and pulses, curries and similar style of preparing vegetables. Walking down the streets in the Downtown area, reveals endless stalls selling the ubiquitous Indian ‘samosa’, the deep fried, potato-stuffed wanton. A large flat pancake called ‘dosa’ is served with chutneys, potatoes and a lentil curry called ‘sambhar’, and makes for a delicious meal at all times of the day. The number of Indian eateries is also expanding. All star-rated hotels in Yangon have Indian meal options, and standalone restaurants are opening up. It is easy to find places offering a reasonable vegetarian “thali”, which is a plate of rice with a lentil curry, vegetables and a pickle, or even chapatti and lentil curry called ‘daal’, which is a rich source of protein. Myanmar is a leading exporter of beans and pulses, so the quality couldn’t be better!
Today I am happy with a tea leaf salad or even the Myanmar tomato salad, followed by barbecued or fried vegetables, a tofu noodle soup, some stir fried greens and fried rice. Who can ask for more?